On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall on my beloved hometown of New Orleans. I was living in New York at the time and my parents were thankfully on vacation, out of the city. We waited for weeks to be able to return, to see the damage the hurricane had done, to see what was left of the house I had grown up in.
In September of that year, my mom and I landed in New Orleans amidst a sea of rescue workers and rebuilders, good Samaritans eager to spare a weekend or a few weeks in the cause to rebuild a city that would take years to recover. Our house was considered lucky. It hadn’t fallen victim to levee breakage or wind and rain succeeding in pummeling the roof and causing it to collapse. Instead, a city worker hadn’t turned on the pumps that would pump the water out of the manmade canals in our area, and those had overflowed. A few inches of water had turned to mold which spread in the month before we were allowed back in to New Orleans, which meant tearing down dry wall, ripping out all of the carpet and flooring, and throwing away everything on the first floor before we could start rebuilding.
It became a grueling few weeks of manual labor, complete with masks and gloves to protect against our breathing in the mold. I’d wait in the drive through of some one-off chicken restaurant for two hours every day to buy chicken tenders, our only food option. We’d throw out couches and carpet and dishes every day, and every night we’d listen as trucks filled with families came by to rummage through our trash pile.
We had no electricity, no hot water, our cars had flooded in the garage beyond use, and we couldn’t breathe fresh air anywhere we turned. And yet, every night we could eat our chicken tenders, take a shower, and fall asleep on solid beds. Mementos of the life we had built in that house were intact—all of our albums and videos had been safely kept, sandwiched from the elements in a closet between the attic and the ground floor. And, most importantly, everyone we knew was accounted for.
Over the next few weeks, I watched as New Orleans literally became a tale of two cities. Yes, mold sucks as does cataloguing your life’s possessions for the insurance company or trying to find someone, in a labor-starved neighborhood, to fix your pipes or help you tow your car out of the garage. But a few miles away, law enforcement was going from house to house, marking an X on any house whose inhabitants had fallen victim to the flooding and searching for bodies for weeks. A few miles away, people were lined up for hours for clean water and sandwiches. A few miles away, the Superdome had turned into a makeshift shelter with thousands of people crammed in and by some accounts, subjected to unthinkable atrocities.
I learned a lesson in city planning that I didn’t know until then—that the lowest lying areas of New Orleans, most threatened by natural disasters, were also the areas where the city’s poorest families lived. Families without insurance, without savings, without transportation, without a means of getting back to New Orleans after they’d followed mandatory evacuation orders. The neighborhood of my childhood suffered too—people were older, tired, scared of a recurrence, wondering if rebuilding was worth it. But the point is, they could if they wanted to. They had insurance; they had savings; they had options. My neighbors didn’t wear the looks of the adults I saw at night, shifting through our trash pile. That scared, desperate, hungry look—the look of those on the brink of doing something not so smart in order to feed their children, in order to survive.
I think of New Orleans often as we near the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. There are still X’s on some of those homes, homes that have remained unoccupied for years. As a city, we have failed a large percentage of our residents. And I think of New Orleans often as I think about Nuru and what we are accomplishing halfway around the world, through our Agriculture and Financial Inclusion impact programs. Not because I’m engaging in the debate of domestic poverty versus poverty in developing economies, but because I’ve seen firsthand some of the truths we know and share at Nuru. Hunger is a powerful motivator to behave rashly. A person’s ability to cope with economic shock is key to building long term self-sustainability. And, desperate people make desperate decisions.