By Colette Pichon Battle
On the 7th Anniversary of Katrina, many Gulf Coast residents find themselves in an eerily familiar place. Today is August 29th, and we are in the middle of a hurricane. The irony of a storm on this day does not go unnoticed. While the storm was entering the Gulf, all residents of the region faced the decision to either ride out the storm or evacuate. I would like to believe I am brave enough to stay for a storm larger than a category 1, but those gusts of wind out my window act as a real time reality check.
Generational residents of the Gulf Coast are people who know how to live with storms. And August was always the month to watch- even before Katrina. Exactly seven years later, extraordinary gusts of wind and rising water once again have our attention. It is in these moments that we are reminded what absolute power feels like.
A long, loud silence acts as space for actual contemplation of life and death. But as a bayou girl, I am reminded also that even the most terrible storms can create strangely beautiful moments. Hurricane parties aside, people really are different in the midst of storm. In the preparation before a big storm, all residents gear up for a fight against a common enemy. We forget that the winds riding on big storms are strong enough to blur even the most delineated race lines. Helping hands of all colors go wherever they are needed. On my street in Slidell, Louisiana, today’s hurricane makes it is clear that even after a recovery full of social shifts, we are still a community that believes that life is precious and no one has to be lost.
Over the past seven years, we have had to face the hard truth that Katrina was nothing compared to the horrors of a man-made storm that followed her receding waters. As of today, thousands of mostly African American residents have not gotten any financial assistance to rebuild their lives or their homes- while private companies -contracted to administer federal dollars-have received millions of dollars in bonuses. People’s lives, mental health and social advancement opportunities have been gutted- not during a fair fight- but while the Gulf Coast struggled to get itself up off the ground.
These seven years have also yielded systemic acts of terror on some of this nation’s most unique land and people. The United Houma Nation goes into its third generation of fighting for its right to be recognized by the federal government. Black and Brown men are being served-up on a silver platter to the world’s largest prison population through a system used to maintain social power and break the human spirit. The duty to educate the next generation of leaders is up for the highest bidder and the fight for leveling the playing fields has reverted back to a fight of the “haves” versus the “have nots”. All this while wealth disparities in the nation’s poorest states grow to levels not seen since the times of reconstruction.
While some healing and repair have occurred, practices and systems that maintain the unfair balance of power in this region returned through windows of recovery and opportunity. The Gulf region has reclaimed its title of being a leader in civil rights violations. Racial profiling resurrected from its pre-Katrina life with patrolling cops and has been morphed into a tool that legislators and elected officials use to privatize public education, health care, environmental clean-up and disaster recovery. And this latest round of Redistricting, voter roll purging and voter intimidation is likely the final nail in the coffin of human rights that floated out to sea in the waters of Katrina. There is no doubt about it- we are still in the midst of a storm.
It would be wise to resist attempts of well-funded marketing to prop up this region’s cosmetic changes as the “roadmap for success”. Those are false claims of success- or at best, incomplete ones. The inequities that have led to real disparities in the Katrina recovery should never be the standard for a country that prides itself on being the best. Even with all of the innovation and good will offered during the last seven years, this region continues to endure the brazen theft of social power by leaders who choose to maintain the systemic oppression that has existed in the Deep South for generations. And political gain has been the main culprit for what has not happened in seven years.
In these seven years of recovery, there have been many wrong turns. But today, in the middle of a storm- I see a type of Gulf Coast courage return and slowly replace the fear that many of us have been carrying around- some for generations. In this revealed courage, there is a safe place to house our fear as we remember what it is to have reverence for things greater than ourselves. It is this courage that gives me hope that tomorrow we will see each other as neighbors and take responsibility for the community that we all have part in maintaining.
Generations of history assure me that storms come and storms go- and that beautiful moment after the winds calm- is soon to come. These 75 mph winds act as an impressive reminder that each of us has small yet vital roles in the grand scheme of life. At present, my sole job is praying that the great oak in my front yard earns her title and stand strong against the hurricane forces. And I look forward to that moment after the storm and before the power returns. I want to cherish that point in time when Gulf Coast neighbors will see each other as humans with a shared history and the fortitude to make it through a storm. People of all races will inquire after each other’s family. And we will see courage manifest into action as we make sure that everyone is alright and as the Gulf Coast’s once again declares it survival from another storm.