LGBT New Orleanians struggle to recover after Katrina

by Michael K. Lavers

National News Editor

Wednesday September 2, 2009

As the city of New Orleans makes final preparations for Southern Decadence this weekend, many of the Big Easy's LGBT residents continue to recover from Hurricane Katrina.

The storm made landfall in Southeast Louisiana and on the Mississippi Gulf Coast on Aug. 29, 2005, as a category three hurricane. Katrina's storm surge flooded nearly 80 percent of New Orleans after the city's levee system failed.

Pastor Darren Harris of the Freedom Fellowship United Church of Christ was among those who lost everything during Katrina. He was in the process of planning his congregation when the hurricane struck.

"We had already set up a bank account; we had the proper paperwork from the state," Harris recalled. "Then Aug. 29 changes [everything] for all of us."

Harris returned to New Orleans from Dallas less than three months after Katrina made landfall. His congregation began to hold services at Covenant House, a local homeless shelter on North Rampart Street in the city's Marigny neighborhood. And it later gathered at a Mid City hotel before it moved into its own location.

He noted the cost of living is much higher in post-Katrina New Orleans. Harris further noted areas outside the French Quarter, which escaped the hurricane largely unscathed, remain largely devastated.

"The reality is no, we haven't come back, but we can give the illusion to tourists," he said. "When you come to the French Quarter, we can give the illusion. When you come to Uptown, we can give the illusion. We can elude you."

Otis Fennell owns Faubourg Marigny Art [FAB] and Books, which is the oldest LGBT bookstore in the South, on Frenchmen Street. He re-opened roughly two and a half months after Katrina made landfall. Fennell pointed out to EDGE the city's LGBT residents were among the first people to return to New Orleans after the storm. He conceded a lack of affordable housing; access to adequate (and even basic) health care and more recently the recession are among the many problems with which the city and region continue to grapple. Fennell, however, remains optimistic.

"We'll get through it, but it's going to take time," he said.

"You know something is here, but it hasn't entirely emerged-you can't see it."

Roughly 80 percent of New Orleans' pre-Katrina population has returned, but locals and others continue to contend city, state and federal bureaucratic red tape is among the many factors that have hindered reconstruction efforts. President Barack Obama alluded to these criticisms in the weekly radio address he delivered on the fourth anniversary of Katrina's landfall.

Another post-Katrina effect is the city's shifting demographics. Enrique Moresco, director of operations for the New Orleans AIDS Task Force, told EDGE in a recent interview his agency has seen this trend first hand.

"We had a huge influx-after the storms [Hurricane Rita made landfall along the Louisiana and Texas border less than a month after Katrina]-of Spanish speaking clients," he said.

The organization's annual budget before Katrina was around $4 million, but it has since grown to roughly $10 million a year. NO AIDS Task Force now employs a full-time and part-time doctor alongside four full-time nurses and nurse practitioners. The agency is also able to offer evening clinics twice a week, in addition to a variety of other services to its clients. Moresco conceded, however, challenges remain.

"We're definitely much farther ahead than we were after the storm, but we're still not where we need to be," he said.

This blend of cautious optimism and stark reality arguably permeates New Orleans as the city marks the fourth anniversary of the storm.

"You know something is here, but it hasn't entirely emerged-you can't see it," Harris said.

Fennell agreed.

"It's just been a climb upwards," he said. "It's just something I never want to go through again."

Based in Washington, D.C., Michael K. Lavers has appeared in the New York Times, BBC, WNYC, Huffington Post, Village Voice, Advocate and other mainstream and LGBT media outlets. He is an unapologetic political junkie who thoroughly enjoys living inside the Beltway.