In flood zone, a new sense of what’s valuable

A new bartering economy has emerged among New Orleans survivors.
Monday, September 5, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:55 p.m. CDT, Wednesday, July 16, 2008

NEW ORLEANS — The waters raced into Denise Mitchell’s home so quickly that she fled with nothing but what she was wearing.

After Mitchell and 10 members of her extended family took refuge in the convention center downtown, she realized they had another problem: Aid workers were giving out water and food, but there wasn’t anything for her infant niece. The only thing Mitchell had that she thought might be of value was the silver necklace she was wearing around her neck, so she wandered around the convention center for hours trying to trade it for milk.

There were no takers. The last thing anyone wanted was something whose sole value was that it looked good.

In the most devastated areas in and around New Orleans, the lack of electricity, flooding and shortage of food is shaping an emergency bartering economy that is markedly different from the rest of the country.

Bartering has been most prevalent at places such as the convention center, where food supplies have been limited and where the law-enforcement presence was increased only on Friday, leaving its temporary residents to govern themselves.

For the tens of thousands of people displaced by Hurricane Katrina, the split-second decisions made as they left their homes about what to take and what to leave have gained meaning beyond what they expected. “Green money,” as some people in the city and surrounding areas now refer to cash, in some places has become nearly obsolete.

Meanwhile, things people never thought much about had suddenly became fabulously valuable. A clean pillow and blanket, or even a sheet, could buy practically anything, be it diabetes medicine or a piece of meat. Office chairs with wheels, to ferry around the ill and weak, were worth more than DVD players and laptop computers.

Cigarettes and liquor were initially valuable commodities, a comfort in miserable conditions. But after looters flooded the market, there was so much of the stuff that people started giving it away.

In the minutes or seconds that many had to grab their possessions, some were focused squarely on the practical. Butch Upchurch, 38, and his wife, Karen, 41, had about five minutes to leave their home on the western side of New Orleans. They grabbed their bank statements, insurance papers and some water and food and squeezed into their Chrysler 300. There was room for one of their dogs, but pit bull CoCo, the larger one, didn’t fit. They kissed her goodbye and prayed she would survive.

The ones in the most difficult situations were people such as Mitchell who had nothing but the shirt on their back.

But Mitchell was resourceful, and it took her only a few hours to figure out the rules of this new economy. After scrounging in some trash bins, she found T-shirts someone had dumped. She went to people who were evacuated in their pajamas or were wearing wet clothes and bartered until she got not only milk but also a bag of Huggies diapers.

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