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Berkeleyan

Opinion
Katrina is not over!

29 August 2007

Two years ago, Berkeley hosted 77 college students who had been displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Through my work on this project, I developed an interest in the disaster that carried over long after the students had returned to New Orleans. I made a point of tuning in to all the post-Katrina stories of recovery in the media to keep myself informed.

Last month I went to New Orleans to visit family and to see, first-hand, the wrath of Katrina. I learned very quickly that I really had no clue what was going on . more specifically, not going on . in that region. Before we even hit the city limits, evidence of the destruction could be seen - acres of toppled trees dotted the landscape. As we got closer to civilization, we realized there was no civilization, only chilling reminders of a lost city - the sign to Six Flags blown out in pieces; boarded-up hotels, restaurants, apartment buildings, and entire commercial strips lined the interstate. An exit ramp stood blocked by concrete barricades, as if to say there's nothing left here, don't even bother stopping.

I didn't expect to see anything left of the Ninth Ward, and indeed, that's what I found. But what I didn't realize, and what the media have really failed to capture, is that it's not just the Ninth Ward that's gone. Neighborhood after neighborhood - St. Bernard Parish, Mid-City, Lakeview, Gentilly - is still vacant. Almost every house has a giant bathtub ring around it, and many still carry the haunting, spraypainted X's that mark the number of dead inside and the date of the search.

Even the middle-class and wealthy neighborhoods haven't really come back. I'd assumed that people with resources could make things better; I was wrong. Some houses had been repaired, but even many of those stood vacant or for sale. There are no jobs to come back to, no schools for the kids. Even the mundane tasks of life are complicated. In most neighborhoods there are no grocery stores, no pharmacies, no ATMs or dry cleaners. New Orleanians also lack basic access to health care, with only one of the city's seven general hospitals fully operational some two years later, and only 40 psychiatric beds left for an entire city grappling with the effects of post-traumatic stress.

As I took all this in, I kept asking myself, why didn't I know this? Why aren't we hearing about this on the news every night? After confirming with my own eyes the utter abandonment of a city by its government, I vowed to come home and bear witness to all I'd seen . . . to ask my leaders how this could happen in America . and to shame them into doing something for these people. I also vowed to do more to prepare myself and my family for such a disaster and to get involved and stay involved with some of the great work being done by ordinary citizens for Katrina victims.

Fortunately, I work at UC Berkeley, where there are literally hundreds of people who continue to be involved in the recovery effort. Our own Bob Bea, a professor of civil engineering, has been speaking truth to power by publicly outing the Army Corps of Engineers for their faulty levee designs. Charles Underwood, executive director of UC Links, has been taking teams of Berkeley staff and students to create after-school and out-of-school programs for children living in Renaissance Village, the FEMA trailer park for families displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. At Boalt, Professor Dan Farber and 12 of his law students will travel to New Orleans this fall as part of the Boalt-in-New Orleans Partnership, a writing seminar designed to address the legal-research needs of the communities in and around New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.

There's more: This summer, through the Magnolia Project, 86 of our students volunteered three weeks of their summer break to assist in the rebuilding efforts. And for the past two years, more than 100 other students have taken rebuilding trips to the region including, alternative spring breaks through KARE (Katrina Awareness and Relief Effort), Cal Berkeley Habitat for Humanity, and Campus Crusade for Christ.

On Wednesday, Aug. 29, we will commemorate the two-year anniversary of Katrina's landfall with an evening of presentations by some of these individuals and others - from the campus and elsewhere - who've been engaged in the recovery efforts. If you'd like to learn more about what's really happening in the region and how you can get involved, join us for this event, sponsored by the Cal Corps Public Service Center. It will take place from 7 to 9 p.m. in 2050 Valley Life Sciences Building. For information, visit
students.berkeley.edu/osl/calcorps.asp?id=2342 or phone 643-8582.

Esther Gulli is executive administrative officer for the vice chancellor for student affairs.