Sunday, November 20, 2005

Another Katrina Tale

Most of the time, as I've remarked in previous postings, my job as a transcriptionist leans between mostly tedious, and extremely boring. I can't begin to get excited by quarterly financial reports from companies I've never heard of, and committee meetings at stockbroker firms are wonderful insomia cures. But once in a while something comes along that really touches me.

It happened again this week in the person of an audio file from a Spike Lee documentary, which is in progress as we speak. The portion I was working on dealt with a couple from New Orleans who were displaced by the hurricane.

They spoke of how living in New Orleans you get used to the idea of hurricanes. That they're just something you learn to live with, much like earthquakes for us up here in the Northwest. And how this one was different. How the pictures they saw on TV of that huge hurricane with its gigantic swirling winds and its eye focused right at New Orleans made them feel uneasy. They were talking about moving out even before the mayor issued the evacuation order on Sunday.

So they did what they were asked to do. They got in their car, the mom and dad and their five children, along with everything they could think of that was important for a couple of days away from home. Because that was all they figured they were going to need. Just to get far enough away from New Orleans to miss the hurricane, and then be back home within a day or so. They were accompanied on the trip out of town by the wife's sister and brother-in-law, and their two children, and by the family matriarch.

They saw people around them uneasily tuning into the weather forecasts. Those that could, packed up their belongings and joined the exodus out of town. Those unlucky enough to be without a way to leave hoped that it wouldn't be as bad as people were saying.

The traffic out of New Orleans was bumper to bumper, and it took them four hours to cross the bridge which usually took them six minutes. But eventually they were far enough out to pick up speed, and they drove until they were exhausted, landing up in Memphis, TN where they checked into a $89 a day motel and sat back to watch their city on CNN.

They saw the hurricane, and then they heard that the levees had broken and the water was rising. No worries, they thought, they'll just pump out the water, like they always do.

Only they didn't.

Now this family were here in Memphis, with the small amount of money they'd been able to scrounge together before they left, and they couldn't afford to remain in the motel. So they went to a shopping mall and stood there with a sign explaining they had run away from Katrina, had no money and nowhere to stay. A woman told them about a shelter, which they went to, 5 adults and 7 children, living with a bunch of other families. No way to live. So the two families each put up $325 out of their rapidly dwindling finances, and rented a two-bedroomed apartment for all 12 people to live in, because it was better than being in the shelter. Finer feelings about Katrina survivors be damned, the apartment manager still made them sign a six-month lease on the apartment before they could move in.

As soon as possible, the mother made the call to FEMA, who sent a check for $2,000. It was received at the end of September, and they had trouble cashing it as they'd spelled the lady's name wrong. $2,000 to feed and clothe and pay rent for two adults and five children.

And since then? Nothing. They try calling the FEMA number, and when they get through after hours and hours, they receive a recorded message. They've tried to get work. They're looking for work. They need to work. But nobody wants to hire them.

And most of all, they want to go home.

They had tried to hard to raise themselves up. They had bought a little house, and they had been working on restoring it from the uninhabitable condition it was in when they purchased it. They'd worked so hard. For five years, every spare penny they had went into restoring this house. They had finally put in the cabinets and the carpets and everything was just about ready to move in.

They went down to see their little house a couple of weeks after the hurricane hit. The water mark was five feet up the wall. There was no need for a key to the front door, as there was no longer a front door. All the cabinets were hanging off the walls. The new carpets were ruined. The whole place stank. It was worse than it was five years before when they took it over. And the cruelest joke of all? They had tried to get insurance on their little house. But the insurance companies told them that as long as they were working on it, they couldn't qualify for insurance. The only insurance they could get would be extortionately expensive, and, well, if they'd had that kind of money, it wouldn't have taken them five years to renovate it, now would it?

So now they're lost in a town they have no roots in, jobless, penniless, and everything that they have is gone.

And the world has moved on.

The rest of us, with our MTV attention spans have moved on to the next big thing. Forgetting that these are real people who have lost everything through no fault of their own. And forgetting that it's not a movie of the week and it wasn't resolved at the end of the two hours.

It makes me feel very grateful for the things I have, and complain a little less about the things I don't have.


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