Signs of New Orleans: Revisiting Louisiana after Katrina

June 2007

Recently, Classical Action’s Associate Director Janice Mayer spent a sweaty week in Louisiana doing her part to help a volunteer organization rebuild housing in communities devastated by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. During her trip, which included stops in New Orleans and the rural Bayou, Janice visited the offices of NO AIDS Task Force, an AIDS service provider still coping with the destruction caused by the hurricanes. A first-person account of her eye-opening trip follows.

Arriving in Louisiana I look for signs of recovery from the devastating effects of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but the signs send conflicting messages.

New Orleans was once a Spanish Province and many buildings bear ornate tile plaques indicating the original names of the streets dating back to the late 1700s.  In New Orleans the majority population is non-white (African American and Latino) with a significant percentage of non-English speakers.

As of the last census completed, 40 percent of the families in New Orleans were living below the poverty level. These statistics come to life in a very real way when I arrive at the New Orleans Task Force building on Tulane – a few short blocks from the University that shares the name, but an unfathomable distance for most of the visitors to this address.  Across the street is the Juvenile Curfew Center (which I soon realize is a euphemism for ‘Detention Center’). Store signs point to Bail Bond Agents.

Exiting the floor for the NO AIDS Task Force, I find clothes arranged neatly on a table – free for the taking by those in need. Literature is in both Spanish and English and group counseling sessions are available in both languages as well.

The paid and unpaid staffs are both friendly and welcoming, but they too admit feeling post-traumatic stress. Everyone here has endured challenges and suffering; the degree of the suffering is what separates the staff from the clients. The results of the severe flooding still impact their ability to serve clients the food bank remains closed, and the conference room is now a makeshift bodega providing over 500 bags of food to clients each year.

The AIDS Law of Louisiana office was flooded as well, and the NO AIDS Task Force has consolidated its office space to make room to accommodate them, too. And yet they keep their good spirits, tease each other in a familial way around the office and welcomed me with a smile, a tour and an invitation to the staff Friday night crawfish boil for 58 employees and their families! The famous Southern hospitality is in action daily at NO AIDS Task Force.

Driving around New Orleans I had noticed that the signs for Charity Hospital were still not illuminated; an indicator that the hospital that served New Orleans’ indigent population had not reopened.  As a result, NO AIDS Task Force has doubled its primary medical care (non HIV/AIDS) to fill this gap.

Grass has overgrown the trolley tracks and it’s apparent that public transportation has not been restored to its pre-Katrina level, which means the ASO’s volunteers have had to deliver many more meals – an annual total of almost 18,000 meals.

They used to provide hot meals on a daily basis to each client; now they stretch their resources by visiting bi-weekly and by delivering frozen food which can be heated on the off days. Staff member and New Orleans native Deanne De Gruyestimates that “70% of our former clients are back in the fold with them now, but staying in touch is difficult as cell phone signals are still spotty.”

The saddest symbol is where there are no signs at all.  In the Ninth Ward, signs were destroyed and have not been replaced. In defiance some inhabitants have posted their own street signs in scrawled Magic-marker letters©.  But there is no magic.  On homes destroyed by the storms, large encircled Xs with markings in the quadrants indicate how many people and animals were found at the site and on what date the officials inspected the property. And then there are the protest signs encouraging natives not to sell out, but rather to return home and rebuild the neighborhood – an indication of a city activated.

Carol Rausch, Music Administrator of New Orleans Opera and a resident of New Orleans for the past dozen years, remarks “I am in awe of the grit of the people of New Orleans.  Every day holds obstacles to overcome, but they keep their positive spirit and find encouragement in the smallest advancements.”

New Orleans has its French heritage as well, and is one of a handful of American cities to house a French Consulate. I notice that many homes in the affluent Garden District (which was largely unscathed due to its elevation) fly French flags.  Carol explains to me that all of the proper theaters in New Orleans are still closed because of damage, but that the French government has responded directly to the cultural needs of the community in a very meaningful way.  She tells me that many feel the French government has done more than Washington to restore the cultural life of the city, so they happily display a fleur de lys.

Traveling south to the regional office of NO AIDS Task Force in Houma, a small city with over 50% Hispanic and Latino population, I discovered that NO AIDS Task Force’s health care services are perhaps even more critical.  And in Dulac – where I ended my trip working on a home restoration project organized by the United Methodist Church – elevation 18 inchesabove sea level – 60% of the population has not completed high school.

And of course, if there is no formal education, then AIDS awareness lags behind as well. Forty percent of the population is comprised of the Houma Indian Tribe, which speaks a French dialect called Padua.  Shrimpers mostly, they inhabit Terrebonne Parish in the Bayou. Overlapping governmental authorities have created a sense of distrust here as well as very inefficient oversight. Whether working with a tribal grant, a church program, a Coast Guard policy, or a Parish, State or Federal issue, citizens know to expect exceptional red tape and aggravation.

One experience involved workers making four trips to a Home Depot to pick up plywood for a rebuilding project—before the Indian Chief was forced to intervene to get the supplies released.

It is no wonder that the inhabitants prefer to continue their independent lifestyle as small boat shrimpers rather than joining a corporate entity. The simple life is preferred here – the ice company serving the area is one of the only businesses, and it is essential to support the shrimping.

But life is also a real uphill battle here. Dealing with the elements gives a primal sense to the place and the alligators in the Bayou, venomous snakes coiled over head in oak trees, spiders, water bugs and other insects add to the concerns about the environment almost as much as the Army Corps of Engineer’s dire premonitions abut the future of Terrebonne Parish as a land community. Keeping AIDS Awareness in the public consciousness, meeting the medical needs of the members of this community, and developing trust in a community that has reasons to distrust those outside the Houma Nation and their immediate town, makes serving Dulac an enormous challenge for NO AIDS Task Force’s regional office and its mobile health van “CareVan.”

While calling for donations and volunteers in the newsletter, NO AIDS Task Force stands firm “in its dedication to continue to provide vital services to individuals living with HIV/AIDS and those affected by this disease which is now in its third decade.”  Bravo to Executive Director Noel Twilbeck Jr. and his amazing paid and volunteer staff for their inspiring work!

For more information on the important work of NO AIDS Task Force, please visit their website at www.noaidstaskforce.org