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Monday, April 23, 2007

Buras, LA: Final Thoughts

Here is a little more background on Buras, LA and some final thoughts about what I witnessed, heard about, and think it all means. Wikipedia has the following information on the town, I can't vouch for the accuracy of the article, but it includes Census data, and the figures sound about right:

Buras-Triumph is a census-designated place (CDP) in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, United States. The population was 3,358 at the 2000 census. On the peninsula, Buras has been located higher, with Triumph located southeast of Buras.

Buras-Triumph has become famous as the location where, on August 29, 2005, at 6:10 AM CDT, the eye of Hurricane Katrina, by far the costliest natural disaster (and one of the deadliest) ever to strike the United States, made its strongest landfall. However, the storm surge and high winds began on the previous day, August 28, 2005. During those 2 days, the area was obliterated as a result.

Read the full article
Buras, along with its neighboring communities, sits at about 17 feet below sea level. It is flanked on either side by levees that keep the Gulf of Mexico (west) and Mississippi River (east) at bay. Because of this location, it is always going to be prone to storms and the possibility of flooding. It's a temperate climate, and I'm told that fruit orchards were quite prevalent there before Katrina. Residents were able to feed themselves off what they grew on the land and caught from the sea.

The region's economy was based on entrepeneurial fishermen and big oil (we passed the compounds of both Halliburton and Chevron on our drive to Venice on Friday). We were told that residents could buy Oyster leases for $2 an acre from the State, but that the leases needed to be maintained in order to remain in force. With the destruction of boats and homes, many of the lease-holders have either lost or sold their stakes because they don't have the wherewithal to continue to cultivate the area. Oil rigs are supplanting oyster boats, and the entrepeneurial fishing culture that defined the area is being lost as a result.

The governmnet is organized on a Parish-wide level, the equivalent of the county government system here in Illinois. I don't know if there is a more local body that governs Buras, but it doesn't appear so. Because the Upper Parish escaped the scale of devastation wrought in the south, and its population was not displaced to the same degree, it has a much stronger voice on the Parish council. Because of this, relief funding and services are not being distributed in an equal manner, at least in the eyes of the locals in Buras. There is also resentment toward New Orleans as it has a much higher public profile, and residents believe it's getting the vast majority of the State funding.

I don't know what the infrastructure was like in Buras before Katrina, but I'm told they had the services that the community needed. That is certainly not the case now, as residents have to drive an hour away for groceries and medical care. There is a clinic nearby, but a resident said it is poorly staffed and she didn't trust it to administer something as simple as a flu shot. A few small businesses have re-opened and it's possible to buy a few things there. Emergency Communities (EC) also runs a distribution center that supplies locals with canned goods and other essentials, but that's dependent on weekly charitable deliveries that won't last forever.

There is also a great need for mental health services in the area. Residents are definitely feeling the pressure associated with the vast destruction that took place and the work involved with trying to rebuild lives. EC tries to provide a space to relieve some of the stress, but I don't think many take advantage. The ability to meet at EC over a meal and talk to each other and the volunteers helps. There's a great need to communicate to the outside world what happened in Buras, and the more chances locals have to converse the more healing will take place. I think we as humans can best make sense of the world through story-telling and shared experience, and that's one thing that the EC complex does offer residents, especially as sympathetic and curious volunteers from across the country pass through it.

I get the sense that the people of Buras prided themselves on their self-sufficiency and independent lifestyles. They were able to find a niche for themselves in this part of the world, and they thrived in it quite nicely. That independence proved a double edged sword in the face of such a disaster, as there was no infrastructure to deal with the crises they faced after the storm and no social safety net to provide for their needs when thrown into a situation where they could no longer rely on personal strength alone.

The federal and local governments have certainly not stepped into the breach. One consistent complaint among all the residents we talked to was the ineptness and inadequacy of the support they've received from all the official agencies. With the lack of aid as well as the insufficient insurance reimbursements, residents find themselves in a Catch 22 -- they need to go back to work in order to get the money to rebuild, but when they return to work they don't have sufficient time to devote to the reconstruction. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that FEMA is threatening to take away the trailers that provide temporary shelter during the gutting and renovation.

What next? Some will question the wisdom of rebuilding in that part of the world, where another storm could undo any reconstruction. Many of the displaced residents themselves won't want to return to Buras, having started new, possibly more secure lives elsewhere. From what we were told, only about 10% have returned to rebuild so far. There's no question in my mind that the residents deserve our support as they recover from this disaster and try to begin anew. I do think that there are lessons to be learned and changes that will need to be made to prepare for and prevent future loss of life and property. There's no way to foresee and prevent a future disaster, but there are ways to mitigate the affects of a storm.

The situation reiterated one particular point in my mind -- the need for strong, involved, interconnected and interdependent communities. As much as we as a society like to promote the idea of extreme individualism, self-reliance, and a Do-It-Yourself ethos, it is a paradigm that only works under ideal circumstances. The reality is that we will always experience crises on a personal and communal level, and the only way to survive them is by having a strong safety net that provides support for the worst off among us during the worst of times. It's the reason humans formed societies to begin with -- realizing that the best way to ensure individual survival is through cooperation and collaboration with others who have the same goals.

We are all our sisters' and brothers' keepers. It's a lesson taught by the sacred texts of most religions, but one that's been lost in the simplistic, moralistic preaching into which modern faith has devolved.
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