I recently attended a meeting of the National Performance Network (NPN) at the headquarters in New Orleans. With 60 partners across the US (PICA is one) we meet several times a year, each time in a different city. For logistical reasons, it was a difficult decision for the NPN staff to hold the annual board meeting in New Orleans, but it gave us a chance to see the post-hurricane damage first hand, and get an inside look at how the arts community is working to rebuild.
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“the bath tub ring”
I arrived around 8 pm, and everything at the airport was closed, including the airport shuttle. It took quite a while to find a taxi, and the driver told me her evacuation story on the drive in, stopping to pick up her friend, a construction worker staying at a hotel on the edge of town, who needed her help in finding an open restaurant. As we got close to the city, she pointed out the “bathtub ring” -a black line running about 4-6 feet high on all the buildings, where the water sat for up to three weeks.
Where we were staying, near the French Quarter, windows were still blown out and street signs knocked down, but since it hadn’t flooded there, the physical damage was minimal. With over half of the population still living elsewhere, it felt a bit like a ghost town, but the businesses that were open were hopping with St Joseph’s Day crowds. The annual parade featured dance teams, courts of grade-school princesses and papier-mache caricatures of famous Italian-Americans, from Mario Batali to Tony Danza. If you only saw the French Quarter, you might think things are getting back to normal.
On our last day, the NPN staff drove us around several neighborhoods, one worse than the next. In the more affluent areas, we saw some work crews and occupied houses, maybe a window out here and there, or a roof being replaced. But the poor neighborhoods, which were the hardest hit by the floods, were devastated beyond description. Entire neighborhoods were vacant, crushed, destroyed, with debris still littering the streets. As we drove into the 9th Ward, the “bathtub ring” had disappeared. The water had gone over the rooftops. Driving by house after house, street after street, the magnitude of the material and human damage was overwhelming.
It was also clear that the bulk of the damage was not storm-made, but man-made. If the levees had been maintained properly-which was the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers – the city would not have flooded, and would be well recovered by now from the storm. As it is, survivors of Katrina have been left more or less to fend for themselves. Homeowners may eventually get money from insurance or FEMA, but there is no guarantee that city services like electricity, sewer or schools will be provided if they manage to rebuild. (At this point, only 20% of schools have reopened.) Renters are plain out of luck. Small church groups and charities have been the most effective in providing short-term relief, and there are teams of volunteers helping people one by one. But without a clear and well-funded national plan, the general consensus in New Orleans is that the rest of the country has forgtotten them.
NPN has found itself in the unique position of being one of the only fully intact arts organizations in New Orleans. With most of its funding coming from national sources, and a staff able to continue working from various locations around the country through a quickly organized “virtual office”, NPN seems very much business as usual from the outside. But a visit to their office tells a different story. Their original office itself, on the 6th floor of an office building just blocks away from the Convention Center, sustained little damage, but the building is closed and will likely be demolished. Their temporary office is an unoccupied wing of the Contemporary Art Center – the CAC’s staff was reduced to 7 from 25 since Katrina, and although it remains open, it is, like much of the city, eerily quiet.
NPN has been a leader in organizing the arts community, and they are working to make sure that artists have a voice at the table, and that progressive cultural policy is a high priority as the city’s future is planned. Arts and culture are a well-recognized part of the city’s identity and economy, but have always been grossly under-funded. Several national foundations have stepped in to provide direct support to arts organizations. There is talk of a WPA-like program, which would employ artists, and ideas about building affordable artists housing. Being a national organization, NPN also has a voice outside the region through its membership and funders, and is encouraging us to help them advocate for national funding to help solve this national problem.
If you want to help, NPN recommends that you write your congressperson to encourage them to support national funding for recovery efforts. If you are interested in donating, they recommend small, grassroots or faith-based charities. (Portland-based Mercy Corps is a good one.) And if you are interested in visitng or volunteering, please do. New Orleans needs every witness and every friend it can get.
- Erin Boberg Doughton, PICA