Like tens of thousands of other Katrina refugees, Alison Aucoin has a story that will bring you to tears. "I'm glad it's Aug. 29, 2006, and not 2005," she said Tuesday, "because this time a year ago, I thought I was going to die."
Aucoin (pronounced o-QUIN, in a typical N'awluns corruption) is a grant writer who moved to Durham (see her Front Porch story). Her story is chilling. Her conclusions are inescapable. Combined with New Orleans writer Jason Berry's cover story this week, it is a reminder that we have been numbed into submission by a staggeringly incompetent federal administration. A great American city and the region around it were devastated in a catastrophe of biblical proportions, and most people in the richest nation on earth seem unconcerned at how little is being done to save it and its people .
"The night after the storm, Monday night," Aucoin begins, describing her time camped out in the Contemporary Arts Center in the downtown warehouse district, "I was sitting in the CAC window and all of a sudden it dawned on me that no one was coming. That was probably one of the most painful moments of my life. It was nighttime and the city was completely black. The only lights were the security lights, strobe lights flashing in the high-rises. There weren't any helicopters in the air and there weren't any fire trucks. There wasn't anything ....
"We were listening to the radio, and Garland Robinette was fielding phone calls from people trapped in their attics. People from Lakeview and the Ninth Ward and the areas that had substantial flooding were text messaging relatives in New Orleans and out of town, and those people were calling the radio station because 911 wasn't answering the phone. So the silence was incredibly disturbing, because we knew from the radio that people were dying ....
"Sitting here in Durham as a middle-class person who left in my car with my pets, who had a house that was damaged but not catastrophically, the lesson that's being lost is that this could happen to you. I paid my homeowners' insurance premium every month. I paid my mortgage every month. And when it was time for me to get what I needed to fix my house, it practically took an act of Congress. I think that we, as middle-class Americans, are not aware of our privilege. And that doesn't mean that we have to give it up. But we need to be aware of it so that when something like this happens, we don't depend on it."
Two lessons came out of the storm, Aucoin says. The first: In a major catastrophe, no one is going to be there to help. Then she thought about all the people who'd taken care of her on the road, in one city after another, and corrected that: "No system is going to be there. People are going to save your life."
And the second: "Learn how to text message. It may be your last hope."