New Orleans and Homelessness Tuesday, Jul 23 2013 

The National Alliance to End Homelessness conference is happening this week in Washington and I’ve been following the hashtag #NAEH13 to see what’s new in research and homelessness. Iain de Jong (@OrgCode) posted the following: “New Orleans on track to end chronic homelessness by 2015. Huge high five! #NAEH13”

My first reaction, and my reply tweet to him, was “@OrgCode hmm. I’d be interested to see the research. lose 25% plus of your most at-risk pop’n & have hundreds of bldgs for squatters…”

But I decided to do a bit of research – I am after all a PhD student working at a pan-Canadian research network – before being too hasty. Turns out, there may be some truth to it – at least in terms of how it looks on paper. New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) has made some great strides in ending, or at least reducing, homelessness.

In a post on OneCPDResourceExchange last week entitled “SNAPS Weekly Focus Guest Blog: Working Together to End Homelessness”, Martha Kegel, Executive Director, UNITY of Greater New Orleans and Stacy Horn Koch, Director of Homeless Policy, City of New Orleans discuss the successes of the plan to end homelessness in New Orleans.

The stats about decreases in homelessness certainly present a clear picture of a dramatic increase (after Hurricane Katrina) and a dramatic decrease. Prior to Hurricane Katrina, there were 2,051 homeless people in New Orleans; two years later that number had jumped to 11,619 people. This number has been steadily declining; in 2009 it dropped to 8,725 and then to 4,903 in 2012. Currently, the number stands at 2,337 – a 47% decrease from last year.

As the chart makes it very clear; homelessness is on the decrease and in a big way, in New Orleans. Kegel and Horn Koch state that the key problem was linked to the impacts of Hurricane Katrina “Just a few years ago, New Orleans had one of the nation’s highest rates of chronic homelessness. This distressing phenomenon was largely due to the lingering effects of the Hurricane Katrina levee failures in 2005, which wiped out the city’s stock of affordable housing, shattered the health and behavioral health systems and scattered the extended family and community networks on which so many vulnerable people once relied.”

The success in reducing homelessness lies with the City of New Orleans, UNITY of Greater New Orleans and the 63 agencies who are part of the Continuum of Care. This partnership model is very much in line with what we are constantly promoting here at the Homeless Hub, the need for a “systems response” to ending homelessness. The network of agencies work together to help find solutions –systemic and individual—to homelessness in New Orleans.

This model has led to some incredible successes. Not only has total homelessness been reduced but there has also been a focus on chronic homelessness. This has decreased 85% since 2009 – from 4,579 to 633. Kegel and Horn Koch highlight this and say, “What was unimaginable only a few years ago is now within sight: New Orleans is on track to become one of the first cities to eliminate the long-term homelessness of people with disabilities, in line with the federal plan to end chronic homelessness by 2015.”

This has been noted elsewhere as well. In 2011, Community Solutions (formerly Common Ground) reported that “Despite overwhelming obstacles, New Orleans, a partner in the 100,000 Homes Campaign, now boasts the country’s highest housing placement rate for homeless adults.” This is a clear part of New Orleans’ 10 year plan to end homelessness.

In addition to using the systems approach, NOLA is also being very strategic. They recognize that with thousands of abandoned buildings it’s easy for people to stay hidden if they choose. Outreach teams for UNITY concentrate on abandoned buildings as a way of tracking where people might be living. As this article from nola.com explains the city also captured unspent grants for recovery given to developers and is using them to build housing for homeless people and to provide rent subsidies. It also explains another strategy where “The New Orleans Redevelopment Authority is making 20 of its properties available for the program, offering each to developers for 10 percent of the appraised value or $1,345, whichever is higher.” This helps ensure that unused housing is being fixed up and that people who otherwise might remain homeless are getting housed.

The resources for people who are homeless, marginally housed, living in poverty or otherwise vulnerable in New Orleans is quite extensive. A great directory has been compiled by UNITY and can be found here.

But a few counter points:

  • A study of geographic origin of homeless people in Houston found that nearly 2% were from Louisiana. While the study has some methodological challenges, this is nearly double the percentage from California, the next highest state of origin.
  • An article in The Stranger from Seattle, points out that New Orleans’ rate of homelessness as a percentage of the population remains high compared to elsewhere.
  • The extended family living situation common in New Orleans means that there could be a large number of “hidden homeless” people: those who are doubling up with family and friends.
  • The New York Times Katrina diaspora map reminds us that people were flung far and wide post hurricane. Many of those who faced challenges returning were those with low incomes and other marginalization issues.
  • There were many challenges for people who owned their homes in proving home ownership and right to title because of a casual inheritance system common in New Orleans. While that legislation was modified in 2009, prior to that it resulted in many people being homeless or facing challenges in being re-housed. Post 2009, many people who were homeless because of this policy were able to return home.
  • There are still about 35,000 blighted properties in New Orleans. Even the best outreach teams can’t check every home, every night to make sure no one is sleeping there.

None of this discounts the successes that New Orleans has had. The progress it has made is nothing short of remarkable. But the broad, systemic problem of homelessness persists and it is going to need concentrated effort from many sectors to end it.

This article also appears in the Homeless Hub’s Research Matters blog.

Why heavy rains make me think of NOLA… Thursday, Jul 11 2013 

Guest post by Isaac Coplan, MES grad student at York University and former CINT 912 student at Ryerson University.

Two nights ago I took an hour and a half to get home (usually a 45 minute commute). I ran through heavy rain and arrived at my lobby to find that the power was out.

 

Shortly after the rain started, York Commons, York University. Photo by Tanya Gulliver.

Shortly after the rain started, York Commons, York University. Photo by Tanya Gulliver.

I climbed up the stairs to the 8th floor while I swore out loud. When I got to my place, I looked out past the balcony at Wilson ave. and Highway 401, both bumper to bumper. They remained perfectly congested until 930pm. My partner and I sat without power and ate sandwiches. Our stove is electric. We only have one blueberry scented candle and a wind-up flashlight that was giving my partner a headache by the end of evening. All in all it was kind of fun; we played chess and then crazy eights and hung out by blueberry candlelight. Our water was still functioning (though I think the hot water was out by 10pm). Our iPod touch was able to function as our alarm when both of our cell phones died. When I went to sleep, I had a brief moment of thinking that the lights and power may still be out in the morning when I woke up, what would I do then? Our AC had been out for hours and we were starting to get a bit muggy, our food probably wouldn’t last more than a couple of days in the freezer.

Flooding on King St in Toronto. Photo by Steph Vasko.

Flooding on King St in Toronto. Photo by Steph Vasko.

Throughout Toronto, hidden waterways that used to mark the landscape prior to colonialism, development and re-development reached out their swampy arms and flooded the Gardiner Expressway and basements throughout the downtown core. The water systems reminded us that they are there, and that they can’t really be tamed or routed. Sure enough, at 230am the lights flickered back on and scared us. The returning electricity saved our food and allowed us to plug in our cell phones. Other than the stoplight out at the end of our street and wet pavement, the events from the day before were hardly a memory by the morning.

In 2005 Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans probably started in much the same way as this heavy rainfall. It wasn’t the largest hurricane that had passed through the region. Many people start off by having hurricane parties and meeting up with friends. It all probably started off pretty fun, but then at some point, that panicky feeling that things may not get better ended up being true. People ended up losing family homes and suddenly being without places to stay. Displaced, they were reaching for inexistent assistance from people in other states and from their own government. People drowned in their attics, or in the flow of water. The news referred to them as refugees and the media began immediately to blame the victims. The infrastructure that was supposed to protect those people in the Lower 9th ward and St. Bernard Parish was insufficient and the storm surge reminded everyone that it was in charge (not the Army Corps of Engineers). FEMA trailers were lined with asbestos and other harmful chemicals for those who even qualified. The remnants of Katrina are still in New Orleans. Those who lost people, places and signifiers to the storm surge of Katrina will think of it when they see every new storm coming.

Now, heavy rains make me think of this displacement and temporality of shelter as I know it. I look outside and it forces me to think about the privileged position that I am in. I live high above the water level if there ever is a flood. I may or may not have power, but my living space is cool enough and I am consistently hydrated. I have food to eat, even if there is a chance that it will go bad. I have a place that I can return to when the rain falls quickly. I have a place that is safe, where I have dry clothes and a support system. In Toronto, there are lots of people who don’t have that. There are lots of people displaced who are threatened by severe weather. People living in unsafe housing or outdoors whose possessions are at continuous risk of being destroyed, stolen or “cleaned up”. For those people, every rainstorm can be as devastating to them as Hurricane Katrina. Their ‘heavy rains’ may not even be tied to weather, they are tied to social, political and economic positions that they are placed in often through no fault of their own. We have an obligation to make sure that everyone has safe housing, and that there are adequate supports for those who are displaced. When the heavy rain is over, and my power is back up, I have the privilege of breathing a sigh of relief.

It really is time for change, to end displacement as we know it.

It doesn’t take a dream, it just takes a commitment.

 

Racism Is… Monday, Jul 8 2013 

July 8th again. As regular readers of this blog know, today is the anniversary of my brother Tyler’s murder — 18 years ago, in 1995. The years tick by. His kids are growing up. He has a granddaughter nearly 3 and a grandson on the way (btw family — I had to find that out on Facebook?!!). His murder, as I have talked about in 2010 and in 2011 was based on racism. Something not really that surprising to me since our hometown of Peterborough isn’t really known as a bastion of cultural diversity.

tyler-tat-me

Racism is once again in the news these days (not that it ever really isn’t if you pay attention). I’ve been watching stories as the world waits for Nelson Mandela’s death (before a CTV interview last week I was told “If Mandela dies your interview will be cancelled”). I know that there will be a great many news stories about apartheid, and South Africa, and there will be a sense, I suspect, in most of the Western World, that this is an old problem, a solved problem.

But racism is present. Brittney Cooper’s story of encountering racism on her flight back to Louisiana for July 4th struck a chord with many of my friends. In talking about her seat mate for the flight she says “Then just as the call came to shut our phones off, I glanced over at her, and she was still texting, rapidly. I caught a few words of the end of her text that made me look more intently: ‘on the plane, sitting thigh to thigh with a big fat nigger. Lucky me.’

My breath caught in my chest.

And then there was pain. Humiliation. Embarrassment. Anger.”

Cooper’s experience is sadly not unusual. What is perhaps unusual is her bravery in confronting the woman; something that isn’t always safe for someone to do.

On the subway from Downsview the other day I overheard two people discussing race and racism, particularly in the context of Paula Deen’s recent (and not so recent) racist comments that have been hitting the headlines and the blogosphere. What was most interesting to me though was the total shock they were expressing that someone a) could hold these views in this day and age and b) would publicly express them. This was pretty typical of many of the reactions that people have had to Deen’s comments.

Some interesting reflections have emerged in the blogosphere.

1) “I confess myself refreshed to hear Paula Deen respond “Yes, of course,” when asked if she used the word  “nigger.” We have conditioned ourselves with a kind of magic to believe that racism is a matter of kindness and prohibitive vocabulary — as though a hatred of women can be reduced the use of the word “bitch.””  More here…

2) “So for a moment, let’s set aside the fact that Paula Deen is accused of a lot more than saying the n-word.  Never mind that she is alleged to have contributed to a hostile work place for black people. Let’s put aside the fact that the n-word is not the only indicator of racism, any more than people who repurpose flame retardant white sheets at night are the only people participating in or benefiting from racism.”   And it continues here…

3)   The Huffington Post reported that Deen’s comments elucidate “the part institutional racism still plays in our lives in America.” This phrase strikes at the heart of the issue; racism is  in many ways still ingrained in our society. While I hope and I believe that most Americans no longer judge character based on color, racist attitudes are certainly overlooked and even forgiven in some cases, especially when it comes to celebrities. And more here…

Having spent three years living in the US South, down in New Orleans, I’m not surprised at all. I found the understanding, or rather, misunderstandings of race in the south to be very interesting, especially as a Canadian from a mixed race family.

Racism in the south is, as all racism is, a learned behaviour. At the same time, southern racism is almost in-bred. It is institutionalized. It is unconcious. It is so common, so much a part of the fabric of life, that most people don’t even realize that they hold or express racist beliefs because everyone they know thinks the same way. This isn’t KKK racism. It’s not necessarily overt or even conscious; it’s what they were taught, in school, at home, in the media.

This isn’t, by any means, a defence of racist behaviour. It’s not a way of excusing away what Paula Deen did by blaming her southern roots. But it shows me that there is so much more work to do to help people gain an understanding of racism, to develop race conciousness.

When Tyler was killed I was actually working in Ajax-Pickering as a race relations coordinator. My team of youth and I made an anti-racism video and dedicated it to him. In 18 years there have been changes; in 18 years nothing has changed. As they say in French, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

racial hands

Meaning of Home Sunday, May 26 2013 

I miss New Orleans soooooooooo much. It literally hurts to miss it this much.

 

miss new orleans

In my Homelessness in Canadian Society class that I taught at Ryerson University for several years, we played a “game” called the “Meaning of Home”. It was an interactive activity designed to get students thinking about the most important factors in defining home and what the loss of these factors (in the process of becoming homeless) might be like.

Having moved around so much in the past few years, and living in a bit of a tenuous housing situation now, I am starting to understand it in such a different way myself. June 2010-February 2012 I lived in Arabi, St. Bernard Parish (I arrived at the end of April but was staying with my students for the month of May). March 2012 to (technically) mid March 2013 I lived in Abita Springs, St.Tammany Parish. But, I spent a month (end of August to end of September) in a hotel in Metairie, and most of October 27 to March 17th in New Jersey in shelters, tents and hotels.

Moving back to Canada, I didn’t know where I would be staying. I planned to couch surf; crashing at my parents or friends until I found something more permanent. I lucked into a great condo for the summer through my PhD supervisor’s connections. It’s very much lacking in furniture but it has (now, thanks to the donations of friends) the basic amenities.

So I have a house (in a sense) but do I have a home? When I was in Louisiana, home usually meant Toronto. When I was in New Jersey I always had to clarify because “back home” could mean Toronto or Louisiana depending upon the topic of conversation. Now that I’m in Toronto, I miss my home/friends/networks/communities in Louisiana. A friend told me today that it was time for me to come back home to New Orleans, and a big part of me agreed with her.

There is also a part of me that I suspect revels in the rootlessness; I know that if I was in Louisiana last week, chances are I’d be in Oklahoma or Texas now helping with recovery efforts in those states. I miss the ability to pick up and go help people, especially because I get so fulfilled from doing that work. In Toronto I feel more stability, in NOLA I felt the freedom of the casual culture.

Of course, there are anchors here in Toronto. I’m dating two amazing guys who I’m very fond of and our connections grow stronger with each date; that couldn’t be maintained if I wasn’t here (at least not to the same degree). I have a fabulous job as Project Coordinator of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network. It’s temporary (til May 2014) but I’m sure there are ways to stay connected to their work after that. I’m back on campus at York University; I lectured twice last week, joined the Senate as a student senator for the Faculty of Environmental Studies, and am lecturing again this week. I’m closer to my family and friends, geographically anyways. I’ll get to go to PWAC@MagNet this year after missing it last year.

And yet, my soul is in New Orleans. There is something about that city that drew me in from the first day I set foot on the soil back in 2008. I miss it every day. There is an expression/picture that became really popular after Katrina that said “Roots Run Deep”. Indeed, in Floodlines, Jordan Flaherty explains that more people from New Orleans live their whole lives not just in the city (compared to other cities across the US) but in the same neighbourhood, often on the same block.

roots run deep

photo by Amanda Fotes

I don’t have those historical roots, but the graft took. I’ve grown into the city and into St. Bernard Parish. While I know I will visit, and hopefully soon, I don’t know when, or even if, I’ll ever be able to spend large chunks of time there again. So much of my heart is there though….

Where does the time go? Friday, May 10 2013 

Really? August 29th 2012 was my last post?!

So much has happened since then. It will take a while to catch up but I’ll hit the highlights and have committed to my paramour to get back on track with the blog writing so hopefully more details will follow soon enough.

Hurricane Issac – I volunteered from August 27th through to about the 25th or 26th of September. A brief time off to refocus on the PhD and then came news of Hurricane Sandy. I could never imagine how much a hurricane could change my life; maybe I should learn to call it Superstorm like so many others do.

I deployed to New Jersey with the American Red Cross on October 20th and ran shelters for 2 weeks. Large, full-scale evacuation shelters; the first and the last with next to no staff. Then did a month in Community Partnerships travelling across the state, all along the coast. I went back to Louisiana on Dec 8th; 6 weeks in, exhausted but the operation was shutting down that weekend. Arrived late Saturday afternoon; was called Monday to go back because the relief operation was reinvigorated. My luggage hadn’t even arrived yet so I begged a week’s grace. Worked a shelter in nearby Walker for a tornado response on Tuesday. Luggage arrived Wednesday so I did laundry, saw friends, caught up on life and repacked. Flew back out on the 20th of December intending to stay 2-3 weeks maximum. Didn’t go back to Louisiana until March 17th – that’s right 13 weeks. In total, I spent 130 days in New Jersey. It was the best of times; hard work but oh so rewarding.

I ended up leaving a week before the formal operation wound up because my passport was about to expire and I thought that the Toronto side of the border was a better place to be when that happened.

I’ve been back since March 25th and so much has happened. I’m slowly adjusting, culture shock hits me hard sometimes. I’m working full-time filling in a mat leave as the Project Coordinator at the Canadian Homelessness Research Network at York University.

So much more to say…but it’s going to come out slowly I think. The blog should perhaps be renamed too – Toronto2NOLA2Toronto, but no matter where I am there are always pieces of my heart elsewhere.

DRO 734-2013 — Hurricane Isaac Wednesday, Aug 29 2012 

For the last two years I’ve been responding to a disaster that has impacted the US around the anniversary of Katrina. Last year I attended a couple Katrina related events and then left for my deployment as a shelter manager in Vermont. My current deployment with the American Red Cross is in my own backyard.

So, an update after the first official night of Hurricane Isaac. I spent Aug. 27th in the Red Cross COOP (Continuity Of Operations Plan) office in Madisonville on the Northshore. It’s a 15 minute drive from my house in bad traffic. That’s where the Southeast Louisiana chapter shelters during a storm. We were extremely short staffed so while my official title is Community Partnerships Lead I helped out with government liaison, staffing, training, and sheltering. I slept on a cot in the photocopier room to stay warm (they kept the building soooooo cold so if the power went out it wouldn’t hurt as quickly) for about 5 hrs.

After getting woken at 5:15 to troubleshoot a shelter issue I decided to get up and at ‘em. I did an initial interview with a producer at CTV and some social media but was asked by my leads if I would change roles and head to the town if Franklinton in Washington Parish. I’m embedded at the Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. I’m in the headquarters which has reps from the Fire dept, sheriff’s office, health dept, national guard, parish staff, EOP staff etc. The Parish President and council members drop by as do folks from other departments, especially at National Weather Service briefing times.

The storm is moving very, very slowly. We haven’t been hit hard here yet, a few hundred homes without power, some trees down, light to moderate winds and some rain, heavy at times. In other words, a normal day in Louisiana. The storm is coming, it’s just slow.

Other areas haven’t been so lucky. About half a million homes are without power across South Louisiana. Lots and lots of rain and heavy winds. The storm sat over Grand Isle (one of the centers of damage during the oil spill) for hours and hasn’t moved far away. In Plaquemines Parish (also affected by the oil spill and basically wiped off the map in Katrina) damage is wide spread.   There is either a breach or levee overtopping and ppl are reporting 12 ft of water in homes. Ppl are trapped, but rescue efforts are hindered by the weather conditions.

New Orleans has been slammed since last night. Winds of 50-70 miles an hour. Several inches of rain. The storm may continue to affect it with hurricane or tropical storm conditions for another 24 hours. There is street flooding, power is out almost everywhere in the city, and will likely be out at least another couple days.

It’s likely that we’ll get hit soon so I’ll sign off. More when I can. I’m tweeting @TanyaMGulliver and will continue while we have power/signal. We do have a generator so hopefully I’ll have phone or texting capacity.

Volunteering with the Red Cross Tuesday, Jun 5 2012 

I’ve been volunteering since I was a kid. I think the first time was with my dad when he did his shifts at the Smith Township library; later I did my own shifts. In elementary school I began organizing fundraisers and events to help feed children in Africa. From high school on volunteering was an important part of what I did in my life. I dedicate a significant amount of time  to volunteering every week; even here in the US (as I write this I have just finished a call-in to a board meeting with the Professional Writers Association of Canada where, as I finish my 7th year on the board this week, I serve as Past-President).

I volunteer with the Disaster Services arm of the American Red Cross.

I’m really enjoying my work with the American Red Cross. I’ve written before about my two experiences on bigger Disaster Relief Operations – in Vermont with Hurricane Irene last August/September and in Carencro (Lafayette), Louisiana this past march with the SWLA Flood. Most recently, I trained as an instructor in the disasters stream and have been doing some trainings prepping volunteers to be shelter volunteers if needed in the hurricane season.

Red Cross cot assembly

The shelter training participants at the New Roads library in Point Coupee around a Red Cross cot they learned to assemble (My training partner, Jonathan Hammett, Regional Partnership Manager for Southern Louisiana is in the red shirt).

Even though my Master’s degree I received in 2009 and the PhD I am undertaking now are technically in Environmental Studies, there was/is a huge focus on disasters in both of them. The courses I took at York University – through the Faculty of Environmental Studies and the Disaster and Emergency Management program have been incredibly helpful and useful as I learn more about the inner workings of a Disaster Relief Operation. I sat in on a planning meeting last week; the number of volunteers that will be required if a large hurricane hits is enormous. On top of that, you have to anticipate that some trained volunteers won’t be able to respond given their own life circumstances, so training must include 3x the number of people  you actually anticipate needing.

The most common disaster in the United States is the single home house fire (image source: American Red Cross).

Even outside of “wartime” ie when there isn’t a formal, large-scale disaster there is lots of work to be done. A standard disaster cycle is Preparedness, Mitigation, Response and Recovery. But once you have recovered, the system is right back into preparing and mitigating. What worked, what didn’t work, how many people need to be trained this year, what shelters will be needed, where will they be etc etc etc.

My other main function with the Red Cross right now is helping the South Louisiana Regional Partnerships Manager, Jonathan Hammett, with some of the preparedness work. Not only are we training volunteers, but we are in a constant recruitment mode to try to find more. We are also connecting with groups and organizations, especially churches, to secure spaces for a shelter. This involves meeting with an interested church, assessing their interest and capacity, then if they are supportive having a full evaluation of their space completed to ensure that it is safe and suitable. Finally, a partnerships agreement is signed. During an actual disaster, I’ll be a Community Partner Services Lead for the South-East Lousiana chapter which will include connecting with our partner groups and helping to mobilize them (Jonathan has the same role but will be based out of the Baton Rouge chapter). The Madisonville office where disaster operations will be based for the SELA reponse is less than a 15 minute drive from my place (though there are rooms for sleeping if required).

A little blurry but this is *why* I volunteer. The question asks “How did the Red Cross help you” and under “other” the client wrote “Smiles”. In a time of crisis, knowing that someone was there with a smile and support is the most important gift we can give our neighbours.

Will you consider being

“Ready When the Time Comes”

and become a Red Cross volunteer?

Ask me for details!!

Louisiana American Red Cross State-Wide Training Days Monday, Jun 4 2012 

Image Red Cross Statewide Training Days

Red Cross Statewide Training Days

If you’ve ever thought about volunteering in a shelter during a hurricane evacuation, now is the time to get trained. Saturday June 9th and Saturday July 14th are state-wide training days in Louisiana.

In the New Orleans area there will be training at the Canal Street office and the Madisonville offfice. If you’re outside the Metro area there is also training in Baton Rouge, Lake Charles, Shreveport, Monroe, Alexandria and Lafayette (Scott) on both days. There will also be training on June 9th only in Thibodaux and in Luling on July 14th only.

Personally, on July 7th I should be doing a training at the New Orleans Healing Center’s Street University and on July 14th, I’ll be doing a training in New Roads, Point Coupee.

The Disaster Services Overview  and Shelter Operations/Simulation combined course is just one day of training and then you’re “Ready When the Time Comes” to serve in a shelter in case of a hurricane.

The easiest way to register is to go to: http://www.batonrouge.redcross.org/hurricane-training

Click the date and the chapter that works best for you. This will take you to the registration system. Click on New User at the top right of page and fill out the very short form. Last, click Place Order. (There is no charge for disaster courses.)

Although details will confirm only the first class of the day, you will be signed up for the sequence of courses throughout the day. The training runs 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Hurricane Season starts today! Friday, Jun 1 2012 

From today (June 1st) until November 30th is Hurricane Season! Are you ready?

Image of Gulf hurricane

A look at Hurricane Ivan in the Gulf of Mexico.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) predicts a near-normal year for hurricanes with nine to 15 storms in the Atlantic Ocean. Of these storms, four to 8 could strengthen to a hurricane with winds of 74 mph or higher, with as many as three becoming major hurricanes with winds of 111 mph or higher.

According to the American Red Cross, “Getting prepared ahead of time is the best way to be ready for any emergency of weather disaster.”

Their three step plan is “Get a Kit, Make a Plan, Be Prepared”.

Image three step plan for preparedness from Red Cross

Be Red Cross Ready in case of a disaster

  • Build an emergency kit with a gallon of water per person, per day, non-perishable food, a flashlight, battery-powered radio, first aid kit, medications, supplies for an infant if applicable, a multi-purpose tool, personal hygiene items, copies of important papers, cell phone chargers, extra cash, blankets, maps of the area and emergency contact information.
  • Talk with household members and create an evacuation plan. Planning and practicing evacuation plan minimizes confusion and fear during the event.
  • Be informed. Learn about the community’s hurricane response plan. Plan routes to local shelters, register family members with special medical needs as required and make plans for pets to be cared for.
  • Because standard homeowners insurance doesn’t cover flooding, it’s important to have protection from the floods associated with hurricanes, tropical storms, heavy rains and other conditions that impact the U.S. For more information on flood insurance, please visit the National Flood Insurance Program website at www.FloodSmart.gov.

For my students; a reflection letter of my own. Sunday, May 27 2012 

This is primarily for the 2012 CINT 912 students who (mostly) flew home two weeks ago today. But it is also for all our subscribers and our readers, and all of the students from the other five classes of Community Development – International Perspectives: New Orleans (or whatever the official name of this course is, I never remember!!)  As background to the non-students, starting no earlier than 7-10 days after the trip the students are asked to write a reflection about their experience or give a presentation to a group about what happened here.

Dear students:

Today is two weeks since y’all flew back to Canada or headed on to further adventures. I get asked a lot “are your students gone?” and while I answer “yes“, that’s not entirely accurate. None of y’all are ever really gone; from my life, from my heart, or from New Orleans. A piece of you remains inside me, and your sweat, tears (and in some cases blood) have been left on the soil of this city. Just as you will never forget New Orleans, it will never forget you either.

Reading your reflections is bittersweet. I feel your passion and your love for this city, but I also hear your struggles. The challenge of explaining your experience to someone who wasn’t there is one that has challenged me, and students of this course, since the very beginning. In May 2009, a week after returning I tried to sum this up. I share this with you to give you encouragement that indeed this is very common. No one will ever fully understand your experience without having been here, but eventually you will find the words, pictures or songs to show them little glimpses.

In 2009 I wrote “I don’t quite know how to answer the question “How was New Orleans?” Visiting New Orleans aka NOLA is really unlike visiting most other places and therefore the answer is unfamiliar. How do you describe a city where everyone has experienced loss? In St. Bernard Parish where we spent our first week every single home, indeed every single building except 4, was damaged by the flood. SBP is the only community to ever have been 100% affected by a natural disaster (though we know that natural is a bit of an oxymoron really).” The rest of the post can be read here: http://toronto2nola.wordpress.com/2009/05/20/how-was-new-orleans/

I ended that blog with these words: “So I don’t know how New Orleans was. If you ask me, I’ll say it was good, or fine, or joke about my kids, or point out my sunburn and blisters. But I can’t answer you because I just don’t know.” 

After 4 years of teaching this class, after two years of spending as much time here as possible, I still don’t know how to explain this class or this place to people who haven’t been through it. You’ve only been gone for two weeks; don’t expect it to come easily.

New Orleans is a city that gets under your skin from the time you step off the plane.  I remember meeting someone at the American Sociological Association conference in Atlanta a couple of years ago who was doing her Master’s research on Katrina and New Orleans and yet SHE HAD NEVER BEEN HERE!!!  It is impossible to understand this place academically through papers, books, websites, photos or films. Nothing prepares you for the real experience.

Even after 4 trips down before I moved –over 5 weeks of experience– I knew nothing. Even after living here two years what I can explain about this place is small –academic and technical information about slavery, history, Katrina, levees, swamps, environmental justice and disasters out the wazoo– but a way to explain the spirit and life blood of New Orleans I have yet to find. Showing it is easy: from the people who take a break from rebuilding homes nearly years later to wave while I give a visitor a tour to the guy on the bus last year some students met who teared up when they said they were volunteers from Canada; he had been rescued in St. Bernard by that first group of Canadians from BC who arrived 4 days after the storm before any federal assistance from the American government. The stories by Pastor Randy, Tanya Harris, the homeowners, the staff at the Food Coop or The Green Project, and all our other partners gives us glimpses.

On change over day in 2010, when 20 students flew home and 19 more arrived, I tried to summarize some of my thoughts and quantify what was so hard to explain. I said, “Sometimes it is hard to remember that the New Orleans area was completely under water a few years ago. But as I write this it is raining. It’s a gentle patter now but 30 minutes ago it was a deluge. I was out driving in St Bernard Parish and the roads flooded instantly. Not just a little but several inches – a foot in some places – within five minutes. And I remembered. I don’t always remember that every house in my new community – Arabi Louisiana, part of St. Bernard Parish – had flooding during Katrina. Every single house was declared uninhabitable. I rent an apartment that was mostly above the floodline; the part I am living in was at least. My laundry and storage rooms were flooded. The bachelor apartment beneath me was flooded. The water went up my stairs. The floors creak, a lot. I am sure they weren’t fully, or at least properly, repaired after Katrina. When I step on the floors I remember.” More at: http://toronto2nola.wordpress.com/2010/05/15/musings-on-memory-in-new-orleans/

But the only way to really understand is to be present in the city and to absorb all it has to offer. And all of you were sooooo present in your experience in a way that is likely rare for more visitors (or even for any of us when we travel elsewhere). It is this act of being present, of being open and engaged that likely has created the most impact upon you. In your reflections I hear your uncertainty in trying to explain –or even in trying to figure out– how the experience changed you. Last year, Shannon K., a colleague of yours in the NOLA All-Stars post-CINT 912 experience, summed this up so well in her Love Letter to New Orleans. She wrote, “I miss the way everyday you taught me something new about myself, and about life in general. You made me realize, no matter what, it’s worth it for me to push to be the best person I can be. It’s worth it to be constantly be challenging things. You made me realize who I want to push to be, and where I want to push to go.” (Read more at http://toronto2nola.wordpress.com/2011/06/30/a-love-letter/)

Yet I also read about your fears, your guilt, your sense of privilege that your life exists as it does while others struggle, your uncertainty about what to do, your desires to return and so many other emotions. The fact that this trip has awakened something in so many of you is breathtaking. That it is motivating you to do “better”, to be “better” is both encouraging and a bit unsettling.

YOU ARE ALL AMAZING PEOPLE. AS YOU ARE NOW. NO MATTER WHAT ELSE YOU DO. Sorry for the shouting, but it needs to be said, and I need you to hear it loud and clear. You gave of yourselves every day that you were here; indeed for several months leading up to this trip you were going above and beyond the normal student experience.

While you came as a group, worked and lived as a group, and for many of you, left as a group on the same flight, your experiences were still in many ways individualistic. Who you were before contributed to what you take from this trip.  Don’t feel guilty for your life before New Orleans or for the parts of your life that remain the same after New Orleans. One of my favourite poets, Maya Angelou said these words to Oprah, many many years ago: “You did then what you knew how to do, And when you knew better, You did better.” This really speaks to me about the self-criticism we all often engage in. We are only as good as our tools, knowledge and abilities. As those change/improve, so do we. You have new skills in your life from your trip that you can now add to your toolbox (the metaphorical kind). You will be different even if the activities you engage are the same ones from before the trip.

Whether you come back to New Orleans, visit a reserve in Northern Ontario, travel to a country in the Global South, or do work around your city/neighbourhood/home/work/school/faith community or anywhere else you will be able to create change if it is needed to the best of your ability at that given moment. Social justice is not an easy path and there are no quick fixes. At times, our lives and circumstances don’t permit us the opportunities to do what we want, so doing our best means doing what we can right then. Sometimes, we can give our all very intensely as you did for the two weeks you were here. Sometimes, all we can do is hold a thought in our hearts. Either way; it’s enough.

A few thoughts to highlight this, and to share with you some of the values/words that I try to live my life by:

1)Be the change you wish to see in the world” - Gandhi.

2) “Never doubt that a small group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead

3) “Se hace camino al andar” –  Antonio Machado which translates to “You make the way as you go” or “You make the road/path by walking” (common translations).

4) “In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.” - Eleanor Roosevelt

5) And last not but least, from The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss – “You have brains in your head.  You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know.  And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go.

So my dear students, know that just as your memories hold tight to the spirit of the people and their hearts hold tight to you, no matter where you are, here or there, now or then…

Love,

Tanya

 

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