Dear friends and family,
The Army Corps of Engineers estimates that 160,000 homes in New Orleans
are damaged “beyond repair”. A truly staggering figure. When you read a
statistic like that and you are intensely familiar with the grief
involved in just one of those 160,000, the misery maths is overwhelming.
The Greater New Orleans Metropolitan Area, which stretches from St
Bernard on the east to Jefferson Parish in the west, has a population of
around 1.3 million. I guess that works out to around 600,000 houses or
so. So almost one quarter of the city’s homes will be demolished. I’m
still trying to imagine that.
It’s already been stated that almost every single one of the 27, 600
houses in St Bernard will be bulldozed. I think our area of Lakeview
will likely lose most of its houses. I worry that the rebuilding will be
done in haste rather than taste and we’ll end up with the double-storey
brick monstrosities so favoured in Metairie, the suburb just to our
west. In St Bernard, a much poorer district, who knows what will be erected.
What do you do with the rubbish left over after you bulldoze 160,000
houses and their contents, all imbued with toxic waters? Where do you
I’m worried they’ll do what they did after Hurricane Betsy: dump all of
it in a landfill, cover it with topsoil and then build a neighbourhood
for the poor. The Betsy waste, along with decades of earlier garbage,
lies underneath the Agriculture Street Landfill Community in eastern New
Orleans, a community which is 97% African American.
I get anxious when I see residents rushing to return to New Orleans. I’d
much rather things were done slowly, carefully and equitably than in a
hasty, desperate charge. Still, even with the pressure to return and
rebuild, they say many of us won’t have housing in New Orleans until 2010.
Well, Lillie and I will be getting into our temporary Houston home
today. It’s a six-hour drive from here and we want to leave early to
avoid traffic out of Baton Rouge and the traffic nightmare which is Houston.
Because our apartment is unfurnished and we have almost nothing, we’re
going to stay with some people nearby while we set things up.
Originally, Helen Prejean contacted some friends in Houston, Karen and
Guy Clifton, to have us stay with them. But they are already housing
their third set of refugees and the latest lot are yet to move into
their new place. So Karen arranged for us to stay with friends of hers,
Marcia and Kirk Blackard, who were out of the country when Katrina hit
and who are very keen to help in any way possible. So I’m glad we can
We've also heard that the owners and many of the staff from the
wonderful Fairgrinds coffeehouse (www.fairgrinds.com) have ended up in
Houston and they've organised regular weekly gatherings for refugees and
friends at the Orange Show (www.orangeshow.org) there. Fairgrinds was a
real community hub in the Faubourg St. John ('Faubourg' means
neighbourhood) where Helen lived and our Death Penalty Discourse Center
offices were located. As well as great, fair trade coffee and friendly
staff, it had meeting rooms, noticeboards, free wireless Internet, water
bowls and treats for doggie visitors (outside), fair trade coffee and
People here in Baton Rouge, in Houston and all over the place are being
exceedingly generous and supportive. Everyone from my friends and family
to my online community of fellow activists at Omidyar.net, work
colleagues, friends of friends of friends, shopkeepers and even credit
card companies. People working in the rushed, overstretched Baton Rouge
stores are particularly gentle with the droves of New Orleanians.
One amusing contrast between the refugees and their Baton Rouge hosts
was noticeable the weekend immediately after Katrina. New Orleans has a
very laissez-faire attitude (“Laissez les bon temps roulez” is an
unofficial city motto) while Baton Rouge is firmly entrenched in the
Bible Belt culture that crosses the South. The weekend following Katrina
bemused refugees looking for a little liquid solace stood gazing at
signs in supermarkets stating things like “No hard liquor sales on the
weekend”, “No wine sales on Sundays” and “Beer sold only between hours
of 12pm and 2pm on Sundays”. It made it particularly easy to spot fellow
refugees. There were many mumblings of “You’d think they’d make an
exception this weekend.”
So, Houston today. I’m not sure when I’ll write again. My hosts have an
Internet connection available, so it may be tonight. Then again, I was
up before 4am this morning, so I may just collapse on arrival.
Everyone’s sleeping habits are awry.