After five years of clawing, fighting and working to rebuild our lives, much work still needs to be done to bring back the city that I call home. I wish that I could say that life in the Big Easy is getting easier, but for many of us, it isn’t.
I have spent the last 30 years living in a section of the city called New Orleans East. My parents moved here from the now world-renowned Lower Ninth Ward. At that time, my siblings and I thought we had died and gone to heaven. Here we found new homes, quality schools, vibrant shopping venues and a future that was full of possibilities.
True enough, many things needed to be improved even before August 29, 2005. But never in my wildest imagination did I believe it would take this long to get back up to our knees, let alone our feet.
What a Difference a Storm Makes
Many institutions were severely damaged by the storm. No better example exists than my alma mater, Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO).
SUNO is a Historically Black College/University (HBCU) that is home to nearly 4,000 students who yearn to achieve upward mobility and are pursuing the American dream. As both a graduate and an administrator on the campus, I know firsthand of the destruction. The campus was flooded by 8 feet of water, which closed the institution for an entire semester. Many in the state of Louisiana believed that Hurricane Katrina would be the end of SUNO. However, they underestimated the resolve of my Alma Mater.
In January 2006, SUNO returned home and registered nearly 2,000 students in the dining hall of a local church pastored by a SUNO alum. Classes were held at a middle school, while FEMA constructed a temporary trailer campus for our institution.
(For stories of other residents struggling to rebuild in New Orleans, visit the “Tavis Smiley Reports” web site.)
Faculty and students shared living space at the Marriott Hotel and subsequently moved to 400 temporary housing trailers adjacent to the temporary campus. The students, faculty and staff of SUNO stand as a testament of what it means to be a trouper. While, five years later, the temporary classrooms remain, so too does the fighting spirit of SUNO. The snail’s pace of the recovery of our institution mirrors the condition of many of our residential neighborhoods.
The Tale of Two Cities
Six months ago, my wife and I gave birth to a bouncing baby boy. While this was one of the happiest days of my life, it was bittersweet. Why? Because we drove 30 minutes to get to a hospital when there used to be one 3 minutes away. Moreover, my mother spent 30 years at that hospital as a ward clerk. It now sits dormant as a relic of a time gone by.
As I drove from my home in New Orleans East to the hospital near the Central Business District (CBD), I realized that my city is actually two cities, and I had gone from one to the other — Online New Orleans to Offline New Orleans. While Online New Orleans is fully functional with all of the basic amenities of any modern city, Offline New Orleans is still struggling to get back to normal. Those of us who live in Offline New Orleans have to travel completely outside of Orleans Parish to purchase basic goods and services.
While much of the CBD is bustling with talk of new growth, hotels and restaurants returning to provide the hospitality that this city is known for, much of the city seems to be on an island. As a resident of eastern New Orleans, every day I watch hospitals lie dormant and healthcare needs continue to go unmet. I see parents and kids unsure of where their kids will be educated in the fall because there are too many students and not enough schools.
The Spirit of a Champion
We have survived the storm. What remains to be overcome is the paralysis of analysis that anyone, anywhere near this place realizes must be abandoned. What must be eliminated is this stagnated recovery, or lack thereof, that has a whole section of the city without meaningful access to basic services.
What we need, more than anything else, is for national outlets to invest in our city, particularly New Orleans East. While neighboring Chalmette was equally devastated, it now has all of the amenities that its neighbor to the east longs for. If New Orleans East were a city, it would be the fifth largest city in Louisiana. Surely we merit the presence of national retail outlets, quality schools and adequate health care facilities. Right about now, we would almost take national anything.
Like most New Orleanians, I am a diehard Saints fan. In fact, they first took the field at Tulane Stadium two months before I was born. For the next 40 years, they have been mired in the muck of mediocrity, until last season. With the help of Sean Payton, Drew Brees, Reggie Bush, Jonathan Vilma and Darren Sharper, our city was taken on a ride to the NFL’s Promised Land.
While the boys in Black and Gold have made us peacock proud by bringing a world title to the Crescent City, I — and most WhoDats in New Orleans East — would trade in the Super Bowl trophy in a heartbeat for a Super Wal-Mart, a first-class hospital and quality family entertainment and restaurants. That’s the least that the troupers of New Orleans East deserve. We need both industry titans and ordinary folks to partner with our community to make this great city great again.
As I recently watched a group of gospel superstars come together to deliver a stirring anthem for the devastated people of Haiti, they asked the question, “Is there anybody out there listening?” I don’t think that Kirk Franklin and Yolanda Adams would mind if I borrowed their hook for just a minute.
To all who are listening, please hear this. Take a chance on New Orleans East and invest in the most unique city in America. We chose to come back home and we’re here to stay. New Orleans needs New Orleans East to come back bigger and stronger than ever before.
As I reflect on the past five years, I have come to the realization that the spirit of New Orleans is one grounded in a resolve that will not die. We are storm troupers. Not to be confused with the storm troopers that were specialized German soldiers during World War I, a storm trouper is someone who perseveres in the face of difficulty or hardship; someone who keeps going when logic would suggest that they should throw in the towel.
We recognize the hardships we face, yet we have chosen to rise above it. We represent the best that this city has to offer and are focused on the promise of today and not the problems of yesterday. While we understand how far we still have to go, we appreciate how far we have come. We are troupers in every sense of the word. Always have been…always will be.
Attorney Wesley T. Bishop is an Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Southern University at New Orleans. He is a motivational speaker and author of the upcoming book entitled Come Out Swinging: A Blueprint to Becoming Your Best.
Tune in Wednesday, July 21, at 8/7c for Tavis Smiley Reports “New Orleans: Been in the Storm Too Long.”