In New Orleans, Kindness Trumped Chaos: Lessons of dedication, solidarity, love, and recovery, five years after Katrina.
by Rebecca Solnit
The taxi driver called me "girlfriend" and "sweetheart" with the familiar sweetness of New Orleanians, so I figured I could ask a few personal questions. He was from the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the neighborhoods inundated by Katrina--a mostly poor, mostly black edge of the city isolated and imperiled by two manmade canals--and it had taken him three and a half years to return to New Orleans. He still wasn't in his neighborhood, but he was back in the city, and his family was back, and they were determined to come back all the way.
What happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is more remarkable than almost anyone has told. More than a million volunteers came to New Orleans to gut houses, rebuild, and stand in solidarity with the people who endured not just a hurricane but a deluge of Bush Administration incompetence and institutionalized racism at all levels of government, which temporarily turned the drowned city into a prison. Supplies were not allowed in by a panicky government; people were not allowed out, and a wholly unnatural crisis ensued.
Even so, an astounding wave of solidarity and empathy arose. At Hurricanehousing.org more than 200,000 people volunteered to shelter evacuees, often in their own homes. And then there were those legions of volunteers, many of them white, working in a city that had been two-thirds black.
I have again and again met passionate young activists who intended to come for a week or a month and never left. In the Lower Ninth, my taxi driver's neighborhood, things looked better than even six months before. Brad Pitt's Make It Right Foundation now has dozens of solar-powered homes, built on stilts for the next inundation, scattered across the lowlands of the neighborhood. New businesses have opened on St. Claude Avenue, the main thoroughfare, and children play in the once-abandoned streets.
It's hard to say that there is a recipe for solidarity across race and class lines. During crises, the official reaction from government and media is often widespread fear--based on a belief that in the absence of institutional authority people revert to Hobbesian selfishness and violence, or just feckless conduct. Scholars Lee Clarke and Karon Chess call this fear of the public, particularly the poor and nonwhite public, "elite panic." Because these "elites" shape reaction as well as opinion, their beliefs can be deadly.
But the truth is that most people are altruistic, resourceful, and constructive during crisis. A disaster is actually threatening to elites, not because the response is selfish but because it often unfolds like a revolution, in which the status quo has evaporated.
Civil society improvises its own systems of survival--community kitchens, clinics, neighborhood councils, and networks of volunteers and survivors--often decentralized and deeply empowering for the individuals involved. What gets called recovery can constitute the counter-revolution--the taking back of power.
Perhaps the biggest question for a disaster like Katrina is to what extent this transformed sense of self and society lasts and matters: Can it be a foundation for a stronger civil society, more solidarity, and grassroots power? It has been so in many ways in New Orleans, with groups like the Common Ground Clinic--a free health clinic that was started days after the hurricane and is still going strong five years later.
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