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.

 

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A Reflection After 2 Years — Isaac Coplan Thursday, Aug 4 2011 

A view from the mini-van mirror. Isaac is in the red shirt in the middle.

I was part of the 2009 group, the maiden voyage. Even after two years, I feel like NOLA is still with me, or maybe I’m with NOLA. When I’m walking around, and I see something I think of something that happened in NOLA. The other day I was having a discussion with a friend who I met in NOLA on the trip, Ahmad Taib. We decided that individually, our group had done a fair amount of work; however, the real change is coming through the dedication of Pascal Murphy and Tanya Gulliver who are amplifying the experience of our group through continuing the program. There is need for this to continue. Change, in this case really can start with a small experiment. This trip allowed me to be part of a group who cared about the world. I was dedicated to taking whatever actions I could to make things at least a little better. I was also motivated by curiosity and a desire to learn through experience; I invaded NOLA hungry to devour everyone’s information (and a few po’ boy sandwiches along the way).

The 416/647/905 to the 504 boy band – Isaac, Said and Chris.

There have been a lot of questions in my mind in the last two years about the volun-tourism industry. There is significant evidence that shows that in some circumstances, NGOs can bypass state plans and enforce top-down agendas on communities. However, what we did in New Orleans was very different. We were rebuilding houses that had stood there before the hurricane. A Hurricane that SHOULDN’T have done the damage it did. I didn’t arrive in New Orleans with answers, I arrived with questions.

In a strange way, if there had not been a Katrina I would not have met so many people. I would not have had the opportunity to go and work in the Lower Ninth Ward. Since I do believe in the ripple effect, I can say that Katrina has also changed my life. In response to the storm, I was part of a group of students and professors who share a similar compassion for the world.

Isaac and pals work on a house in the Lower Ninth Ward, May 2009. Left to right: Isaac, Chris, Said, Kevn and Ahmed.

I will be returning to New Orleans, Louisiana.

There, I said it publicly, no take-backs.

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