I’m pretty sure that it snows 300 days a year in Ithaca, New York. When I decided to attend graduate school at Cornell University, I knew it would be cold and snowy, a major change for someone born and raised in sunny California. But, I thought- I’ve been on ski trips to Lake Tahoe, I like the snow. I had no idea what I was getting myself into. Months later I was sitting in my attic bedroom in January, my hands were so cold that I wore gloves as tried to type a paper. The heater in the room that I was renting in the hundred-year old farmhouse didn’t make a dent in the cold as wind blew in through cracks in the window frame. I exhaled and I was certain I saw my breath. It was time to head south.
Spring Break was coming up and I wanted to go somewhere that would leave me feeling refreshed and ready to finish the semester, not somewhere that would leave me with a hangover and sunburn. I only had a week off, so I wanted to stay in the US. I could go back to California, but I wanted to see somewhere new, and somewhere that was as far south as I could get. I had seen Texas and Florida before, so I was running out of choices. Then it hit me– New Orleans. Yes, this was the perfect choice- warm weather, good food, amazing music- a trip to New Orleans would be perfect to revive me for the rest of the semester.
Like most Americans I had watched the destruction of Hurricane Katrina on television. Horrified by the images I saw, I diligently sent some money after the storm and then forgot about New Orleans. When Cornell’s Women in Public Policy group announced that they were planning a Spring Break service trip to rebuild homes I signed up. Exactly where I wanted to go, and now I could go with a group of friends. But part of me wondered why I should go on a service trip. It was 2008, three years after the storm. Was there really anything left to rebuild?
My friend Justin took the lead in arranging the trip. Justin spent a year volunteering through AmeriCorps NCCC program. He told stories of New Orleans shortly after the storm. With teams of AmeriCorps volunteers he gutted homes, which is the dirty and exhausting job of pulling out the waterlogged wreckage that was once peoples’ prized possessions and piling it up outside to go to the dumps so that they could begin to rebuild. He spoke of how people were not able to save anything that might bring the mold back into their homes, which meant photo albums, artwork, and other memories had to be thrown away. Justin looked like the kind of guy you expected to see rock-climbing Half Dome or skiing in Breckenridge, not the kind of guy that would be gutting homes in a crowded city. But when Justin spoke about New Orleans his eyes sparkled with such passion. He was inspiring as he made his plea to get people to join us on the trip, extolling the importance of the work that still needed to be done. Still, I couldn’t quite believe that there was that much more to do.
We decided to focus our service project on St. Bernard Parish, one of the areas hardest hit by Katrina. The storm damaged virtually every structure, and when it destroyed the levees, the entire parish flooded. We decided to volunteer with the St. Bernard Project, a nonprofit that had a good reputation for getting homes rebuilt. Two of Justin’s AmeriCorps friends had returned to New Orleans after their service year and started a nonprofit, Live St. Bernard. A local resident had donated his grandmother’s vacant home to Live St. Bernard, and Justin’s friends renovated it to use as an inexpensive lodging for volunteers. We were to be the first guests to stay in the volunteer house. With lodging and a rebuilding project secured, we were on our way to New Orleans.
When we stepped out of the airport in New Orleans we were hit by a wall of sticky heat. After leaving the brutal stormy New York March weather, I was thrilled by the humidity. Justin and I arrived first and headed to Canal Street to have lunch with one of his AmeriCorps friends. As we drove into the city, I was taken by its classic beauty. Seeing the Superdome, “the shelter of last resort” for 9,000 residents was a little bit chilling, but the damage had long since been repaired and it looked just like any other big stadium.
After a delicious dinner of barbecue, Justin and I walked around town, through parts of the Garden District and the French Quarter. The city was beautiful, with its dropping oak trees, sultry jazz music filtering out of every building, and sweet smells of Cajun cooking filling the air. But, where was the destruction?
Beautiful New Orleans
We got back into the big van that we had rented for the week and drove through New Orleans, past the French Quarter, towards the river. “Look there,” Justin pointed to some graffiti adorning a small shotgun home. The area was more run down, but it just looked like any other bad neighborhood, where there was graffiti on the walls.
“What am I looking at?” I asked.
“That X graffiti on the wall was put there by rescue crews after the house was searched. Rescues crews would write down what they found to let others know. If they found bodies, they wrote it at the bottom of the X.” Justin explained.
Grafitti from the rescue crews
I shivered, the graffiti looked so much more ominous then it had only moments before. As we turned to get on the overpass to cross over the river, Justin pointed again. “Do you see that area?” he asked.
I looked over at what appeared to be a homeless encampment under the overpass. “That is where they put the bodies until they could be cleared out.”
We crossed over the river and entered the Lower Ninth Ward. There was nothing there. Or so it seemed. As we drove closer I saw the foundations of what had once been hundreds of homes. Now it was just a bunch of concrete slabs.
Every now and then we’d see a house amongst the concrete slabs. Most of the homes were dark, vacant, with signs on them that said “no copper inside.” One empty home was missing the front door; boards covered the windows and the door. Someone had placed a sign in front that said “roots run deep here.”
Our roots run deep
At the end of Lower Ninth Ward we turned onto a muddy road. The rain began to fall. Eventually we got to a house with a light on. It was the Live St. Bernard house. On one side was vacant lot; on the other was a pile of garbage from a recently gutted house. But, across the street there was another house with a light on, a neighbor who had restored his house and moved home. The rain stopped as we got out of the van.
I felt drained when we reached the house. All of the destruction, three years had passed since the storm and it looked like only a few months had passed. Was I really in the US? How was this even possible?
When we arrived at the house Justin’s AmeriCorps friends were waiting. They were excited to finally have guests in the house they had spent so much time renovating. They showed off the work they had done in each room. They had decorated each room with a different flavor of New Orleans. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and before long I was excited to be there again. They showed us the mark in front of the house. There were no graffiti numbers, but there was a high water mark several feet above my head.
As it began to get dark we picked up the rest of our friends that would be joining us for the week. Over the next couple of days we took part in as many tourist activities as we could. We danced at the clubs on Frenchman Street, ate beignets at Café Du Monde, toured the Voodoo Museum, walked along the above ground tombs in the famous cemeteries, ate étouffée in the French Quarter and jambalaya at Mothers, walked along AudubonPark, trudged through the chaos on Bourbon Street, and saw the famous Street Cars.
The Lower Ninth Ward
We also decided to get a closer look at Hurricane Katrina’s destruction. When we returned to the Lower Ninth Ward it was sunny, but it still looked desolate. We got out of the van and walked down the empty streets. At the end of one street, next to the levees we saw a bunch of pink tents and a crowd of people. We walked closer to see what was going on. It was former President Clinton and Brad Pitt. They were there to break ground on a rebuilding project that Pitt was leading. The pair joked with volunteers, former President Clinton even playing the sax along with the Jazz Band that was there for the ceremony, before taking off in the dark black sedans. Before long we headed out as well, knowing we needed to get some rest before starting the rebuilding project the next day.
Clinton and the Jazz Band
Other than Justin none of us had ever done any home construction. The St. Bernard Project broke us up into teams. I was teamed up with Sergio and Sara and we went to a house that needed gutting. Our AmeriCorps volunteer leader explained the projects. We needed to tear down everything except for the frame. When we finished, we would reinstall wiring. She handed me a crowbar and a sledge hammer. I had never used either tool before. “Tear down everything?” I asked. “Everything” she replied with a smile.
Ready to Work
I began to tear the house apart, having a blast with the sledge hammer and crowbar. After months of being coped up indoors, studying, discussing the theory behind social change work, I was finally out doing something- making an impact in a community. Tearing out the old wiring and broken metal was calming, brining me to peaceful state I hadn’t felt in months. Sara and Sergio seemed to feel the same way as they climbed over the roof, into the attic tearing out items along the way.
During the week we ate our lunches sitting on the driveway where we could admire the work we had done. One day a group of men came by and started pulling pieces of scrap metal they could find in our garbage piles. Our AmeriCorps volunteer explained that an entire industry had sprung up of people foraging for scrap metal; some of them stole the metal, but most scavenged it from the piles.
Another time the young woman whose house we were working on came by with her children. She brought us pastries and sugary drinks which were perfect in the sticky heat. Her young son was excited to meet Sergio because he was from Los Angeles. The little boy’s big brown eyes shined as he excitedly showed us which room would be his. With only frames and no walls I couldn’t envision it. I told him it was a very cool room.
On another day as we were finishing lunch a yellow school bus drove down the street. A woman came out from the bus and walked over to us as we were starting to re-enter the house. “Hold on” she said, “I’ve got some pictures for you to see.” She ran into a house down the street and we waited, not sure what was happening. Moments later she emerged with a photo album in her hand. “I thought y’all might want to see what this house looked like after the storm.” She showed us pictures of the street were standing on; it was unrecognizable as the flood waters reached the rooftops. “I live down the street.” I looked over at the house she gestured at. It was small but it looked cozy with the big American flag flying in front. “If ya’ll need anything, you let me know,” she said with a big grin on her face. She continued to speak telling us about the destruction that her family had faced, how they rebuilt their home, and how they were excited to see other homes being rebuilt so that her neighbors could return home. I was surprised at her friendliness, not that it was different than anyone else I met in New Orleans. Everyone was very friendly and willing to talk about the storm, before even being asked. But I wondered how they could be so friendly. Seeing the vacant homes, the concrete slabs, the ubiquitous FEMA trailers- I was mad. This was three years later- what could be so wrong- that in our country, a country I had always been proud of, that these homes couldn’t be rebuilt already. Why couldn’t the little boy already have his bedroom back? Why couldn’t this nice woman with the happy smile have her neighborhood back, her community? How could she stand there smiling and joking with strangers? Wasn’t she as angry as I was? I asked her, “I notice a lot of American flags flying around here, but why? Aren’t you angry? Don’t you feel deserted?”
She gave me the look that you give to a small child when you are trying to explain something simple that you know they don’t understand. “The flag is for you. It is for all of people like you that have come here every day since Katrina to help with the rescues, to serve food, to rebuild homes. One day we will have our community back.” I smiled back at her. I was still angry, but what she said filled me with such hope. I knew that even after my week volunteering was over, I would not be done with New Orleans.
Coming soon “The Return to New Orleans.”