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South Asians Grapple with Katrina

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South Asians Grapple with Katrina

News Report, Viji Sundaram,

India West, Sep 09, 2005

Twenty-four-hours before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, aerospace engineer Amolak Singh heeded the suggestion of New Orleans officials that residents voluntary evacuate, bundled his family into his car, and left the city he had called home for the last 25 years.

All that the family took with them in their Toyota Sierra van were some important documents and a few items of clothing to tide them over for a couple of days. They had done similar evacuations in past years from a city known for its hurricanes. This would be no different.

Or so most of the family members thought. Not Singh, though. As they drove in bumper-to-bumper traffic, taking almost six hours to complete the 90-mile trip to Baton Rouge, "something deep within me told me that maybe we may not be able to come back soon," Singh told India-West in a telephone interview earlier this week from the home of a relative who had taken the family in.

As he, his wife, Rajinder, 13-year-old daughter Nankee, and son Zoravar, 22, watched the fury of the hurricane on television the next day, they were relieved, Singh said, that Katrina had dealt New Orleans only a glancing blow.

But when footage of the submerged city caused by the broken levee aired the next day, Singh knew his worst fears had come true. The eastern part of New Orleans had been hardest hit, and that's where his $140,000, three-bedroom, two-bath single family home was.

Hurricane Katrina, called America's worst natural disaster in decades, engulfed nearly 80 percent of New Orleans, and left in ruins large parts of Mississippi, including Biloxi and the Gulfport area. Hundreds of thousands of people have been left homeless. Officials fear that as the search for those missing continues, thousands of bodies may be recovered from submerged homes and other buildings.

At press time, there was no official estimate of South Asian casualties, if any, or how many might have lost their homes and businesses.

Republican Congressman Bobby Jindal of Louisiana lost his New Orleans home to Katrina. His India-born parents, who live in Baton Rouge, were safe, Jindal's press secretary Chris Paolino told India-West. Jindal criticized the Bush administration for not investing more in coastal restorations.

Singh, who is the chairman of the World Sikh Council of North America, did not sit at home feeling sorry for his loss.

"For my family, it was only an inconvenience. I knew my insurance policy will take care of my loss," he said. "But what about the thousands who are in a much worse condition?"

Over the last week, he and about a dozen other member sof the WSC, in collaboration with the United Sikhs, North America, have worked tirelessly at shelters set up for the refugees, handing out food, mattresses and other necessities bought with donations from the Sikh communities nationwide.

The backyard of a Sikh family's home in Baton Rouge serves as a kitchen to prepare two meals each day to feed the 500 refugees who are being sheltered in a church, said New Jersey-resident Kuldip Singh, who is the director of United Sikhs. As of press time, the money so far spent by the two Sikh organizations to provide relief totaled $20,000, Kuldip Singh said.

Meanwhile, from his friend's home in Houston where he, his wife and five-year-old son have taken shelter, New Orleans resident Lakshmi Narayana is wondering if his first-floor rental apartment in the western part of the city survived the flooding and the widespread looting in the city that had followed it.

Before evacuating the apartment Aug. 28, he told India-West he put away "in a high area" scores of photographs of his only child, from the time he was a baby.

"I hope those have not been damaged," said Narayana, who has been working for the local power company in New Orleans, SAIC, for the last four years. "Everything else we can replace, but not those."

Narayana angrily denounced what he called the city government's "lack of preparedness."

"They should have provided those thousands of people who had no transportation with buses and other vehicles," Narayana said, noting that "the local government's callous nature" was largely to blame for many of the lives lost.

New Jersey-based Bangladeshi native Partha Banerjee, who is executive director of Immigration Policy Network, a statewide umbrella coalition for immigrant rights and justice, said he has been spending the last week trying to determine how the thousands of Bangladeshis and other South Asians in the hurricane-affected areas coped.

He said there were scores of South Asian immigrants in New Orleans, as well as immigrants from Vietnam and Haiti, who were working in such "sub-minimal" paying jobs as cleaners in restaurants, or nannies in people's homes and taxi drivers. Most of them had no health care, he said.

"We don't seem to care about the poorer people," Banerjee asserted. "What has happened to them, where are they? Why are the media and the government not talking about them?"

Banerjee said South Asians in the U.S. should use the disaster to reach out to the African American community.

"There has to be some kind of solidarity between the groups," he said. "South Asians have to understand they are a part of the larger struggle of the blacks. This is the time to tell the African American community that we're in this together."

Rajen Anand, president of the National Federation of Indian American Associations, who set up an NFIA Hurricane Relief Fund two days after the hurricane struck, said he was disappointed with the response from the Indian American community.

"It's not easy to get money from the Indian American community" when a calamity happens outside of India, Anand told India-West, sounding frustrated. "It does not touch their hearts and that's why they are not willing to open their wallets."

He said that as of now, only one Indian American has sent him a check in response to the online appeal he put out seven days earlier.

The day before Katrina hit New Orleans, Dr. Prakash Kedia had his entire family - dad and mom who were visiting from India; wife, brother, his wife and their two children - pile into two cars, taking with them just the bare necessities, and head to a friend's house in Baton Rouge.

Because he was on call, Kedia headed to the Jefferson Medical Center in New Orleans, where he would spend the next four days treating patients in dire conditions. From Aug. 29, there was no electricity, which meant there was no air-conditioning or use of elevators in the eight-story hospital.

There were times when temperatures touched the 90-degree mark, Kedia said.

When the water supply ceased, hospital personnel handed out plastic bags to everyone to urinate in them and not use the toilets.

When the hospital began taking in the families of the staffers who had remained in New Orleans, "it was wall-to-wall people," Kedia told India-West.

Because there was no water, patients who needed dialysis were airlifted to other hospitals outside New Orleans, Kedia said.

In his home in Jackson, Miss., Dr. Sampath Shivangi was sitting in his living room, watching news about Katrina Aug. 29, when suddenly he heard "a big noise, like someone throwing a bomb on my house."

He stepped out and found that a tree from his neighbor's yard had fallen on his porch, completely damaging it.

Although there was no flood damage in Jackson, there were power outages and an acute shortage of gas at the pumps, forcing many residents to remain housebound for a few days, Shivangi said.

Most of the South Asian refugees India-West talked to said they would go back to the city when it is safe to do so.

"When New Orleans is ready, we'll go back," said Bangladesh-born Mohammad Kashem, who lived in Matairie, a town 12 miles from New Orleans. Kashem, his wife Mariam, and seven-year-old son evacuated the day before the hurricane hit and moved in with a friend in Houston. "I love New Orleans, the Mardi Gras festival, the fun and the food."

"My prayer and dream is to go back to work soon, and hopefully to the same home," said Amolak Singh. "I love New Orleans. That is the place that has given me my livelihood."

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