Do You Know What It Means to Myth New Orleans?
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Image: Struggling to Make It
Katy Reckdahl

Disaster myth has real consequences, says Peek. For instance, instead of simply sending food and water to those in the convention center, officials waited until those supplies could be escorted by soldiers with machine guns.

National Guard Lt. Col. Jacques Thibodeaux, who led the rescue mission into the convention center on Friday, recalls that the city had reported "lawlessness, no food and water, desperation." So the Guard assembled a force of 1,000 soldiers and 250 police officers, all armed. Behind that came 25 to 30 tractor-trailer trucks of food and MREs that had arrived that morning, driven in by National Guardsmen and FEMA contractors. At noon that day, the procession left the Dome, traveled a dozen blocks down Poydras Street, then turned right onto Convention Center Boulevard, not knowing what was ahead. "We were expecting a war zone," says Mark Smith, spokesman for the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.

But as the soldiers turned the corner, the crowd cheered. Within 30 minutes, the place was secured. When the troops searched all 19,000 people for weapons, they found 13, says Thibodeaux. Numbers were similar at the Dome, he says, where they had searched 39,000 people as they entered, confiscating about 50 weapons. "That gives you an idea of the lawfulness of the crowd," he says. "We had people who were basically good people trapped in a bad situation."

Reports of mayhem and murder, however faulty, managed to stall aid to the unevacuated people in New Orleans. "That did absolutely, without a question, affect response," says Smith, the state Homeland Security spokesman. The official U.S. Senate report, A Nation Still Unprepared, notes that FEMA drivers and vendors with vital supplies would not enter the city without military escorts.

Brian Greene, then-head of the region's Second Harvest Food Bank, was in constant contact with other food banks across the country, which were sending truckloads of water and food to Louisiana. Then the news stories about violence began, and he started getting calls from cross-country truck drivers. "They became afraid of Baton Rouge," he says. "You'd have a guy from Iowa who would enter Louisiana, go as far as Alexandria, but wouldn't go any further."

Once again, a textbook example of disaster myth, says Peek. And even though sociologists haven't documented anything called "rebuilding myth," she believes that the Katrina myth lives on. "What's the most recent national news about New Orleans? That five young men ended up dead in one night. The early narrative is extremely important because it shapes what stories will continue to be told."

"What's the most recent national news about New Orleans? That five young men ended up dead in one night. The early narrative is extremely important because it shapes what stories will continue to be told."

Of course, myth is complicated by reality—these young men were brutally shot, says Peek. "But I think that the murders became national news because we were told early on that New Orleans is a violent place, that its people are dangerous. These murders fit that narrative, and that's why it became big news."

Warren Harrity has worked with large numbers of displaced people in Afghanistan and Bosnia. He's met families forced to leave homes where their forefathers lived for centuries, and people who fled villages bearing their family name. He sees parallels with residents of New Orleans, where extended families lived in the same neighborhoods for generations.

Harrity now heads up Katrina Aid Today, which provides case-management to Katrina evacuees across the country, using a consortium of nine nonprofit organizations assembled by the United Methodist Committee on Relief and $66 million in funds donated to FEMA by foreign governments.

Currently, Harrity sees "a push-pull" among Katrina survivors. "The pull, of course, is home sweet home. The push not to go home is this year's hurricane season, it's the lack of affordable housing, it's the shortage of schools."

The organization's case managers found that they couldn't be effective advisors unless they had accurate facts about New Orleans. So, at the end of June, Katrina Aid Today sent a letter to all of its case managers, describing the difficulties still facing New Orleans residents.

A June 28, 2006 e-mail from FEMA's transitional recovery office in Austin, Texas, advises caseworkers that the purpose of the letter is to "build awareness in evacuees about certain lifestyle considerations—i.e. availability of childcare, grocery stores, medical clinics, etc.—that should be weighed before deciding to repatriate to New Orleans."

The letter devotes a paragraph to each topic. For instance, "Grocery and supermarkets have been slow to return to many neighborhoods. Sometimes there aren't enough residents back in your neighborhood for a store to open and be profitable. You may have to travel a large distance to groceries. Walking to the store may not be an option."

It also cautions those with allergies ("being in the city will only worsen your allergies"), those who require regular medical attention ("depending on your medical needs, you may have to drive across the river or even as far away as Baton Rouge"), and anyone who owns a car ("You may need to purchase a gas can in the event you cannot get gas near your home.").

"It's a very defeatist attitude," says Bill Quigley, who heads up the Gillis Long Poverty Law Clinic at Loyola University in New Orleans. The United Way sent a similar e-mail to its staff, he says. "It says that you are doing your people no favor by helping them get back to New Orleans," says Quigley. "They think that it will take three to seven years before people will be able to build a semi-normal life in this city."

Quigley believes that these warnings, which may be well-meaning, will discourage people from returning. Instead, he says these agencies should be helping people through these difficulties. "Right now, they're saying, 'There isn't an opportunity, and we're not in the business of providing an opportunity.' But if the government refuses to help the community of working people and renters and elderly, they won't be able to come back."

Elected officials look at people who don't return and think that they are "voting with their feet," that they don't want to come back, says Quigley. Instead, they should be helping evacuees plan for their return.

Sociologist Peek also believes that the letter takes a discouraging tone. "It feels like every paragraph ends with 'you may not be able to...,'" she says. "But it's a fine line." She has been talking with case managers in Denver, who are hearing from some evacuees that they want so badly to go home. But then they tell the story about a single mom with a 5-year-old who got back to New Orleans and called in a panic, saying "What am I going to do? There's nowhere to live, no school for my child?" So they helped her return to Denver. "Even if only one or two evacuees have had that experience, that shapes how you talk with other evacuees," says Peek. "But if the goal is to get people back to their homes, how can we take that frightening tone?"