Last week I descended on New Orleans with a group of volunteers from Baltimore through Jewish Volunteer Connection. The week we shared in the Crescent City was a strange, sometimes turbulent, often remarkable one. Though everything is still digesting, mentally, I feel that it is important to share what we encountered.
Nearly ten months after Hurricane Katrina swept through the gulf coast, the devastation in New Orleans is still overwhelming. (For a good demonstration of exactly what occurred when and where, I recommend visiting www.nola.com for a flash interactive of the water swarming and the levees breaching. Scroll down about half-way down the page for the link to the flash video. As a point of reference, F.Q. stands for French Quarter). The first thing you notice flying into the city are the blue tarps covering half of the roofs. This is an improvement over the first group’s journey in December. At that point, every building was covered in a blue FEMA tarp. Without exception.
Once we landed we immediately toured different parts of the city, including Lakeview and Congregation Beth Israel, the 17th Street Canal breach, and the decimated Lower Ninth Ward. Miles and miles of the city are still uninhabitable. Even as we drove along I-10 to get from place to the next, the boarded windows, blacked-out traffic lights, and bent street signs stood as stark reminders. The initial surge of water knocked down blocks of wooden homes in the Ninth Ward. Floodwaters of toxic sludge left thousands of other homes in a mess of poisonous black mold. Spray-painted signs informed when a home was visited, how many bodies were found (Only a handful of homes had numbers but to imagine those lives… To be honest, I just cannot), how many animals were found and if they were alive or dead, and if the home was revisited at a later date.
Taking in everything was beyond difficult. The only references I had with me were a tornado that ripped through my neighborhood in Memphis about thirteen years ago and a fire that destroyed a neighbor’s home a few years later. Katrina magnified both of these tragedies on a citywide scale. Even after visiting New Orleans I still have difficulty comprehending the extent of the destruction.
Broken into teams, we faced the devastation one family at a time. My team assisted three different families; each lived in a different area of New Orleans, and each had a different reaction to Katrina.
On Monday my team met a family who lived in the Broadmoore neighborhood. Their 1919 home was once beautiful and had never flooded before. In our respirator masks and gloves, we spent the day removing waterlogged, moldy furniture, gutting the kitchen, and bagging up all the mildewed ephemera that had been this family’s life. (Fortunately, the fridge was already duct-taped. You do not want a ten-month old unplugged fridge to open on you. Imagine the worst smell and slime you can think of and increase it ten-fold. You’ll almost get the idea.) While the family had yet to decide if they would gut the home and rebuild, I have a strong feeling that they will. Both parents work at universities, and one of their daughters just started at a new charter school. They were excited at the new community spirit blossoming. They have something to stay for.
On Tuesday, we went to a home in New Orleans East. This home had already been gutted and was down to the studs. We spent the day performing mold remediation by power-sanding the beams. The power-sander is an evil instrument that is hell on the hands and back, making this process horrible. Furthermore, none of us could reach the top of a seven-foot beam. Besides, there was no sense of progress. We couldn’t tell if we were sanding a beam someone else had already sanded. However, things changed mid-way through the day when the family came to visit. Suddenly, this wasn’t just a building but a family’s home. The mother was an upbeat woman with an infectiously energetic attitude. Her family was staying. They were rebuilding. Why am I using past tense? Her family IS staying. They ARE rebuilding.
Part two of Miss L.'s essay will appear soon. It covers the third day of her experience as well as some concluding thoughts.