When will the tragedy end?

Here in Portland, many miles from the city of New Orleans, 100 or more evacuees from hurricanes Katrina and Rita have lost a vital piece of public assistance. Catholic Charities says it has exhausted all of its $350,000 in hurricane relief funds, ending what has been described as “Portland’s longest-running large-scale program” to help evacuees resettle in our community.

This is yet another reminder, if indeed you need one, that a great American tragedy is still unfolding, with no apparent end in sight. The two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is almost upon us. Soon media will descend upon New Orleans to report on the progress, or lack thereof. Some reporters will go looking for hopeful signs of recovery and find them. Others will bear witness to the thousands of still-empty and forlorn homes and commercial centers that cover wide swaths of the city. And they will ask incredulously why so little has changed two years removed from what the locals call The Storm.

Like thousands who have volunteered to help in New Orleans, I got up close and personal early this year with the physical and emotional devastation caused by the flooding. I was part of a volunteer crew that gutted homes for a week under the coordination of Medical Teams International. I interviewed homeowners and others while I was there. Our team coordinator Alex, a 37-year-old life-long resident of New Orleans, lost three friends to suicide in the course of three weeks in November and December 2006.

“Two were specifically related to the situation with their home and not to be able to get any headway, and basically living in cars. One of the guys actually hung himself at his house. The other guy shot himself. The third guy crashed his car.” A fourth friend killed himself with alcohol and pills just a couple weeks before we arrived. Same age as Alex, this guy had given him his first job in banking. Alex evolved that position into a lucrative financial career. Then the storm changed everything for everyone.

I have seen or read nothing that makes me believe the situation is vastly improved from what we saw back in January. My ears still ring with the words of Lee Eagan, an affluent local business owner whose family roots extend back hundreds of years in New Orleans. His home was spared by the flood, but hardly his emotions.

“I stand on my front porch. Two blocks from my house the water stopped. If I looked north from my house eight miles to the lake, everything flooded. If I look to the east, out this way, 23 miles, everything flooded. Now you do the math and you figure out how much geography, how many houses, how many people, how many photographs, how many wedding dresses were lost. And then you add it all up and you come up with one word: depression.”

It makes me wonder how those evacuees who had depended upon the generosity of Catholic Charities in Portland are feeling today.

July 26th, 2007

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