Wednesday brought us to two more homes. These were both in Lakewood. In the first, the father showed us around a house overwhelmed by toxic gray dust and infested with that cockroach of a fungus, black mold. We only lugged out furniture (including a devilishly wet mattress – oh, how putrid!) because the wife wanted to go through the remains. I am still not sure what we she is looking to find. Every paper, toy, garment was destroyed. The family had already attempted saving their film and negatives. Rows of film canisters, lined up neatly on a table, lying on top of their wrinkled envelopes was striking: a futile but important attempt to save memories. We spent the afternoon in the father’s parents’ home, trying to remove decades and decades of life turned to debris. His parents were pack rats. Bags and bags and bags of plastic utensils, neatly folded cereal boxes, and piles of magazines and catalogues were removed. We took apart furniture, including chests, bed frames, and tables. We took up the carpet. I don’t know if this family will stay or not. The parents had moved to Atlanta to be near the father’s brother, and I have a feeling that this family will follow. Their children were the youngest, and the wife was not taking the aftermath well.
All of this left big questions that I feel unqualified to answer. Should people stay and rebuild? What should happen now? How much money should the government invest? How can the levees be fixed? Should neighborhoods be taken over in eminent domain and people reimbursed and moved elsewhere? What will prevent this destruction from occurring again? Are things any better? I don’t have a single answer.
The woman who organized the mission did attempt to answer the last question. She had also organized the December trip. Things, she said, were better and worse. Many stores and homes had re-opened, and people were slowly returning. However, a new “normal” had nearly cemented. People were growing used to what had happened and the current incapacitation. Not that you can blame them. How many months can someone live in a state of anxiety and action? A person has to adapt. The same things that shocked our group had become routine to the families we met. There was a stagnation lurking.
I spent the final working day of the trip on a more upbeat project, helping to reopen a rehab and shelter. Flooding and looters damaged the shelter following Katrina, but it had been restored, repainted, and was almost ready to re-open. Our team assembled bed frames, box springs, mattresses, and dorm-style fridges in about fifty rooms. After all the debris removal, it was uplifting to actually build something. We spent the afternoon shopping and the evening at the jazz clubs: our way of helping the local economy.
Being from Memphis, I am familiar with southern hospitality, but nothing prepared me for the gratitude people showed for us. Even at the jazz club, in between sets, the band thanked us for coming down and volunteering. On the plane ride back, I jokingly complained about all my lovely bruises (it really does look like someone took a baseball bat to my legs… okay, well, maybe just a softball bat), and the woman in the seat behind me gushed over us and over the other teams from Seattle and North Carolina that have visited and assisted her. The mother from Monday’s family brought me to tears. Monday was her twenty-third wedding anniversary, and she considered us to be the gift. I don’t think I have ever felt as honored in my life as I did at that moment. Though, to be honest, I pray that I never have to feel that way again. It may sound naïve and innocent, but I sincerely wish for an end to these sorrows. These were all wonderful people, and I wish I could have met them under different circumstances. However, I am just glad to have met them at all. There is also a promising sentiment that if something horrible should happen in Baltimore, there are incredible people ready to assist. May we never need them.
Viva la Nouvelle Orleans! Laissez les bon temps roulez!