Sunday, December 17, 2006

BOB HERBERT: Out of Sight

Baker, La.

There are hundreds of children in the trailer camp that is run by FEMA and known as Renaissance Village, but they won’t be having much of a Christmas. They’re trapped here in a demoralizing, overcrowded environment with adults who are mostly broke, jobless and at the end of their emotional tethers. Many of the kids aren’t even going to school.

“This is a terrible environment for children,” said Anita Gentris, who lost everything in the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina and is living in one of the 200-square-foot travel trailers with her 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son. “My daughter is having bad dreams. And my son, he’s a very angry child right now. He cries. He throws things.

“I’m desperately trying to find permanent housing.”

The television cameras are mostly gone now, and the many thousands of people from the Gulf Coast whose lives were wrecked by Katrina in the summer of 2005 have slipped from the national consciousness. But like the city of New Orleans itself, most of them have yet to recover.

The enormity of the continuing tragedy is breathtaking. Thousands upon thousands of people are still suffering. And yet the way the poorest and most vulnerable victims have been treated so far by government officials at every level has been disgraceful.

More than a third of the 1,200 people in this sprawling camp are children. Only about half of the school-age youngsters are even registered for school; of those, roughly half actually go to school on any given day. The authorities can’t account for the rest.

A number of officials who asked not to be identified told me they are concerned that large numbers of children are remaining isolated at Renaissance Village, holed up in the trailers day in and day out, falling further and further behind educationally, and deteriorating emotionally.

Leah Baptiste, a caseworker from a local affiliate of Catholic Charities, said: “These trailers are small. They were only meant for traveling. And you’ve got families with three and four children cooped up in there seven days a week, 24 hours a day, with no privacy, no babysitter, no job, no money — there’s a lot of help they need. Some people have learned to adapt, but a lot are depressed.”

The most critical needs for the trailer camp population are housing and employment. Many of the adults at Renaissance Village were working before the storm but have been unable to find work since. Even the lowest-wage jobs in the Baton Rouge area are scarce, and without cars (in some cases, without money even for bus fare) it’s extremely difficult for Renaissance Village residents to get to them.

Beyond that, many of the residents have severe personal problems. “They are afraid,” said a woman who works closely with the population and asked not to be identified. “They’re embarrassed by their situation, humiliated. They don’t know what to do. Some cannot read or write, so when the government drops off these bureaucratic forms for them to fill out, it’s a waste of time.”

Nearly all of the residents are carrying scars from their initial ordeal. Many lost close relatives, and many came frighteningly close to dying themselves.

Candice Victor was about to give birth immediately after the storm and needed a Caesarean section. A stranger with a butcher knife offered to do it. “She was going to sterilize the knife by pouring lighter fluid on it and setting it on fire,” Ms. Victor said. Wiser heads prevailed, and the baby, a girl, was later successfully delivered.

The big story in the immediate aftermath of Katrina was the way the government failed to rush to the aid of people who were obviously in desperate trouble. What we’re witnessing now is an extended slow-motion replay of that initial failed response. Thousands of people remain in trouble, but instead of clinging to roofs and waving signs at TV cameras in helicopters flying overhead, they are suffering in silence, out of the sight of most Americans.

The government could have come up with a crash program to build housing and find or create jobs for the victims of Katrina. It could have ensured that all those hurt by the storm received whatever social services they needed, including mental health counseling and treatment. It could have begun to address the long-festering problems of race and poverty in this country.

The government could have done so much. But it didn’t.

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