Indifferent to Obama
Abandoned by their government, many residents of New Orleans have little optimism about the arrival
Jonny Trask is black, in his forties, American, and completely indifferent to Barack Obama.
"It doesn't make any difference to me," he says referring to the next president. "Or to most of the black people in New Orleans."
Trask, a former gang member who has served time both in the military and in prison ("Jail was nothing compared to the army"), was a resident of New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward three-and-a-half years ago, when Hurricane Katrina blew in from across the Gulf of Mexico and devastated the city, causing more than $80bn worth of damage.
Asked whether Obama's election victory represents, at the very least, an encouraging change of direction for the country, Trask nods half-heartedly. "Maybe," he says unconvincingly. "I would have been a lot more excited four years ago. But after the way we've been treated I just don't care. I know it sounds bad."
Jonny Trask's apathy towards Obama is felt by many in New Orleans who believe that the government abandoned the city - not only during the storm, but also in the years that followed. The same streets which were seen in living rooms across the world in August 2005 – flooded and hurricane-ravaged – remain today in a state of absolute disrepair. Miles and miles of overgrown grass cover what used to be bustling neighbourhoods. Gnarled trees, their branches uncut, give the impression that parts of the area are actually forested. The only indication that the Lower Ninth was ever populated by humans is the odd concrete block hiding in the long grass. The ragged foundations for buildings washed away in the storm.
"These were neighbourhoods with schools, shops and kids playing in the street," said one ex-resident of the area now living ten miles away. "Where did they all go?"
America will find out the answer to this question in March. That is when the Federal Emergency Management Agency's housing aid will be cut off. Since 2005 more than 100,000 New Orleans families, displaced by the hurricane, have been reliant on the housing aid to pay rent. These Katrina refugees can be found all over the South; in Louisiana, Texas, Mississippi, Florida and beyond. The plan was that while the government paid their rent, they would find new jobs. All the while new houses would be built for them in New Orleans.
However, as even the most fleeting visit to the Lower Ninth Ward reveals, new houses have not been built. And the majority of families receiving housing aid have not found work. In fact the Bush administration was stopped from cutting off housing aid during 2008 (the original plan) because, as a spokesman said at the time, "We recognized that some individuals needed more time."
In three months the contract will finally expire for good and thousands of families living in trailers, mobile-homes and low-income housing will be removed from their accommodation with nowhere to go. What will be the outcome?
"You tell me," said one local when asked. "People will be desperate. There'll be chaos. The crime rate will go up. There'll be murders, rapes. Chaos."
Chaos is the one thing that New Orleans doesn't need. Residents who lived through the events of August 2005 are still haunted by the horrors they witnessed.
"The worst part was the two weeks after the storm went away," said Trask. "There was a foul odour over the city - the smell of death over everything." The smell was the corpses and animal carcasses left to rot in their homes. The fact that New Orleans had no electricity for a fortnight meant that whatever food people had in their fridges also putrefied.
"That was some cold shit," concludes Trask. "They just left us there to die."
The original levees along the Industrial Canal collapsed almost immediately during the storm, due in part to inherent design flaws and in part to simply not being tall enough. They have since been replaced and heightened – but not by much. During Hurricane Gustav in September 2008, residents were terrified to see water was spilling over the top of the new levees and seeping through cracks. Hurricane Gustav was a rapidly weakening Category 2 hurricane by the time it hit New Orleans. Should a Category 3 (the same as Katrina) or higher make landfall in Louisiana locals believe the new levees will fail like the old ones.
When President Obama assumes his office there is at least one great American city that he has yet to earn the trust of. He must convince the disillusioned people of New Orleans that although the government has failed them before it will not happen again.