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Carleton hosts series of talks on Hurricane Katrina related issues

<ast week, the departments of Environmental Studies and Philosophy have been hosting a series of Hurricane Katrina related talks and events.

The first in the series of talks was titled “Coming Back: New Orleans Five Years After Katrina” and featured three Carleton alums sharing stories about their work experiences helping rebuild New Orleans in a post-Katrina world.

Tracie Washington ‘85, started off the night by giving a talk about her work as President and CEO of the Louisiana Justice Institute, a nonprofit civil rights legal advocacy group. Her talk was titled “Nourishing ‘Low Grade Crazy’ and Righteous Indignation: The Continuing Fight for a Rights-Based Recovery Post-Katrina” and covered her experiences during Katrina, after Katrina, and how she is working to fight for justice for victims of Katrina as a civil rights attorney. Before Katrina, Washington was just another lawyer, with a background of good education, and a single mother working to raise her child.

“It didn’t matter about my education or job or Mercedes Benz; I was just another single, black mother who had to stand in line for handouts in Beaumont, Texas” said Washington.

She told of how she became angry with the government’s recovery of New Orleans. So, she decided to channel her anger into social justice work. She remembers what it felt like to be vulnerable after the disaster and wanted to do something about it. Since Katrina, Washington has been working to defend the rights of the underrepresented in New Orleans. Ultimately, she wants the right for people to recover after a major disaster, like Katrina, because “What happens to the least of us, the most vulnerable after disasters?” asks Washington. Her motives for continuing her social justice fight lies within this question and have yet to be answered.

Next, Noel Henderson James ’00, gave a presentation titled “What is New Orleans? Challenges and Resilience Five years After Katrina” about his work helping construct and manage affordable housing in New Orleans in a post-Katrina environment. About ten months after Katrina hit, Henderson moved to New Orleans to help in the recovery effort. He joined an affordable housing company and became so engrossed with his work that he decided not to leave. While in New Orleans, Henderson witnessed and observed major challenges inhibiting the recovery act. These challenges fall into three categories: social, economic, and environmental. Henderson talked about crime, unaffordable housing, entrenched poverty, a declining economic base, vanishing wetlands, and the Mississippi River dead zone as reasons for why New Orleans is having trouble rebuilding and moving forward.

“The main questions are: Is New Orleans sustainable? Can we protect the city fast enough from recurring hurricanes?” Henderson rhetorically asked the audience. Despite these major drawbacks, Henderson is optimistic. “There’s a lot of work to be done,” says Henderson,  “but there’s a lot of vitality in the people ready to be unleashed.”

Finally, Elizabeth Shepherd, class of 2006, spoke about “’Lessons Learned’ Coming Back: New Orleans Five years After Katrina”. Shepherd works for the Alliance for Affordable Energy in New Orleans, helping not only rebuild and restore New Orleans but making the city environmentally friendly during the process. A large portion of her job is learning through mistakes made. “I have a folder on my desktop labeled ‘Lessons Learned’ where our project group will evaluate what went well, what didn’t go well, and what can be changed for next time” said Shepherd. So far, she has worked on projects that include building houses that are environmentally friendly, improving the quality of education, and creating social entrepreneurs. “While these projects aren’t always perfect, we’re trying to create a sustainable city” says Shepherd, “My hope is that we can all share that story [of success and rebuilding] and then revel in it”.

Despite the bleakness of the current situation in New Orleans, there is definite optimism. All three speakers agreed that New Orleans has the potential to grow and become better than it was. It will just take the participation of the government, the people of New Orleans, and volunteers who are committed to making a difference.

The second event in the series was titled “Stories from the Storm” and featured current Carleton students talking about their personal experiences with Hurricane Katrina. Carleton students and alums had the opportunity to submit their Katrina stories; some students read their own stories and other students read stories that had been submitted by email.

One anonymous story was read about the emotional anguish of watching the destruction caused by Katrina from afar. The student was staying in Houston, Texas, having escaped before the worst of the storm hit. As the news showed images on TV of Katrina destroying New Orleans, the student couldn’t do anything but watch as the storm ravaged the city. The student and their family were forced to stay in Houston until their house was restored. One month after the storm had hit, they were notified that they could see their house, damages and all. The house was torn apart, with a red X across the front door to signify that rescue crews had searched it for bodies. Their house was in disarray, with their refrigerator lying on the kitchen counter, the couch lying flung across the room on its back, and the rooms torn apart by the hand of high-force winds.

Eventually, after months of waiting, the family was allowed to move back to their house, after extensive reconstruction had taken place to safely restore it. However, five years after the storm, there remain blank slabs of foundation where houses stood before Katrina hit; these homes have yet to be rebuilt.
Zach Baquet ‘13 shared the emotional journey of having to separate from certain members of his family during the evacuation. Originally, Baquet was going to travel with his dad, stepmom, and siblings to a relative’s house in Atlanta, Georgia. His mother, who worked for the America Red Cross, was going to stay behind in New Orleans to help out.

When it became clear that the storm was too dangerous to remain in the city, Baquet’s mom decided to join the car “caravan” of traveling family members to Atlanta. But when the family cars reached the state border, the police patrol said that not all of them could go to Georgia, since too many families were already traveling there. Thus, Baquet’s mom was sent to Texas while Baquet moved to Georgia with his dad and stepmom. He didn’t see his mom for six months after that, which was the longest he had gone without seeing her, ever.

“I guess the one positive thing aspect of the hurricane, if there is one, was a new start,” said Baquet. Despite the optimism of this retrospect, there is no doubt that separation was an emotionally trying aspect of Katrina’s devastation, on top of the rest of the destruction caused by the hurricane.
 Justin Perkins ‘11 told an inspiring story of the kindness of strangers in a post-Katrina environment. He and his family were staying at a hotel in Texas, after relocating as refugees. Their bank account was frozen, due to the large number of survivors trying to access money at once, and they were running out of funds to keep paying the hotel fees.

One day, when Perkins and his grandmother were sitting in the computer lab of the hotel, a pastor from a local church came in and asked if anyone was a Katrina refugee. His grandmother responded that they were, and the pastor asked if they needed help paying for the hotel. His grandmother said that yes, in fact, they were going to have trouble paying for the next few days. Without hesitation, the pastor went to the front desk and paid for Perkins family’s stay for the next week. “Little random things like that, even though it was a horrible situation we were in, it was the little things that restored my faith” Perkins said in closing. Truly, even among the tragedy and devastation, there was good to be found in a disaster like Katrina.

 On Monday October 25, author and journalist Jordan Flaherty and poet Sunni Patterson came to speak about their work in a post-Katrina world.

Jordan Flaherty was in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. In the first few days after the storm, he witnessed rampant racism and injustice within the city, mostly by police officers and government officials. During the evacuation, for example, he saw guns being pointed at people, mostly African Americans, who were doing nothing. The complete degeneration of the post-Katrina situation inspired Flaherty to take a stand against the discrimination. He started to write emails to his friends about what he was seeing and how it was completely wrong. These emails got circulated and eventually caught the attention of a few news sources. Not long after, Flaherty was asked to write, more formally and professionally, about what he was witnessing. Thus, Flaherty got his start as not only a journalist, but as a social activist.

Since Katrina, Flaherty has become involved in helping give a voice to those who are underrepresented. He constantly works to fight racism in a post-Katrina Louisiana, primarily through his writing. Flaherty was one of the first journalists to break the news of the Jena Six case, in which six young African American males faced life in prison for a school fight. When he isn’t reporting, Flaherty has been working on his book, “Floodlines”, about his combined experiences with the injustices that smaller, African American communities have faced before and after Katrina.

“The reason I’ve been going around talking about these issues about the gulf coast, you know, racism, poverty, crime, etc, is because while these things happen everywhere, they seem to happen at hyper speed in Louisiana,” Flaherty passionately told the audience.

Flaherty stressed getting involved, or at least keeping up to date on social issues from more grassroots media. He believes grassroots media tell community stories about social injustice issues unlike the mainstream media. Ultimately, the only way to stop oppression is knowing the true facts.

Sunni Patterson, a vibrant and energetic poet, shared some of her work with the audience. “Just to be able to hear some poems or see some art, something beautiful, it inspires hope within New Orleans,” Sunni told the audience.

She performed her poem “We Know This Place”, about her feelings and what she witnessed after Katrina, which she wrote in memory of one of her professors who had died a few years before Katrina. She didn’t get the inspiration for the poem until she saw the disarray and aftermath of Katrina. In reference to what she witnessed, Patterson painted an image of post-Katrina New Orleans with her words: “For we have seen more times than we’d like to imagine, bloated cadavers floating through a city gone savage” Patterson continues to write poems and to give talks about post-Katrina New Orleans in hopes that she can help restore a part of New Orleans’s lost culture, a “culture rich in everything.”

Both speakers were incredibly avid about students becoming involved and educating themselves about the effects of Katrina, to open their eyes to the buried injustice of post-Katrina New Orleans. Their overall message was that the only way for these issues to be resolved is if people add to the voices of the underrepresented because, as Flaherty said, “what happens down in Louisiana can happen anywhere else in America too, even here in Minnesota.”

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