Tuesday, February 28th (New Orleans) — Imagine if you were to be evicted from your home in 24 hours. How would you spend your day? Alisha Kenny decided to live a little and attend the final day of Mardi Gras parades. Not for herself. She’s doing it for her kids: Stanley, 5, and Ayana, two months. “I’m very scared,” said Alisha. “I have no idea where we’re going.”
But she knows where she’s been: six months ago, Hurricane Katrina ravaged her apartment. Since then, she’s lived in two different hotels, the last of which will evict her tomorrow, when Alisha’s rental assistance dries up from FEMA. She tells me she’s not interested in a handout, but rather a helping hand to buy her some time. She says she needs a couple more weeks of government-provided housing, and that an apartment will become available for her by the end of the month — one she can afford. She tells me she’ll probably have to “beg” the hotel tomorrow for just “one more day.” “It’s not our fault,” she pleads. “We didn’t make Katrina come.”
Half a year after Katrina, finding someone living day-to-day like Alisha is as easy as catching a small string of beads on the parade route. In fact, I was surrounded by “Alishas” on this day. And yet, up and down New Orleans’ signature thoroughfare, St. Charles Avenue, Katrina victims of all ages, all races, and all economic classes came together today for a common purpose: celebration. Some sought one, special, stuffed aminal. A few were lucky enough to haul in what is widely considered to be the most prized catch of all the Mardi Gras give-aways: the Zulu Krewe coconut. Alisha didn’t seem to care about the beads. She sought an intangible gift. “I didn’t want to break their joy. Tomorrow is something for me to worry about. I don’t want to show them that we’re down.”
You might say the New Orleans of today is a “Tale of Two Cities.” Festive in parts, and flattened in others. Hopeful at times, and hopeless at others. Unless you are the hardest of hearts, you can’t help but feel sorry for Alisha or for the police sergeant I met today, who lost everything to Katrina. He didn’t want his name used. “So many people are in the same situation. It’s hard to feel sorry for someone else. But every time I look around, there’s always someone else in worse shape than you,” the 28-year veteran told me.
Over the course of the last two weeks, I have tried on these very pages to capture the essence of New Orleans, just as I have on the television screen for the last six months. It’s been the most difficult challenge of my professional career. The damage seems endless. The optimism seems boundless. And the future, unknown.
After four previous trips to New Orleans to cover Katrina and its aftermath, I know that when I head home tomorrow, it will be difficult to leave the people and the memories behind. Well after take-off, the city reminds you not to forget, with the jarring sight of blue tarps on damaged homes as far as the sky will let you see. This mystical and alluring city tugs at my soul. I hope you will not forget. I am sure I cannot.
I have enjoyed sharing my thoughts with you over the last two weeks. If you have questions, please feel free to e-mail me: firstname.lastname@example.org.