Alex Epstein Recalls His Trip to Post-Katrina New Orleans

When he was 14, the organizer went to volunteer with his parents to help with the cleanup and was forever changed.
  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Epstein:    My name is Alex Epstein and I’m an organizer with the New York to New Orleans Coalition.

Question: What did you see in New Orleans that impacted you so deeply

Epstein: I guess I was expecting to go down, rebuild the few homes, complete a bunch of my community service hours, feel great about myself and then that would be it but I mean, clearly it meant a lot more to me than that and I think that what definitely got me invested in all of this and change my perception on the whole issue was the first day we went on a levee tour and the group that we are working with, they took us to three different levees of the city.  First we went to the French quarter and that’s like the business district of New Orleans.  It’s kind of like 42nd street, Time Square here and it’s the richest area of New Orleans and the widest area of New Orleans pretty much and we went there and we’re walking and I’m expecting to see a levee and we actually got up to the Mississippi River and we’re able to… the river was right in front of us and so I asked the person I said, “Where’s the levee?” and like “Oh, well you’ve been walking on it for 10 minutes.”  So, it’s kind of confusing in there because I was expecting a wall and they explained that you know, the whole thing was built back 300 yards and rose 70 feet from where the water level was and it was so big that it in itself was a tourist attraction, they built a hotel on top of it.  You know, so we’ve been on it for awhile and so you know, and during Katrina, the French quarter really didn’t get any flooding.  They got rain and wind damage but no overtopping of the levee and so they just really showed us how sophisticated those levees were and then they took us to this neighborhood called Lake View which did get some flooding from the South but this is the Northern most plain of New Orleans and it sits right on Lake Pontchartrain and we were walking and be get up to the lake and at first I thought it was like the Gulf of Mexico or the ocean because you can’t see to the other side, it’s so big.  And again, I said, “okay, so where’s the levee?”  He said, “You’ve been walking on it for the past 5 minutes.”  So, I was like here we go again.  And they explained that you know, the levee there was designed to have these steps that go down into the water about 20 steps and then there’s a whole big grassy area and a park and then there are couple of hills and the water is designed to go over all that and you know despite the fact that this neighborhood which is also extremely wealthy and extremely white.  Despite the fact that they’re right on this huge body of water, they didn’t get any flooding from Lake Pontchartrain.  They got some from behind and then they also got wind and rain damage but nothing from the lake.  So, that also showed you know, how sophisticated they were.  So, this plan thing like, “Okay, why am I even in New Orleans?  There’s nothing to do here.”  And then they took us to the Lower Ninth Ward and I could not believe my eyes at all.  Look as if a bomb had just gone off in that neighborhood.  This was still 9 months after a storm and I mean there wasn’t a single house standing.  I could not… I didn’t see a single house in its place.  That entire trip in the Ninth Ward and you know, we finally got up to where the levee was and I saw more of what I was expecting because they were in the process of rebuilding it at that time and it was 12 foot wall, you know, maybe a foot thick and they were in the process of rebuilding it and that’s what I’d expected but you know, and then I heard that the levees that were there pre-Katrina and for the past 40 years before that were maybe half as big and half as wide and not nearly strong enough to protect this neighborhood and you know, the Industrial Canal which lays right next to the Lower Ninth Ward should’ve not really ever been built there in the first place.  That was a… it was a manmade canal and so you know, after hearing a lot about this and seeing that Lower Ninth Ward was devastated this way, all the other neighborhoods were I started to think you know, why there’s such differences and why there’s such differences in the levees and then they told us, they explained that the Lower Ninth Ward was 98% African American.  They explained that it was the poorest area of the city and that… what’s even more interesting is that the blacks who lived and leaved in the Lower Ninth Ward, their ancestors built those homes 200 years ago.  Generations and generations ago because New Orleans set for slaves… set slaves free before anywhere else in the country, so slaves in the center of New Orleans who were set free moved East, settled in what’s now the Lower Ninth Ward which was a swamp land, clear the ground, built their homes and passed it down generation after generation so even though this people were considered to be extremely poor based on their paycheck, you wouldn’t know it by the size of their house necessarily.

Because of that they really haven’t been paying mortgages and the city hasn’t been profiting of these people at all.  So, meanwhile, the French Quarter is the source of the majority of the city’s money and Lake View, the people who lived there are so rich and they know University of New Orleans is there and so it was clear that there was much greater interest for the city to protect those areas and not protect the Lower Ninth Ward.  And then, what really kind of push me over the edge was they told us about the past 2 storms that it come to New Orleans in 1927, there was the great Mississippi River flood and in 1965 there was hurricane Betsy and in both cases, the government actually dynamited and blew up the levees in that area of the Ninth Ward.  In ’27 it was right where the canal was because the canal hadn’t even built yet but it flooded.  They blew up levees more to the Southeast and it flooded which now St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward and in 1965, during Betsy they blew up the levees that also breached during this hurricane and the reasoning of the city was to relieve pressure in other areas of the city so, as the water level rose all across the city, they essentially poked the hole in one neighborhood, let all the water flowing to there to protect other areas of the city and you know, that’s documented.  It’s factual.  They have video of it, I mean, there’s no real controversy over that but then to hear that and then to look at what happen during Katrina, it made me question whether had done that again, now there’s no statement saying that it had or anything like that but you know, it kind of made me wonder and for awhile I came home so pissed off, so angry that I did presentations and I told the kids that I spoke to, “The government blew the levees up.  They’re trying to kill the people in Ninth Ward.”  You know, that’s how I presented it but… and you know I realized that was a mistake and you know, since I’ve been able to settle back into like a more reasonable level of understanding of things but I mean, it’s important to know that and to have that option in your mind because you never really do know what happen.