Thursday, December 14, 2006

Planning Redux

Another example of why we need to begin mega-planning for what might happen when we pull out of Iraq. This one from life for the poorest in post-Katrina Louisiana. Now is the time to plan for thhe worst and hope for the best - to get our act together on a wide variety of issues.





December 14, 2006
Op-Ed Columnist
Sunrise and Sunset

By BOB HERBERT
Baton Rouge, La.

They look for all the world like internment camps. The long rows of identical white trailers sit on flat, grim, barren expanses of land that are enclosed by metal fences. Armed guards are stationed at the entrances around the clock.

More than a year after the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina, thousands of the poorest victims from New Orleans are still living in these trailer parks run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. They have ironic names, like Mount Olive Gardens and Renaissance Village. A more accurate name would be Camp Depression, after the state of mind of most of the residents.

The “parks” are nothing more than vast, dusty, gravel-strewn lots filled with trailers that were designed to be hitched to cars for brief vacations or weekend getaways. The trailers, about 200 square feet each, were never meant to serve as homes for entire families. But in these FEMA parks, it’s common for families of five or six, or even more, to be jammed into one trailer.

I stood outside a trailer at the Mount Olive encampment on Monday afternoon, talking with Geraldine Craig and her 21-year-old daughter, Danielle Craig. The women, who have been unable to find jobs, seemed baffled and depleted by their long ordeal. As we talked, Danielle’s 2-year-old son, Javonta, scampered around in the dust and gravel.

Danielle’s daughter, Miracle, was 5 months old when Katrina struck. The baby was ill and receiving oxygen when it became clear that the family had to evacuate. “The doctors were taking care of her and she couldn’t hardly breathe,” Danielle said. “After we left we ended up in a shelter, and I said that my baby needed oxygen but they told us we had to wait.

“They finally sent us to a medical building and they put her on oxygen for about two hours, but the doctor said there was nothing wrong with her.”

Like so many thousands of others left destitute and all but despondent by Katrina, the family moved on — to Texas, back to Louisiana, eventually to Baton Rouge. It was too much for Miracle, who never got the proper medical treatment. She died last March. Her heart disease wasn’t accurately diagnosed until an autopsy was performed.

“I felt like it was my fault,” said Danielle. “I’m still depressed.”

When I asked if she’d been treated for depression, she shook her head.

“That baby was one of the many victims of the storm who were never officially counted as such,” said Dr. Irwin Redlener, president of the Children’s Health Fund, which has been providing medical and mental health services to children in the FEMA parks.

Dr. Redlener, a professor at Columbia University and the author of “Americans at Risk: Why We Are Not Prepared for Megadisasters and What We Can Do,” said he was outraged that so many thousands of the poorest victims of Hurricane Katrina are still stuck in limbo — unable to find jobs or permanent housing, denied adequate medical and educational services and with no idea when, or if, they will be able to return to New Orleans.

“The recovery of this catastrophe in the gulf has been as badly mangled by the government as the initial response,” he said. “Fifteen months have gone by and you still have these thousands of people who in essence are either American refugees living in other states who have no idea what’s going to happen to them, or they are living in these trailer camps, or in isolated trailers on their old property, which has been destroyed. They’re just waiting for something to happen. And the wait is interminable.”

Geraldine Craig said: “We just recently went down to New Orleans and they got nothing going yet, not in our neighborhood. So we’re going to be here for a while.”

The residents of Mount Olive Gardens and the even larger trailer camp at Renaissance Village in nearby Baker, La., face challenges that seem almost insurmountable. Even minimum-wage jobs are very difficult to find and difficult to get to because there is little public transportation. Many of the residents are elderly, or disabled, or illiterate. Some are mentally handicapped.

These are encampments of profound stress and sadness.

As I was telling Geraldine and Danielle Craig goodbye, and wishing them the best for the coming holidays, Danielle shyly handed me a photograph of her daughter. At the top was written, “Miracle Breyonne Craig.” At the bottom: “Sunrise: 3-19-05. Sunset: 3-10-06.”

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