Sunday, December 25, 2005

Christmas After Katrina

Desolation. People living in tents or trailers, fighting the insurance companies, waiting for the tardy government aid and fearing that they have been forgotten. Here are some images from a Post-Katrina Christmas:

One tent city built by the Army, dubbed "the Village," sits in the center of the small town of Pass Christian, some 30 miles west of Biloxi and at ground zero for Hurricane Katrina and its assault on the Gulf Coast.

The Village is a gloomy grid of 70 tents, 10 numbered rows of seven each, housing about 150 people - old, young, black, white, poor, middle-class, some so ill that their tents are marked "Oxygen in Use." After four months, some of the shock of loss has worn off and the people go quietly about the daily challenges of securing a warm, private shower, washing whatever clothing they have left, and hoping that their children do not fall ill.

They are grateful for the dry bed and the free food. Everyone knows someone who is worse off, or dead. With tens of thousands of Mississippians displaced and living with families or friends around the country, the residents of the Village at least have their children with them and they are close to home.

A handful of tents are decorated for the holidays, but it seems almost cruel to ask a young mother what she's planning for Christmas.

"We're leaving," she says without hesitation. "Getting out of here for a day or two."

All who are able plan to leave and find a relative. Last year, they were stringing lights and wrapping gifts and waiting for Santa. This year, the great Christmas wish in the Village is to finally get a trailer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Indeed, one reason the place exists is the backlog of homeless people who need trailers. When FEMA closed the shelters and stopped paying for motel rooms, something had to be done. Thus, the tent cities.

Don't ask why it's taking so long to get a trailer because there is no answer. More than 24,000 temporary housing units have been delivered, but 10,000 more are needed. The delays are maddening. A woman in the nearby town of Necaise went to the FEMA office on Aug. 30, the day after the storm, and requested a trailer. She did the paperwork, answered all the questions. She is epileptic; her daughter is diabetic; her husband needs back surgery; their situation is urgent, and she has explained all this to FEMA many times. Four months later she's still waiting. Her story is not unusual.

Plastic snowmen sit among mountains of rubble in nearly deserted neighborhoods. Refrigerators spray-painted with "Merry Christmas" lie on street medians. And signs in front of crumbling houses implore, "Santa, stop here."

In many places, time seems to have stood still since late August when Hurricane Katrina pummeled the Gulf Coast.

The upended cars and sludge-covered refuse suggest that the hurricane hit hours – not months – ago.

The Crescent City remains a shell of its former self this Christmas, with only slivers of the city up and running.

Still, residents are reviving holiday traditions while trying to rebuild their lives.

At Lakeside Shopping Center, mallgoers surveying the Christmas village notice something missing: "Where are the FEMA trailers?" one woman asks.

Things are no better in Mississippi than in Louisiana, even though the Republican governor of the former state pretended at first that everything was just dandy there. Now he sounds disgruntled:

Mississippi's governor, Haley Barbour, has said his state needs $34 billion to rebuild. The state's annual budget is about a 10th of that, with virtually nothing set aside for such emergencies. The bold promises made in the heat of the moment after the storm have so far been pathetically empty. Congress has so far authorized nearly $100 billion for emergency relief and cleanup, but only a third of that has hit the ground.

Not lost on the people here was the recent rush to pass more tax cuts for the rich. And a question often heard is, "Why are we spending billions to rebuild Iraq and not a dime down here?"

Why indeed. Of course the real answer has to do with the (supposed) election of George Bush to run this country as he pleases. And he pleases to spend money in Iraq and to give tax cuts to the rich. That's the kind of Christianity he represents.

But maybe we should finally also learn to set some money aside for emergencies. Not every spare penny needs to be returned to the wealthiest of taxpayers. Or given to the business pals of the party in power.