new orleans 2010

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    NEW ORLEANS NATIVE MARTHA DANIELSand her seven adult children have never been ones tomake a habit of fighting the power. Most are educators.All have lived unassuming lives, raising their familiesand quietly working within the system.

    But theres something about coming face-to-face withthe worst of natureand human naturethat will stokea fire, even in the most docile types.

    The entire family lost virtually everything in 2005when the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history flood-ed 80 percent of the city that they call home. Daniels andfive of her children have since returned to New Orleans(one is in Houston, the other is in Los Angeles). Startingfrom scratch, looking to rebuild their lives, hoping toheal deep wounds.

    Their story is one of pain, perseverance and purpose,borne out of the wrath of Hurricane Katrina, and onethat, probability predicts, bears witness about onceevery century.

    Odds are better that it could take that long beforeDaniels and her children who returnedCynthia Phipps,Gwen Payne, Geri Davis, Marcus Green and HarriettaReed (and Reeds daughter Rhonda)are able give acomplete testimony of their experience. At least withoutinviting back a flood of emotions as deep as the stormsurge that submerged their homes in and around theNinth Ward in eight feet of water.

    As they sit around a nondescript kitchen table, eachrecounts, in fits and starts, how Katrina affected themmost. Woven together, their stories run lifes continuumand counter to the coverage that mainstream media hasgiven to the plight of Black storm victims.

    Contrary to popular belief, most Blacks in NewOrleansincluding the Daniels familywere neverlooking for a handout. But after what they have gone through, youd best believe that theyre nowdetermined to get a fair shake.

    Each journeys back with the realization that they arethe fortunate ones. Some they knew never made it out ofthe Crescent City. Others never returned. But on theroad to recovery, destination can turn one persons bless-ing into anothers calling.


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    70 EBONY l MARCH 2010 MARCH 2010 l EBONY 71

    Although it has been nearly five years since Hurricane Katrina, communities have not totally returned and homes are still being rebuilt.

  • 72 EBONY l MARCH 2010 MARCH 2010 l EBONY 73

    I WASNT A CHARITY CASEThe date: August 28, 2005. Katrina was gathering strength in the Gulf of

    Mexico. Daniels and her family were along various points on the evacuationroute with enough clothes to last a few days. They had planned to meetup in Houston, about 350 miles west along I-10.

    What they hadnt planned on was being there for the better part of a year. Not being able to return to New Orleans after the storm, the family

    bounced around from hotel to hotel, finally moving into an apartmentcomplex when it was confirmed that all of their homes were submerged ineight feet of water.

    Rhonda Reed calls their time in Houston a living hell. What hurts hermost, even to this day, was the way her family was treated, especially byBlacks in Houston. Reed compares it to the vast exodus to the Northafter slavery, and the terrible treatment that slaves endured by other Blackswho were already there, she says. We were told by some Blacks inHouston that we didnt know our place, that they didnt want us there.We were treated worse by our own people than any other race in Houston.It was horrific.

    As hard as it was for her, the 37-year-old schoolteacher believes that itwas worse for her three children, who were taunted almost on a daily basis.Children were throwing bottles at our children when they got off thebus. They would tell my children that New Orleans was under water, andthen they would laugh. They called my children refugees.

    Reed said that it was an emotional roller coaster. I cried every day, shesays. I was upset every day. I was praying every day. I dont think I prayedso much in all my life.

    The looks. The insinuations. The whispers. At times, it was too muchto take. I wasnt a charity case. I lost my home because of somethingthat I had nothing to do with. It was not my fault that Katrina happened,but no one cared, Rhonda Reed says. It had gotten so bad in Houstonthat one day a Hispanic person told me that I needed to go back to whereI came from. Thats when I knew that had to do my level best to get out of Houston.

    left | Martha Daniels, mother of seven children, holds a picture of her late husband,William Daniels, who died before the family returned home to Louisiana.

    right | Daniels daughter Cynthia Phipps shows some pictures of the water damagethat resulted after the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina.

    I wasnt aCHARITY CASE.I lost my home because of somethingthat I had nothing to do with.NOONECARED.It was not my fault that Katrina happened,but

  • 74 EBONY l MARCH 2010 MARCH 2010 l EBONY 75

    left. It was like I was thinking that if I go into denialand I dont talkabout it and I dont do anythingit would be OK, eventually it was goingto be all right. I was hoping that somebody was going to say, No, it wasntas bad as I thought it was. But that never happened.

    Your survival skills kick in, says Gwen Payne, moving her sisters storyforward from one of shock to one of endurance. When the Red Crosstruck came by and we would hear that bell, wed get happy, just like kidsrunning behind an ice cream truck. Sometimes, by the time they got to you, they only had rice and sausage left. I would say, OK, give me therice and sausage.

    It was during that tough time that someone gave Payne, also a school-teacher, the book Who Moved My Cheese? by Spencer Johnson. It had aprofound impact on me. It was a book that talked about how sometimeswe get so comfortable with our living status that we take things for grantedand think things are going to always be there, says Payne, who recalls thattwo days before Katrina hit, she had the time of her life with her son at a taping of the TV game show x at the New Orleans Convention Center.You never think that something of that magnitude could happen andwould happen and change your whole life the way Katrina affected ourlives.

    THIS IS NOT AN EXPERIMENTIn many ways, what frustrated the family the most in the initial days

    after they returned to New Orleans was their inability to really do for self. The first thing Paynes sister Geri Davis did when she returned to NewOrleans was attempt to get back her job as an assistant principal. But theywouldnt hire any of us, she says. My school went from [being a] publicschool to [being a] charter school. They were turning all of the schools intocharter schools and hiring people (mostly White) from outside of NewOrleans as teachers and administrators.

    Davis eventually moved to Chicago to accept an assistant principal job.She lived there for a year, using her salary to rebuild her home in NewOrleans. She calls it shameful that city officials seem to be using recoveryfunds to pay outsiders to show them the right way to rebuild. It was anotion even put forth by President Barack Obama during his visit to theMartin Luther King Jr. charter school in New Orleans late last year. I loveBarack Obama, but it really hurt me when he said that New Orleans schoolswere bad before Katrina, Davis says. Hes pushing charter schools . . . butthe people running these charter schools dont care about our kids.

    Davis says that the large number of Mexican immigrants working construction jobs during the recovery has also had an impact on the schoolsystem. They came in and brought their entire families, Davis says.While the dads were out doing the rebuilding, we were forced to educatetheir children. As a result, the city brought in teachers [who] werent certified but could speak Spanish.

    Test scores in New Orleans reportedly are up since the city began its move toward charter schools, but Davis wonders what will happen tostudents once the recovery money dries up. They are not worried aboutteaching our children, she says. They are in it for the money. They needto stop the madness. These are our kids. This is not an experiment.

    According to Marcus Green, Davis brother, The pre-Katrina days inNew Orleans werent that great. But being a testing ground for everyurban renewal project imaginable is not so great, either. Since Katrina, so

    WHO MOVED MY CHEESE?But making it back home after the floodwaters had receded turned out

    to be the easiest part of the familys ordeal, recalls Cynthia Phipps, Reedsaunt, as she continued where her niece left off. Awaiting them back in NewOrleans was a witchs brew of decay and rot that continues to haunt Phipps so much that, I havent really talked about it. What I found whenI returned home was so devastating to me.

    First, it was the smell. God, I cant even describe it, says Phipps, whohad lived in her house for 26 years. It just penetrated you. It went in yournose, went in your throat. It was spoiled food, rotting wood. It was just awhole mixture of stuff. Its a smell that I will never forget.

    Then, it was the sound. I had never witnessed silence like that before,Phipps says. You didnt hear a bird. You didnt hear a dog. You didnt heara cat. You didnt hear anything.

    Nothing looked the same. The mildew had gone up the wall, she says.It was black and thick. I had never seen anything like it before. This was toxic mildew.

    Nothing felt the same. Everything you touched