Sunday, March 16, 2008

back from NOLA

I am writing this the day after we arrive back in San Francisco, after I've had a little time to absorb what happened this past week.  New Orleans was everything I expected and so much more: it was beautiful and eclectic yet still reeling from the storm that hit more than two and a half years ago.  Since this was my first time in New Orleans, I knew little about what the city looked like before the storm, and the French Quarter was alive and buzzing with tourists as I had imagined it to be.  There was loud music on Bourbon Street, street performers, artists as Jackson Square, and the bars and tourist traps open for regular business.  However, the residential neighborhood of Bywater where we were staying felt much quieter and somewhat dilapidated, where I first saw the red X's on the front walls of the colorful houses.  Some had notices posted on the windows, one was being appropriated by the city.  One afternoon I spent walking around the neighborhood, and encountered few other people in the street except for a small group barbecuing in front of a church, preparing dinner for the volunteers they were housing that week.   Our first night in NOLA, we found a bar just down the block from our house on Mazant Street, which was empty save the bartender, his two companions, and a jukebox.  It was 2am on a Friday night, and we played old tunes on the jukebox until they "closed", which in this town was whenever the last clients decided to go home.

On Monday morning I started work at the City Attorney's office, where I would be volunteering for the entire week.  After a quick orientation and meeting our colleagues - fellow volunteers from the University of Indiana, Bloomington, and University of Mississippi - we were each assigned to a case.   Although at first most of the cases did not appear to be Katrina-related, we heard that the office faced severe cutbacks in staff since the storm (half had not returned) so they had a huge backlog of cases.  My supervisor Ed explained that mine was an environmental tort case filed against the city by local residents who discovered they were living on top of a landfill that was emitting toxic chemicals.  The city was implicated because it was part of the decision-making process that led to the development of the former Agriculture Street Landfill  to provide much-needed low income housing in the area.  The EPA did a major investigation and clean-up in the 1990s but the residents were not happy and wanted to relocate, alleging that the government had failed to warn them that they were living on top of an urban dump.   See for details.  I was researching the issue of discretionary function immunity, which is one of the legal theories underlying the city's defense.  The more I learned about the case, the more I thought about the environmental issues facing this country, and the inequality of environmental burdens borne by poor people.  The interesting connection my case had with Katrina is that the landfill re-opened after Hurricane Besty hit New Orleans in the 1960s, and the city burned debris for 9 straight months, which went into the landfill where the development area now stands.  What happened to all the waste from Katrina?  I do not know the answer, because most people do not ask, and do not want to know.  The waste must go somewhere, but usually we are dumping it far from where most people see it.  Even I don't like to spend my time thinking about what happens to my trash after it goes down the garbage chute of my apartment building in San Francisco.  But this week in New Orleans, I learned to really consider the effects of our modern lifestyles converged in the most unpleasant of all landscapes: the wastedump.  Katrina only shed light by magnifying a process that has been happening for many decades, and the people who have been unequally affected by it.  I also thought about government accountability.  Immunity is a huge shield that protects all levels of government including the engineers who built the faulty levees.  I myself felt responsible, because I contributed to this process that created this great environmental and human disaster.  We are each and all accountable.  This is the lesson that Katrina taught me, a big step for someone who really wasn't paying attention back in August 2005.  It took one week in New Orleans to learn this, and for that I am grateful to everyone who has supported me to get here.

No comments: