The Fight For Home
In 'The Fight for Home,' Daniel Wolf lets Katrina survivors tell their stories in their own words, and the result is revelatory.
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Wolff keeps the reader updated on all the key facts and relevant statistics throughout. Unfortunately there’s not a whole heck of a lot to be proud of in the first year or two following the disaster. Some 73,000 toxic FEMA trailers housed people in appalling, sardine-like conditions. Nearly 90% of the public schools were damaged and shuttered, many never to reopen. Money from insurance companies failed to materialize because insurers declared that damages were due to high winds and mold rather than flooding. A federal relief program called “Road Home” was responsible for distributing as much as $150,000 per home to 124,000 applicants.Skip to next paragraph
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After one year, not one check had been issued, and within that same year, the $150,000 payout had been reduced by two-thirds. Fraud, waste and abuse were rampant: “….the blue plastic that dots many neighborhoods was nailed up at an average rate of $1,200 an hour.” Even the local governments contracted to out-of-state removal and construction companies, so jobs were not nearly as plentiful as they should have been. But most ominous of all, residents were not returning to their homes, leaving many in the Lower Ninth Ward to believe that New Orleans would become a predominately white, boutique city.
But by 2011 New Orleans was coming back, still a gumbo, still predominantly African American, albeit five percent below its pre-Katrina numbers. Its 345,000 inhabitants represented just three-quarters of its pre-flood population, but at least the FEMA trailers were gone, and people were back and living in their homes.
So the question “Are they better off than before the floods?” begs an answer. For Carolyn, that answer is a resounding “Yesss!” But for many others, the jury is still out. Too many public schools are still closed. There are 9,000 homeless in New Orleans, the most of any city in America, and a quarter of the city is living below the poverty line. Nearly 72,000 homes remain vacant, ruined, or unoccupied. At least Road Home awarded some $8 billion to 124,000 homeowners. “Not smart growth; smart decline,” aver the city planners. But the Louisiana Speaker of House recently commented, “I’m fearful that we’ll end up being like Detroit.”
"The Fight For Home" is probably better suited for the documentary film, pictures, in this case, being more informative than words on a page. Yet to read the words of those living through the devastation is powerful and revelatory, and Wolff doesn’t let us miss an “er” or an “um”. As Malik points out in a final visit to a reconstruction site teeming with young, white college volunteers, “.…it’s the first time since Reconstruction that a large white presence has been in the black community ‘for anything other than oppression and exploitation.’”
Stay tuned. There’re more post-Katrina stories still to come.
Richard Horan is a novelist and the author of "Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees that Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton." His latest work, "Harvest: An Adventure into the Heart of America’s Family Farms," is due out this fall from Harper Collins.