We worked in a FEMA trailerpark today, interviewing dozens of residents whose lives were washed away and who are living in an inconceivable kind of limbo. Two things were striking: the aching loneliness of those who were living in such close quarters and yet never spoke to each other, and the hope which persisted despite the endless passage of days in a small, sweaty, moldy space that shook with the rain.
One man we talked to was living with his son and working a job in addition to rebuilding his home. His wife and other children were living two hours away in Baton Rouge because FEMA had given them a trailer too small to fit their large family. So he travels to be with them on weekends and returns to his trailer to work during the week. After speaking to us briefly about the foot of mold under his bed and FEMA's failure to respond to his calls, he shifted to a subject clearly more pressing on his mind. He poured his heart out to us about his concern for his children and what kind of people they would be without their father there when they needed him. He spoke of a desire to be there to teach them about taking care of themselves and their family, going to school, staying out of trouble, being respectful of others, and working hard for the things they want. He spoke of his fear that other people perceived his children as "bad" or "dangerous" because they were from New Orleans. He himself had lied about his birth city when asked by people in Baton Rouge. He missed his wife and the daily activities they pursued with their children. But he was hopeful and grateful for what he had, and that his family had survived the storm.
It has been suggested many times in the various media outlets that the people of New Orleans are criminals, looters, and freeloaders. That their problems stem from their race and not from a horrible natural disaster or the horrendous negligence of the government. That they are probably "better off" now that their homes have been washed away. I can tell you without a doubt in my heart that none of this is true. The man we spoke with is one of many people who are hardworking, honest, and hopeful, despite the fact that the events of the past year and the responses of some have given them every reason not to be. The man we spoke to was concerned about keeping his family together, supporting his wife in her grief, and making sure that his children grow up to be good people. He works one job, and then comes home to another as he rebuilds what was lost. He is the American that many talk about wistfully but disregard with the second news cycle.
If I can impress any one thing upon the people who read our blog, it is this: there is despair in this city, there is deep sadness and anger, a sense of loss that no one can understand unless they've lived it, there is a sense of abandonment, and there is profound isolation even in the most crowded of spaces. But there is above all a sense of humor (dry and ironic though it may be), a sense of pride, and a sense of hope that blooms where it could not possibly be expected to grow.
This place has been forgotten. But it is America as I've never seen it before. And it is America with a persistence and pride which brings me to tears.