For the Good of the Gulf: UNC Law Winter/Spring Break Pro Bono Project

Monday, December 19, 2005

From Beirut to New Orleans

We drove in from the east on I-10 at 11 PM, through the still deserted neighborhoods hit hardest by Katrina. There is no electricity, but the moon and halogen headlamps from passing cars cast enough light to expose what Katrina took and what she left behind. Blocks of apartment buildings raked open, walls demolished, every window broken. Cars covered with silt still parked in unnatural ways and places. Trash, trees and boats scattered about. Roofs partially or completely missing. But it was what wasn’t there was the most evocative - energy, life, people, movement. When you are looking at emptiness, you can’t help but feel empty yourself.

As we drove further on, we found life and energy. In the places where the flood water took and left a little less, people have returned. Ruined sheetrock, flooring and appliances are piled on the street next to the cardboard boxes that once contained their replacements. Lights are on inside houses and houses that are dark have lit FEMA trailers. All sorts of signs grow in the medians and sidewalks advertising home repair, home purchasing and gymnastics.

This comparison can only go so far, but New Orleans reminds me of Beirut. I traveled there in 1998 shortly after the travel ban had been lifted. The city, which had been the financial center of the middle east, was still recovering from its near utter destruction during the civil war of the preceding decade. Skeletons of once proud buildings stood shaking naked, crumbling and exposed. The Braille of bullet holes painted everything. Beyond the sheer numbers of rounds that must have been fired, the most stunning thing was that they have left their mark on every level of the city. From the top of a six story building on down to the cornerstone- not a square foot without one bullet hole or twenty. It’s what hate looks like. You could not help but look at the building and feel empty and scared.

But in the midst of this skeleton graveyard was progress and hope. Wrecking balls crushed pock marked walls and surveyors peered through their instruments at their visions: new buildings, unblemished polished glass, offices, stores and people. Bustling happy people filling the street, swinging their bags, looking forward. You could not help but look and feel hopeful.

Katrina was not willed by ethnic and religious animosity and she never fired a bullet. There is no civil war in New Orleans. But there is emptiness and there is hope. And perhaps more importantly, she exposed the little silent unintentional wars that we wage and the chasms that we pretend are not there, or at least, not as large as they really are.


  • So proud of you all and enjoy reading the blogs.

    By Anonymous marystand, at 4:41 PM  

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