May 01, 2006

Katrina 8 Months Later

The newspapers are filled with stories about the success of the first New Orleans Jazz Festival since Hurricane Katrina struck 8 months ago. Everyone is thrilled that the city was able to come back to host this annual event and pleased that so many people are coming to support the city, its music and its reconstruction.

However, just a few miles from the French Quarter is an entirely different scene. We had an opportunity to come to Louisiana to visit an art collector who was evacuated from her home in Lakeview, and, after living like a refugee for months, is now in a one-room apartment in Metairie waiting to be allowed to go home. Mrs. Phyllis Hudson is a very youthful 88 year old with an incredible spirit and an amazing story. We came to see some art, and we left with impressions that no television report can convey. She asked if we'd like to see what's REALLY happening in New Orleans and we drove together through what is left of Lakeview, an upper-middle class town right on Lake Pontchartrain. Lakeview and St Bernards (the Ninth Ward) were the two hardest hit communities when the levee broke and the lake water came rushing in and totally devastated the entire area.

I can't describe to you the gut-wrenching feeling of seeing block after block of what had recently been a thriving, well-to-do township of very lovely brick and clapboard homes, now completely destroyed. Dead trees and garbage were everywhere and most of the houses were gutted on the interior so one could see straight through. Below is a photo of a condemned home where you can clearly see the high-water mark on the front and the emergency workers' spray paint on the front door.

This "Craftsman" style home has been cleaned out and the infamous "FEMA Trailer" is parked in front indicating that the family intends to keep the property and will hopefully be able to rebuild.

Here you can see where a building has been lifted by a tree. Many of the trees did not survive three weeks of being underwater and are now dead. Again, you can see the high-water mark on the house to the right.

Phyllis Hudson herself is a survivor! Not one to be scared by a little hurricane, after all, she'd survived Betsy and Camille and many smaller ones in between, she laid in her supplies, parked her car on high ground and waited it out. Living on the 14th floor of a condo building with a fabulous view of the Marina and Lake Pontchartrain, she figured she was well above flood level and no wind gust could blow the building down. Unfortunately, the wind blew in the windows upstairs and the enormous quantity of rain flooded the building from the top down. She and her neighbors waited, without electricity or telephone, for 4 days and were eventually rescued by boat off their pool deck after walking down the emergency stairs.

The good news is that this building is undergoing repairs and the residents will probably be allowed to return in the next few months. They are the lucky ones. Many homes are un-inhabitable and have been abandoned or are awaiting tear-down. The re-building project is enormous, but there are little signs of hope. As we were driving, she pointed out what used to be her shopping center and was delighted to see that the gas station had just re-opened for business.

In desperate circumstances like this, it's hard to keep the faith, but one can never give up on the indominatability of the human spirit. God Bless You Phyllis Hudson, you are an inspiration to us all.

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