A day before Hurricane Katrina hit last year, New Orleans residents Quamrun Zinia, husband Riyad Ferdous and their little kid got into a car. At 11:00 a.m., they set off. They just packed stuff for their kid. Then they drove 400 miles to seek shelter with Zinia’s brother who lived in the Houston suburb of Belleville. It was a category five warning, and evacuation was mandatory.
She returned about 90 days later, and thankfully, suffered virtually no material loss at all.
Zinia lived in the Metairie area of New Orleans, whose high elevation kept it protected from the flood waters that devastated this Louisiana metropolis after its levees broke. Yet one year after Katrina, there is an emotional wound that is still raw.
“After Katrina, the one thing that has not changed at all is that awful feeling of fear,” the Bangladesh-born doctoral student told India-West by phone. “We are always scared. Now that the (hurricane) season has started, there is that constant fear that I will have to evacuate again.”
Yet, as she is the first person to acknowledge, she is among the lucky ones. “At least I have a brother to go to,” she said ruefully. “Imagine the situation of others in far more precarious situations than mine.”
Hurricane Katrina was the costliest and one of the deadliest hurricanes in the history of the United States, according to the information resource Wikipedia. “It was the sixth-strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded and the third-strongest landfalling U.S. hurricane ever recorded,” according to Wikipedia. “Katrina formed in late August during the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season and devastated much of the north-central Gulf Coast of the United States. Most notable in media coverage were the catastrophic effects on the city of New Orleans, Louisiana, and in coastal Mississippi. Katrina’s sheer size devastated the Gulf Coast over 100 miles (160 km) away from its center.”
South Asians also suffered considerable loss, but the nature of the loss varied. While professionals often came out unscathed in the longer term, because federal assistance was on hand after they had survived the initial onslaught, students faced greater challenges, and undocumented workers faced terrible hardships, hit as they were by the double-whammy of natural disaster and ineligibility to government assistance, activists told India-West.
The vast majority of Indian American motel owners are still struggling to open their motels, Anil Patel, gulf director of the Asian American Hotel Owners Association, told India-West from Jackson, Miss., in a phone conversation.
He said there were 19 Indian American-owned hotels in Biloxi. Miss., and Shreveport, La. In New Orleans, Indian Americans owned 20 hotels. “Out of these only five are open, the rest are not open yet,” he said.
Zinia said while many people she knew got assistance from the much maligned Federal Emergency Management Agency, it was heartbreaking to see the suffering of people, particularly students, who weren’t immigrants, because the federal assistance spigot completely dried up for them.
“My daughter is an American citizen, and we got a $2,000 voucher,” she said. “Next door to me is a student family just like us, they have a 4-year-old kid, the kid was born in Bangladesh, and they didn’t get it. Some got it, but had to return it.
“Personally I felt very bad about this. I know a student family who have a green card, their home was in knee-level water and they got $36,000 for the loss of the place, furniture. In another house, another family, I feel so terribly sorry for them, they have two kids, they lost everything too, they got nothing. FEMA rejected their application, because they weren’t immigrants.”
Partha Banerjee, executive director of the Newark, N.J.-based Immigration Policy Network, got involved with South Asian immigrant issues immediately after Katrina. He said the post-disaster circumstances of Katrina were also a golden opportunity lost by immigrant rights activists and the South Asian community.
“This was a great opportunity to show the media and the establishment that the traditionally underprivileged part of society, particularly African-Americans, and immigrants face the same problems and challenges. But we blew it because we immigrants don’t want to work with African-Americans.”
He said the South Asian experience in the aftermath of Katrina depended on where they belonged in the socio-economic ladder.
“Many South Asians are students, teachers; many were ready,” he said. “The losses were great, but they later got aid. Students were relocated. So after they had weathered the initial hit, they got back on their feet. Those who work, they moved elsewhere. Many moved to Houston. Even in New Jersey and New York I know people who moved permanently.”
Zinia echoed Banerjee’s views. For the past six years she has been organizing a Pahela Baisakh celebration, bringing together West Bengal and Bangladeshi Bangla-speakers from three states: Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. She said she was really surprised when she went to the Durga Puja celebrations. “The event had half the number of people,” she said.
“They have arranged for jobs and moved out of state.”
Students faced an added layer of hassles. “Many people don’t know that foreign students can only go to the specific college referred to in their I-20 forms,” Banerjee said. “Since their academic program was suspended, they had to go through a lot of hassles.” Here again, what one faced depended upon where one was. Mainstream students or privileged students were easily relocated, Banerjee said, while poor and immigrant students did not get that assistance. “These poor students don’t have much money to begin with, some lost everything,” he rued to India-West. “They had to work overtime to take care of this extra hurdle.”
Even for the affluent, there was no telling how one would be affected. “Some have paid off their homes and they didn’t take flood insurance,” said Zinia. “Now water entered up to roof level, and the entire house was ruined. Since they had no flood insurance, they got nothing. I know a multimillionaire who is now penniless.
“On the other hand, I know someone who had just bought a house. He had flood insurance and now he has got so much money he is thinking about getting into the real estate business. It’s all very strange.”
For Banerjee, though, the biggest disappointment was that even a disaster like Katrina could not bring South Asians out of their ethnic cocoons.
“The saddest part is that local people were unable to build immigrant solidarity,” he laments.
Zinia agrees. “They are all in their ethnic ghettoes, nothing has changed,” she said. “But maybe this is American culture. I have lived in apartment complexes where a person dies in one apartment and people next door have no idea.”
Ashfaque Swapan is a reporter for India- West, a member of New American Media.