Wednesday, June 18, 2008
Today is Wednesday. I got back into town Saturday morning and it is only after a few days of reflecting on and digesting my experience that I feel able to write about my recent trip to New Orleans.
Thirteen of us from my Church in New York City went to New Orleans to do disaster recovery work for a week. I had never been to New Orleans before and I found the combination of deep southern, Caribbean, African and European cultures intoxicating. The rich history and mixing of all those cultures make for an exotic and exciting city. The music and food are, of course, famous and fabulous. The tall shuttered windows, wrought iron balconies and muted, mottled walls of the French Quarter carry within them years of romance and intrigue. It is really only upon leaving the French Quarter and venturing into the outer neighborhoods of the city that the deep devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the near genocide of federal negligence can be seen.
The day after we arrived in New Orleans all thirteen of us piled into our rented van and were given a tour of the neighborhoods hardest hit by the storms of 2005. Our tour was led by two local people from the Neighborhood Housing Service, a woman named Lauren, executive director of NHS, and a man named Dan, who drove us. Once we left the downtown area and went into the working class neighborhoods the sights were unbelievable. Row after row of abandoned homes in disrepair diminishing in size into the bleak horizon. Houses taken down to their foundations with nothing but cement blocks remaining, front steps leading up to nothing. Still visible were the water lines, sometimes as high as twelve or fourteen feet off the ground, spray painted writing on the front of homes indicating what had been found inside: survivors, pets, bodies. The very familiar letters TFW blazed across the front of nearly all the abandoned houses, indicating toxic flood water. Generations of working class families obliterated and forgotten first by the storm and now by their government. A government put in place to protect them.
I watch CNN and MSNBC, I subscribe to TIME magazine and read The New York Times, I would consider myself to be rather informed about current events and yet I was not prepared for what I saw. A vast barren landscape of poverty and loss. True, some of the more affluent neighborhoods are being rebuilt more quickly. Affluent, it was explained to us by our guides, means white. The lower working class neighborhoods, however, black and white, are slower to recover. The working poor of New Orleans have yet to return. Hospitals, hotels and public schools remain closed and the media has apparently lost it's appetite for this region. All federal aid has stopped, the Red Cross has pulled out and even the Salvation Army is no longer involved in New Orleans disaster recovery work. It is only through volunteer organizations that the rebuilding continues.
We drove alongside, what the locals call, Tent City. A three or four city block stretch of concrete median beneath a highway overpass chockful of tents. A city of homeless people. We saw children laughing and running between tents, clusters of people huddled round open fires preparing food. All of us in the van silent in either shock or disbelief. It is hard to imagine that these are Americans whose lives have been destroyed and forgotten. As our tour of this, once proud and now ravaged, southern port city continued I found myself vacillating between tears and fury. How is it possible that we, as a nation, are spending countless billions of dollars in Iraq, where our presence is questionable at best, and right here at home thousands are struggling to find decent jobs and housing, desperate to reclaim a city that they once called home? I sat dazed as the van passed more devastation and tragedy, embarrassed and ashamed. What I was witness to was not the travesty of injustices perpetrated against a third world nation but a stark reality smack dab in the middle of a major American city.
The following morning was our first day of work and we rose early and arrived at our orientation eager to be of service after what we'd seen. We drove crosstown and gathered in a small neighborhood church with several other volunteer groups just as eager as we were to get our instructions. We were warned of the heat:
"If you're not feeling well sit it out - don't push through. This heat will get you!"
"Watch each other. If one of you ain't sweating - sit them down and drink plenty of water. We don't want any Heatstroke."
We were working through the Louisiana United Methodist Disaster Recovery Ministry. Not necessarily a denominationally motivated or even religiously charged outfit but the largest volunteer based disaster relief organization presently in New Orleans. We were introduced to our site manager and given our assignments. We were to split into two groups working on two different sites. I was to be a part of the drywall crew. A few of us were chosen to go next door to the building which housed tools and materials and get what was needed. On the inside wall of the tool building hung a large map of the United States printed on white vinyl. Groups from all over the country had marked their hometowns and written the names of the churches, synagogues, community centers and schools with which they were affiliated. In various colors of magic marker, outside the confines of the continental United States, were the markings of groups from Puerto Rico, Russia, Canada, Thailand, Beijing and several European countries. This was certainly not the first time during this trip that I would try to hide my tears from those around me. Nor would it be the last.
The house we were working on belonged to a man named Ozzie, a really nice fellow who explained to us what had happened to him during the storm. His house sat on land that was originally his grandfather's. Ozzie and his fiance' had evacuated in time to avoid the storm. He then heard from neighbors that his house had been vandalized. When the storm came winds ripped the roof from the house. It was eight months before he could return and by that time the house and everything in it had been so rain soaked and water damaged that the house had to be taken down to the foundation and rebuilt from the base up. The damage was done by wind, said the insurance company, not flood waters so they paid nothing. Ozzie worked in building maintenance for the New Orleans public school system so, of course, he lost his job. He'd lost everything and exhausted his savings. Ozzie's story is just one, I'm sure, of many like his.
We worked four full days on Ozzie's house. Sanding, taping and mudding. I actually think we made quite a bit of difference in that house. Ozzie was there working beside us almost the whole time, his gratitude palpable. Our last day of work he brought us a bunch of spicy boiled crabs and corn for lunch. We sat on his porch, covered in plaster dust and feasted on this local fare. Cracking and sucking the spicy succulent critters. What a treat!
The Treme' is a neighborhood in the downtown portion of the city of New Orleans just across Rampart Street from the French Quarter. It is the oldest settlement of free black people in the country. It is home to Congo Square and a neighborhood rich in cultural history. Sunday morning, before our NOLA devastation tour, our group walked into The Treme' where we were hosted by the Holy Faith Temple Baptist Church. Our own Reverend David Lewicki gave the sermon, a fiery one at that, amidst a full Gospel service where we all "got our praise on" before we were served a delicious lunch of stewed chicken, dirty rice, biscuits, salad, chocolate and lemon pound cake. Wednesday evening we returned to The Treme' and attended a service at St Anna's Episcopal Church. A small congregation where part of the service focused on the rise in crime and gun violence in the community and the priest leading the service thanked the volunteer groups who'd come down to do "missionary" work saying:
"You are how we know God is listening to our prayers. We are a city desperately trying to hold onto the little dignity we have left and that is only possible because of your contribution."
Tears fell freely down my face.
After the service there was a community supper and Jazz concert. There was another group of volunteers there, prep school boys from just outside DC who were working with Habitat for Humanity. They had been working in the Musicians Village in the upper ninth ward, wrapping houses in Tyvek, a synthetic material used to protect houses from extreme humidity. Also present were members of the community, families, older folks and street kids. All of us sitting at big round tables eating our $5 suppers, nobody turned away for lack of funds. The local musicians played jazz and Zydeco as conversation spun freely round the tables. In the next room free acupuncture and massage was offered as well as medical care for both children and adults. The massage therapists and acupuncturists started offering their services after the storm as stress management solutions to a community unable to afford such "luxuries".
An entire community joined together. Eating, laughing, talking, some dancing. This is something I've never seen before let alone been a part of. Not the New York melting pot I'm used to but more a simmering Gumbo. Black and white, alone, in pairs, teens, seniors, some with babies, clergy breaking bread with tattooed street kids. A community suspending judgement and being led by love. A beautiful example of they that have mourned being comforted.
I am so glad to have had this opportunity, to have had a personal and shared experience. I was one of several like minded people showing up to be of service without knowing where I would be sent. Willingness had been the conduit which brought on it satisfaction, gratitude and spiritual growth. There is still so much to be done in this damaged region and what we, as a group, accomplished is just a small drop in a very large bucket. I have made connections and friendships on this trip that, I suspect, will be lasting. My impressions of the New Orleans landscape, I know, will remain indelible.
What was, perhaps, most moving and at the same time most difficult to take was the unbridled gratitude of the local people. Early one morning as we were loading into the van to head off to our work sites a woman came up to us.
"Where y'all from and whatcha doing?"
We told her we were from New York City and that we were doing disaster recovery work, building homes. Immediately she began to cry.
"Thank you. Thank you so much. Y'all are gonna go on back to your lives and forget all about us but we are never gonna forget about you."