A Life in My Shoes

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Rebuilding a City

I just returned from spending some time in New Orleans helping rebuild a woman's home damaged by Hurricane Katrina. The experience--that has greatly impacted my life--started with a 16 hour drive from Washington, DC to New Orleans, Louisiana. Of the 120 (or so) volunteers with our group, 4 of us drove--we quickly learned that everyone else, who had flown, were correct in their agreement that we were insane for enduring such a drive, even though we saved money. However, without that drive, I would have missed quite a bit.

First of all, we were driving in Tennessee and passed along the highway with these huge crosses. Later that week, we were watching a TV special regarding this man who was attempting to build these crosses along the highway throughout the South. These crosses cost approximately $25,000 a pop. Wow who knew! But the most gripping sight was the steady progression of increased hurricane damage as we neared New Orleans. From what we could tell, what used to be a forestry landscape along the highway, now consisted of bare trees standing half as tall--if they were lucky. Then we continued on into the outskirts of New Orleans. I couldn't believe that a year and half after the hurricane, debris still resided in the boarded up strip mall's parking lot with signs that were only half standing. One would think that after a year and half some of this would have been cleaned up by now. However, the most surreal moment was when I saw a home with "help" spray painted on the roof. Of course, the media has blasted us with the devastation that the people of New Orleans faced, but it wasn't until this moment when I saw the efforts of pure desperation that made the tragedy of the hurricane real to me.

We got fairly lucky and got housed in a very nice hotel while we were down there working. I couldn't help but feel bad. During the day we went into these damaged homes where most of the families were still residing. One family had to clean their dishes in the bathtub and had a rather large hole in their living room wall, all the while housing around 10 people in one room. It's easy to feel cavalier by roughing it during the day working on these homes, but at night we escaped the reality by returning to our cushy hotel room with our nicely prepared dinners. I felt bad that because this city faced this tragedy I was able to receive warm fuzzy feelings from helping rebuild their community during the day and then at night go to Emeril's restaurant and then return to a warm comfortable bed. I was supposed to be giving...not receiving.

At one point in the trip, we visited the lower ninth ward (which is the area most affected by the hurricane). In this neighborhood once stood many homes, now whole city blocks stand completely empty. These homes were washed right off of their foundations. Some homes now live nestled right next to a neighbor's home, under a neighbor's home, on top of a neighbor's home, or completely disassembled strewn across several city blocks. We were told that most of the families in this neighborhood owned their homes. In one day, these families lost their every possession. Even a year and half later, this neighborhood is practically completely abandoned. We saw maybe two cars the entire time we were there. It looked like a ghost town (but in a swamp versus the desert). We were also told that if these families don't return by August that the city (or state...I can't remember) will be taking possession of the homes. There still isn't electricity in this neighborhood. It is no wonder that these families are opting not to return to a desolate neighborhood.

It's hard to understand how after a year and a half neighborhoods and buildings remain abandoned. On our second day in New Orleans, my friend and I decided to explore the city. Our hotel room had a booklet with information on things to do, so we took their advice and headed to a nearby mall. As we approached the supposed address of the mall, we didn't see anything that resembled a mall. After further investigation, we decided that the boarded up building was indeed once a mall. Obviously, this place had been completely abandoned. It was interesting there were mannequins still partly dressed in some of the windows. It was quite clear that this mall had received little to no attention after the hurricane. I don't think we realized it until we were literally 10 feet away from it, but we ended up right next to the Superdome and within view of the bridge that the police were blocking the New Orleans' citizens from leaving the city. It's hard to describe the feelings I felt when standing in an area where I know so many people suffered. As Americans, I think we have a false sense of security. I know I'd assume that in the face of tragedy that there would be a plan to fix everything, but this is not the case. Clearly, we, as a nation, were not prepared to deal with such devastation, and we have not stepped up to the plate to efficiently and effectively resolve our lack of preparation. I can't imagine the fear that they must have felt not knowing what was being done to help the situation, not knowing if your loved ones were OK, not knowing if your home was still standing where you left it, not knowing what tomorrow would bring.

The most memorable time from the trip was Wednesday morning. We were lucky enough to be helping out on a week that a Catholic charity group was also helping. Whenever they bring a group to town, they arrange an opportunity for all of the volunteers to go to Mass at a local school. Being Presbyterian, I've never been to a Catholic Mass before (well except for one time in Italy--but the service was naturally in Italian, so I had no idea what was going on). Nevertheless, I had this preconceived notion that it would be a very traditional service. I couldn't have been more wrong. This was by my definition a "holy roller" service. This service gave me hope for this city. For the most part, during the week we were surrounded by loss and suffering, but in this service, we were surrounded by some of the most precious children I've ever been around. These children have experienced great devastation, yet they are still worshipping God with joy by singing and dancing. These kids were having fun. They didn't view Wednesday Mass as a weekly commitment, but as a weekly celebration of God. I definitely had to hold back the tears during this service. These kids taught me a lot. Even though these children have suffered great loss, they still have hope and can give thanks to God.

In the end, I gained much more from this experience than I gave of myself. I would encourage everybody to take some time to go and help this city. This experience proved to be a reality check. Being an American, does not automatically protect you from devastation. I learned that I shouldn't take anything for granted, for tomorrow it all could be gone. Yet, at the same time, I learned that no matter what God is good and there is still hope.


  • Great post. Totally worth the wait. Pray more people are able to follow in your footsteps and take your advice.

    By Blogger The Black Sheep, at 6:58 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home