Friday, May 18, 2007

What Is Remembered Lives

Or are you a stranger without even a name
Enclosed and forgotten behind the glass frame
In a old photograph, torn and battered and stained
And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame.
-- "No Man's Land" by Eric Bogle

"What is remembered lives" my friend Victoria reminds me in a poignant post unrelated to New Orleans. Remember. That has been a large part of why I write since the time when the water still stood in the street outside the house I sit, in the days when an old friend's husband chronicled the floating dead and many thought there might be 10,000.

There were not 10,000, and Mayor Ray Nagin was castigated for a wild exaggeration. This was not a number which our slippery tongued mayor chose to just make up. Republican Senator David Vitter offered the same grim estimate in the first week of September. Consider the context: an unknown number of people unevacuated and the city largely submerged by a sudden, tsunami-like incursion of the lake through the failed levees. Keep in mind that the worst case scenario in the Hurricane Pam exercise projected 61,900 dead in an inundated New Orleans.

Thankfully, the real total of the dead was smaller. How much smaller, however, depends on what is meant to say someone was killed by Katrina. There is an official number of people killed directly by Hurricane Katrina and the flood that followed--1723--but it gives an incomplete picture of the impact of the storm and subsequent Federal Flood.

Four thousand and eighty one: that's the number independent journalist Robert Lindsay reports in this post, based on research by Dr. Kevin Stephens, Sr., Director ff the New Orleans Health Department, presented to the House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations on March 13, 2007.

...anecdotal reports caused Stephens and a team to undertake a study to count the number of death notices in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and compare it to a reference year which would serve as a baseline. 2003 was chosen as a reference year. The data can be seen on page nine of the testimony linked above. In the first six months of 2003, 5,544 deaths were counted.

In the first six months of 2006, 7,902 were counted, an increase of 2,358 deaths over baseline in the post-Katrina period. Based on this, we will assign 2,358 deaths as caused by the accelerated death rates that occurred in New Orleans even long after the storm.

Four thousand and eighty one. Some will scoff at the methodology but it seems sound. Over 2,300 more New Orleanians died in the first sixth months of 2006 than in the same period of 2002 or 2003, a forty-two percent increase. What other proximate cause can anyone suggest? "They just didn't up and decide that 2006 was a nice year for dying," suggests Lindsay.

It was not the waters themselves that killed those lucky enough to get away. They were killed in part because getting away did not mean to escape. Those lucky enough not to be trapped on a roof, or worse under it, sat in shelters and motels and friends or families houses, compelled to watch the disaster unfold under the unblinking eye of 24 hour news, could Google up their houses from space and see the water all around. There was safety in distance, but no escape.

Once the water subsided, things became worse and not better. Not since the Great Depression have so many people lost so much. Denied insurance payouts after a faithful lifetime of monthly payments, many without flood insurance because it was not required--we were, after all, protected by our government's levees--hundreds of thousands lost everything but the clothes on their backs. Worse, they were forced to continue mortgage payments on uninhabitable ruins while it became increasingly clear that there was nothing, including criminal conspiracy, their insurance companies would not do to deny them payment.

They were robbed of everything America had told them made their lives valuable: their houses, their possessions, the jobs that might help them to rebuild. The promises they have believed, that hard work and timely payment would make them safe, that their government would protect them in extremity, proved to have all been lies. They lost everything; not just things, but faith. Is it any wonder that many of the elderly or infirm could not cope, that even the younger and stronger might despair so that suicide rates spiked in the months after the storm?

What is remembered lives. It's been a long time since I've written about the dead, or seen any thing else published or posted besides Lindsay's piece. Google up Katrina deaths and 4081 and you find nothing. Here in New Orleans, we hear the anecdotal stories. They hover at the edge of consciousness like ghosts, but life here is just too damned hard to let the forgotten dead intrude too far.

In my early days home, the ghosts seemed to crowd around. It was an inescapable feeling in a city so clearly in ruin. With passing time there is a growing numbness, a scarring over that might be healthy, but I wonder. As the dead pass deeper into memory, does our sense of obligation to them wain as well? As Memorial Day creeps up on us, we will hear the routine speeches about the sacrifices of our glorious dead, and our own obligations to the constitutional republic they died to create or defend.

There was so much hope for our city even at the height of despair, that given a slate wiped clean we could rebuild it better: better levees, betters schools, better government: levee and assessor reform, the blossoming of new schools, the election of new officials (recall: in the districts where the population was returned in significant numbers, we tossed out the old ones. Nagin is the exception, not the rule). As we slide toward old ways, I believe we need to remember those who died in the flood--all of them, including those who died of despair under an unending burden of bad news--and the obligation we have to them.

Our obligation is this: to rebuild the city they despaired of seeing saved, a city recognizably New Orleans; a city protected by levees that work, with good schools for everyone and safe streets and a transparent government that works for us. We have not had those things for generations now, and it may be the work of generations to achieve but I think we are capable of it. The half or so of the population returned to the city have proven themselves capable of working through tremendous adversity.

As we move past the Spring festivals and see the restaurants popping open around us like flowers, we can't just assume that the city those forgotten dead passed pining for is returning, that we can just move on. It could happen again if we are not vigilant and persistent. We owe it to the the victims of the Flood to see that it should not.

Brilliant, poignant post.

I was especially reminded this week that, for many of us at this time, in this place and situation, the despair and the pain is all too present in their lives...and there are waaay too many signs of obliviousness and obfuscation of the basic fact that these folks are hurting inside.

How in hell can we effectively quantify THAT?
You might add that they were called everything but a child of God:

whiners, deadbeats, scumbags, drug addicted, thugs, uneducated, unprepared, lazy...nonhuman.

We've all been painted with that brush.
I've been thinking along those lines lately too. I suggest Nola bloggers post a rememberence of our dead on Memorial Day.
One can never quantify the little deaths of the heart that has been suffered by the folks of Orleans and St. Bernard parishes from the Federal Flood..

The only time those figures will come into play is when the little deaths lead to the final one.

We have yet to see the true Human death toll caused by the Flood.
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I remembered my mother commenting on the unusually high number of death notices one day back in early 2006 and thought the number was too low, but the methodology seems right.

But, of course, the toll is still climbing. Even if you exclude suicide, substance abuse and other stress-related factors the health toll will be felt for decades. Interrupted medical care and the recent revelations about FEMA trailers are just two examples of ways in which life expectancy will be lower for thousands for years to come.
I'm definitely numbed at the devastation around my FEMA travel trailer. It was so palpable, so real, the throbbing pain I used to feel as I was driving through the neighborhood. But now that I've been here, day after day for going on a year, the pain has stopped. Not because so much has changed around me, because it hasn't, so it must be me.

Ultimately, though, yes, we will all be forgotten. We will all congeal into an historical footnote, that the great city of New Orleans was rebuilt by those hearty people who stayed against the odds, just as we recall the sturdy pioneers who travelled the Oregon Trail, and the legions of "Rosie the rivetters" who propelled the American war machine to victory. I'd be happy with that.



This how History shall remember the 100,000.

Nothing wrong with that one... none of us wanted to be heroes, just New Orleanians.
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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