St. Francis New Orleans Trip, March 2006
This Lenten season I decided to forgo the usual "giving up stuff" and take action, do something, help someone, make some kind of difference. When our church was looking for a delegation to help rebuild homes flooded by hurricane Katrina in New Orleans I decided this would be a good way to give of myself. The trip was soon organized and coordinated with Catholic Charities of New Orleans. Eleven of my fellow St. Franciscans and I would travel to New Orleans and do whatever needed to be done to help people reclaim their lives after the worst natural disaster to ever befall an American city.
Even before the plane landed we could see from the air what has become the universal sign of a weather related disaster, roofs covered with blue tarps. On the ground, the evidence was less obvious, mostly wind damage that had yet to be repaired. Once we gathered at our temporary residence, we where oriented by a Father Edward, a parish priest from Youngstown Ohio who had been helping out in New Orleans for several weeks. As Father Edward explained the situation I began to understand the scope of this disaster as I never really could by relying on the short attention span of the media coverage given to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The numbers revealed the staggering reality of what was really going on here seven months after the storm. 300,000 residents have yet to return to the city. Of the 331,000 home damaged by the hurricane, 213,000 had no flood insurance. As of yet no one has a plan on what to do to about all these homes not the city, state, FEMA, no one! Catholic Charities hopes to help rebuild 21,300 (10%) of these homes. About 200 of these have been "gutted" by volunteers so far. The recovery process clearly could take awhile, as in decades!
After learning all the grim details and what we should expect to find out there, Edward gave us some more practical advice: always wear a dust mask, stout shoes, gloves, etc., but he placed special emphasis on one rule. Never, never, under threat of excommunication and the unbridled wrath of your fellow workers, ever… open a refrigerator! The horrors inside these Pandora's boxes full of seven month old maggot mingled gross-ceries were beyond all human reckoning! We also learned that although some bodies have been found by volunteer relief workers recently, there have been none found by Catholic Charity workers (yet). For that we gave thanks and went off to dinner wondering just what we had signed up for down here.
But there was good news. We were to be housed in Father Flanagan's Boystown of New Orleans. This was a shelter for homeless youth and it was located in the French Quarter. The boys would not come back for another month so the place was used to house relief workers like us. If there is a "spiritual heart" of New Orleans, it has to be in the French Quarter, and this being the oldest (and highest) part of the city was mercifully spared the flooding and most of the destruction experienced by the rest of the city. So after laboring all day we could at least look forward to exploring this part of the city and experience the charm, food, music and craziness that makes New Orleans famous.
The next morning we went to St. Raymond's Church in the Gentilly area. This area was extensively flooded and the gutted church has become a base of operations for Catholic Charities relief efforts. There we met Adam, a long-time employee of the Diocese of New Orleans whose job function has recently evolved into supervising relief groups. To receive help from Catholic Charities a homeowner (of any religion) must want to reoccupy their house and not have the means to start the renovation process. After another short (but a bit more practical) orientation, we headed off to a house in the Upper Ninth ward that needed our help.
The first thing you learn as you navigate the streets of New Orleans these days is to look for the high-water mark. This is a brown bathtub ring around everything, the height of which tells the tale of the flood. From the river the ring starts out low and as you approach the lake it gets higher and higher. In neighborhoods where the ring touches the eaves and roof shingles of homes, you notice a ragged tell-tale hole in many of the roofs. Its hard to even imagine the stories behind each of these holes as you realize that people huddled in their dark attics waiting to be rescued from the rising flood. You also soon notice that all flooded buildings were marked with spray paint to show that each was checked for survivors. The markings included the date, name of the National Guard unit and the number of occupants both living and dead awaiting rescue. The very grim reality of the disaster began to sink in as we noticed several homes marked to show that the occupants didn't survive.
The biggest eye-opener though is just the sheer volume of homes and buildings that were flooded. Mile after mile after mile of flooded homes, businesses, schools, churches and everything else you'd find in an urban area. Most of these places didn't look too bad from the street, but we all knew firsthand the soggy, stinking, moldy mess that was inside each of them. Areas near broken levees were in much worse condition, the force of the moving water swept everything in its path, houses, cars, trucks, trees into piles of jumbled debris.
The first step in recovering a flooded home is to remove everything from the inside. And I mean everything, because everything is ruined. First go the personal possessions and the white goods (washers, dryers, fridges, stoves, etc). Next goes the walls, floors and often the ceilings. Everything goes into a huge heap at the curb where it waits for FEMA contractors to come and haul it off to what must be the biggest pile of soggy rotten stinking flood debris ever gathered by mankind. Anything that we come across that could possibly be of value to the homeowner was set aside. In the first house we removed a beautiful chandelier from the front room, gutted the house, and replaced the chandelier. We hoped that this might bring a smile to the owners’ faces and let them know that there are others out there who cared about their ordeal. It was the best we could do.
And so the days went: ripping, tearing, smashing, shoveling, hauling, sweeping and finally spraying. The last step was to spray the interior with a bleach solution in a crude attempt to kill some of the mold in what was left of the house. Along the way we worked our way through loads of smashed drywall, insulation and trim wood. We hauled piles of sodden clothes, the smelly remains of kitchen pantries. We saw many scurrying cockroaches, very many startled termites, and a few surprised rats. In some homes we felt like we almost knew the occupants by their ruined stuff, an ID card here, a photo there, the shoes, the hats, the unfinished projects - all the pieces of someone's life that we threw onto the heap at the curb.
All work stopped at four PM so that we'd be well out of the area before the curfew at dusk. After washing off the dust, sweat and grime of the days work, most of us were anxious to explore the French Quarter. Now I'm no frequent world traveler but I have been to a few interesting places around the planet and I must say that this place is unique. Interesting old buildings, lively bars and restaurants on almost every block, the place just oozes charm and character (as well as characters) like no place I have ever been. Bourbon Street was the most touristy heart of the "Quarter" with an overwhelming mix of loud music, strip bars, t-shirt and trinket vendors of ALL varieties. The street itself was jammed with vendors, hawkers and wide-eyed tourists carrying alcoholic drinks around just because it is legal here. Mounted policemen on every block kept an eye on things while tourists took photos of them and their mounts. I personally found Bourbon Street all a bit too much and was drawn back to the more authentic side streets. Even way off of Bourbon Street live music of all kinds seemed to be coming from every doorway, I even saw people dancing in the street!
To say that 'Nawlins is an open and freewheeling place is almost an understatement, it extends beyond the liberal public drinking laws, HUGE ASS BEER vendors and the tolerance for the rights of strip club advertising. People here don't mind talking to you and are interested in sharing their stories with you. Many folks thanked us for helping to put their city back together once they knew why we were here. An interesting place for sure, I will be back here sometime to get more familiar under better circumstances.
One evening we were invited to the home of Tom and Margaret Baier. Margaret's sister, Mary attends our church in Raleigh and was instrumental in making all the arrangements for our trip here. They live in Uptown section of New Orleans in a beautifully restored raised 1920's bungalow. Although they had to evacuate with their three boys for several weeks and their home sustained some damage, they said things are almost back to normal now. We had a wonderful jambalaya dinner, celebrated a birthday (mine!) and enjoyed their insight and perspective on the area. This cheery comfortable home full of happy children seemed a very long way from the abandoned, devastated neighborhoods were we have worked at all week.
As the week wound up we looked back at the four houses we gutted and it seemed like an almost insignificant contribution, but I hope it will make a big difference to the families that belong in those homes. Who knows how or when they will be able to reclaim their lives there but at least they are a step closer. So if you have the means, the time and the inclination, go to New Orleans and help out. You'll work hard, maybe have a little fun in an amazing city, and give the gift of hope to some folks that need it very much.
Oh, and guess who just had to opened a refrigerator? ;)