An oak tree stands in Waveland, Mississippi, having survived a 30-foot high tidal wave during Hurricane Katrina. (Photo: Tbass Effendi / flickr)
Scroll down to find clips from the documentary project "Reinventing Paradise," which chronicles the stories of people in South Mississippi and Louisiana, two years post-Katrina.
Paradise to me is the entire planet. How far would a human have to travel to find a better place than this? And what could be more of a "paradise" than feeling safe and secure in your own home, wherever that might be?
The great and growing global angst among all peoples has everything to do with how we build and maintain our paradise on earth. And today as we live in an era of profound uncertainty, strange and complex states of war, climatic flux and economic dystopia, how different locales wealthy or not, rethink, redesign and rebuild their lives with an eye toward a different future is the issue before all humanity. Can a greener, less greedy, less angst-filled world be reinvented? Can we learn from our mistakes and live with compassion for all, or do we descend further into chaos and ultimate irrelevancy?
Three years ago, I received a phone call from a former colleague who had relocated from Los Angeles to her Gulf Coast home in Mobile, Alabama. Soon after returning to her native soil, a series of devastating storms started hammering the coast. Ivan in 2004 pushed up Mobile Bay like few storms had ever in the past, causing profound flooding and great physical damage. Then 2005 ushered in a hurricane season like no other - Dennis, Emily, Katrina and Rita, just to name a few of the record-breaking number of devastating storms that roared through the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico that year. As a producer and writer herself, Natalie Noel understood what makes a great story and she saw them everywhere - stories of courage and indomitable spirit in the face of crisis, important lessons that are inevitably lost in our society's preoccupation with "helicopter journalism."
At her invitation, we decided to pool our meager resources and invest a little sweat equity to film some of these stories in South Mississippi, two years post-Katrina. Our modest approach guaranteed rich and honest interviews and perspectives on reconstruction. It was four days of filming on a whirlwind tour of the region. It was intense and insightful, a great beginning to a new documentary project - "Reinventing Paradise."
Soon thereafter, Natalie was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer and had to face her own personal "Katrina." A death omen for most, but thanks to friends, family and a skilled set of medical professionals, she was able to endure the grueling and painful treatments. When she first informed me of the diagnosis, it was a shock that struck right to the core of my being, having been a victim of a hit-and-run car accident and survivor of a near-death experience myself. It's one of those moments when you realize that this may be the last conversation you are having with the person on the other end of the line. In fact, several months passed before we spoke again. There was a period when I thought she had moved on.
Thankfully, she survived surgery, radiation and chemo, but her private insurance didn't. Her treatment premiums skyrocketed and she was forced to relocate from Alabama to Pennsylvania, where they have publicly subsidized health care, so that she could maintain her intense recovery regimen. So, earlier this month when she told me she's going home to the Gulf Coast area for a couple weeks, we decided to pick up the cameras and this time go to New Orleans and expand on what we had started in Mississippi. We soon began to see the connection between Natalie's personal journey and that of New Orleans and the larger issues surrounding limited access to health care. The result of this work is only now being seen in this article and multimedia offerings through Truthout.org.
Our work in New Orleans quickly drew attention from Democrats eager to add real, articulate and passionate voices to the health care debate. Today Natalie is offering her testimony before Congressional Democratic representatives about her personal "Katrina" and the reconstruction of her life. She is recounting her story of struggle and displacement following a personal catastrophe that all humans are vulnerable to - and she is relating it to the larger picture of how we as Americans have failed our fellow citizens from Louisiana to Mississippi to Alabama and how today, that failure persists as health care is denied to so many millions of Americans simply because it's beyond their financial means. Her story is all too common and all too real.
It has been over four years since Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. A great deal of infrastructure from Mobile Bay to New Orleans has been rebuilt: bridges, coastal highways, levies, homes and, of course, the great economic engine of America, casinos. However, depending on whom you ask concerning reconstruction, or more aptly, depending on which side of the tracks you're coming from, "progress" is a highly mutable concept. It's also much easier to talk about the reconstruction of physical damage, rather than that of the spirit.
Jarvis DeBerry NOLA Times-Picayune Columnist
New Orleans Forgotten - Driving the Lower 9th
America loves to forget to her peril. Time to move on and not dwell on the ugly past. Slavery. Native American genocide. Dropping not one but two nuclear bombs on civilian populations. My Lai. The lies that brought America to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, of course, Katrina. Why should we care about New Orleans after four years? The answer is simple. New Orleans represents all of America: her past, present and future. The city literally is a gateway to a continent. Vast resources for hundreds of years have traveled up and down the river and through her delta into the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. From the long and wide waters of the Mississippi, America has grown and prospered - and today from the same place, America can begin her reinvention or not.
But just as important, New Orleans has been an engine of cultural and spiritual integration from north, south, east and west unlike any the world has ever seen. The result has been an extraordinary fruition of human enterprise and spirit that is fully embodied in the music, food and soul of the city. Even in devastated neighborhoods of the Lower 9th Ward, where over half of the homes were washed away, paradise happens on any given Thursday night on St. Claude Street, where people smile and raise their arms in gratitude for the fact that they are alive and singing praise to the creator.
Lower 9th Ward New Orleans - Curbside Church Service
Placing New Orleans front and center in the health care debate would do a great deal in exposing the vulnerabilities America faces, which in all-too-real terms, directly impact the safety and well-being of all Americans. Whether hurricanes along the Gulf Coast, fires and earthquakes in the west, terrorist attacks in the east, recent history has proven that America, with all of her infrastructure, can easily fail to serve its citizenry when the need is greatest. If there was ever a dynamic that underscores the need to consider disaster relief as a civil right and not a privilege, the Crescent City's recovery is it. And you cannot consider issues regarding disaster relief without having "health care for all" as its footing right along with food, water and shelter.
Tracie Washington/ Cecile TEBO
Frontlines New Orleans - The Psychological Temperature
The failure of the government to rise to the occasion in these moments of need has a powerful impact on both the physical and emotional well-being of the population. And although the people of New Orleans and Mississippi suffered as a direct result of Katrina, Americans across the country watched in horror as thousands of helpless people gathered on elevated freeway overpasses, or crowded into the chaos of the Superdome - without help from the outside world.
And despite the fact that America was and remains in the midst of fighting two wars in faraway places, for three entire days she failed to bring food, water and order to one of her own great cities. Psychologically speaking, no one in New Orleans, rich or poor, black or white, can ever forget that failure. It's now embedded into the psyche of this beleaguered metropolis; a collective sense of insecurity that appears to be spreading nationwide.
The Toll of Despair - Post Katrina
As for the rest of us, in these economic times we would be well-served to ask ourselves a series of vitally important questions. What will happen when Los Angeles is struck by another huge earthquake? Or what if another Three Mile Island-type nuclear meltdown occurs in my region? Can I keep my family safe and how will we receive health care if the fabric of society unravels? What are my rights as an American citizen in times of cataclysm? Will the government prevent me from returning to my home as it has for countless thousands throughout New Orleans and South Mississippi? Will I be forgotten like those poor people in the Lower 9th Ward - left to bloat in the briny, poisonous and alligator-infested floodwaters? But for the survivors, who will help rebuild my home, neighborhood and community? Am I on my own?
New Orleans - Am I on my own?
Mental health is the fundamental prerequisite to the physical health of a population and is the foundation of a vibrant and dynamic society. Without a sense that one's elemental human needs are tended to - that is to say shelter, food, water and emotional and physical safety, progress in recovery following a disaster, whether personal or societal is profoundly hindered. And when there is an untended wound in one part of the body, the rest is at great risk of an expanding infection and ultimate breakdown. And the government's role in these times - local, state and federal - is literally the lifeline to survival. When this lifeline is obstructed by competing political agendas, greed and arrogance - a disaster will inevitably degenerate into cataclysm.