This week my Louisiana family will be giving thanks to all the Americans who opened their hearts, their homes and their wallets to help the hundreds of thousands of citizens who fled the wrath of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. We will always be grateful for that generous outpouring of the American spirit.
Yet for all our blessings, we are dismayed to hear news from Washington about Katrina fatigue in Congress and the decision by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to disband its emergency-housing program on Dec. 1 for those still scattered to the four winds. Members of Congress appear to be tired of hearing about the needs of evacuees, the lives lost and the vestiges of formerly thriving communities along the devastated Gulf Coast. Legislators are beginning to turn their attention elsewhere, while hurricane exiles wait for a sign that it is safe to go home again. But we are all suffering from Katrina fatigue. Everyone in my family and my hometown of New Orleans is living it.
My roots in Louisiana go back generations. Growing up in New Orleans, listening to people converse and watching them interact are what formed me. During his retirement, my father Lionel, a former construction worker turned short-order cook and janitor, would sit on his front porch on the corner of South Jefferson Davis Parkway and Baudin Street in the midcity section of New Orleans. There he could watch people leave early for work and children play across the street at Comiskey Playground. He greeted everyone who passed by. "Where ya at?" or "What's going on?" he would ask.
He loved his neighbors. Today, in Katrina-imposed exile, he misses his old community. The 75-year-old father of nine has left New Orleans only two times in his life. The first was to serve his country in Korea. The second was when FEMA evacuated him to San Antonio, Texas, during the catastrophic flood that followed Katrina. As he jokes to his friends, both times the government picked up the tab. Now he waits daily for FEMA to give him hope as our family members try to rebuild and reconnect with our roots.
The Thanksgiving holiday has taken on new meaning for my family and me. Gone is our tradition of gathering at my parents' home, where we cooked everything in the refrigerator, turning out mouthwatering dishes like Creole seafood gumbo, stuffed bell peppers and oyster dressing. Although my grandmothers and mother passed away years ago, their spirits continued to preside over the preparation of holiday feasts. Their pots, pans and humble cooking utensils were precious symbols of their legacies as our family matriarchs. Their love was profoundly expressed through the rich, spicy delicacies delivered to all who came to visit during the holidays. Sadly, their kitchens and the dinners that graced them are no more. All the tangible memorabilia that represented our family's history perished in the flood, including my mother's beloved big gumbo pot.
The disaster has provided us with a deep appreciation for the fact that, despite all challenges, my family will never surrender. Katrina has left us strewn across the U.S. I have displaced siblings, aunts, uncles and first cousins in 14 cities in eight states. But they are survivors. They are battered, and they are exhausted, but for the most part they are determined to go home. We will never walk away from our hometown.