I'm finally back from New Orleans. I can't begin to tell you how incredible and eye-opening my time has been over the past week. Just to remind you, I joined a few fellow UM-Flint students for our Alternative Spring Break. Instead of partying in Cancun, we decided to commit our time to participating in post-Hurricane Katrina rebuilding efforts. This week has allowed us the chance to witness firsthand the after effects of the disaster and to share our stories with the rest of the world.
Well, this is my story. *Note* I'll have lots of pictures to share pretty soon. Stay tuned.
For starters, the duration of our stay was at Camp Hope; a volunteer camp approximately 20 miles outside of New Orleans. Camp Hope was formerly a high school; now converted into a shelter for volunteers. The work on the facility has yet to be completed; as you can tell almost immediately upon entering. Between some paneling, drywall, and metal framing, the inside of the Camp still has ways to go. But be that as it may, I wasn’t expecting the Ritz Carlton. I was perfectly content with the campsite.
The rooms where we bunked, separated by gender, were nothing more than empty rooms with rows and rows and rows of cots. Without much of a ventilation system, our comfort/discomfort was primarily be based on what the temperature decided for us that day. But, again, I was content with our surroundings. After all as one of the camp counselors put it: "It's not like a hurricane destroyed everything we had."
Among the other facilities at the camp were a depot for donating clothes, blankets, and other misc materials; an all-volunteer ran cafeteria (affectionally nicknamed the “Hungry Jungle”) that served breakfast, lunch, and dinner; an orientation room used for group sessions, psychiatric support for those who needed it, and movie viewing (included in the movies shown was Spike Lee’s “When the levees broke”. If you haven’t already seen it, I strongly recommend it.); and a lounge equipped with a few computers, a television, board games, and books. The showers were located in the gymnasium of an adjacent building. Incidentally, many bulked supplies (canned foods and the hideously disgusting FEMA water for instance) were also housed in the gym.
Admittedly, our stay at Camp Hope left much to be desired (especially with the showers), but I was able to cope with it knowing that less than two years ago, most of the campsite was flooded with water. The progress that’s been made since; while not worthy of a four-star hotel; was good enough to sustain.
The camp housed volunteers not only from all around the country; but literally from all over the world. In fact, our bunk mates were from Windor, Canada. Also included in our volunteer cohort were high school students from Vietnam, a group of college students from Bosnia, a group of volunteers from the UK and a small group doing outreach work from South Africa. This, to me, shows how people from across the globe have selflessly committed themselves to this cause.
Our work was performed at the Musician’s Village; through New Orleans' Habitat for Humanity. The Musician’s Village is an area in the upper 9th ward conceived by jazz musicians Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marasalis; working in partnership with Habitat; for the purpose of restoring the homes of musicians who were displaced because of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina. The single-family homes built in the region are made available to displaced residents at considerably less-expensive rates. Because of the amount of volunteer time used to produce these homes, the residents have the opportunity to purchase affordable homes interest free. For more information about Musician’s village, check out its website.
Our group was broken up into teams and allowed to choose which activities we’d like to work on. While some volunteers wanted to choose a particular assignment and remain committed to it, I ultimately decided to perform a sundry of activities. Some of the work I did includes:
Fencing: The houses already created by Habitat were still in need of chain-link fencing to enclose backyards. Using chain link fences is probably the most common for home usage. So, it was no surprise that we went this route. But what was suprising was all the work that went into it. For one, the heavy-gauged wiring and metal equipment we used was super heavy; making transporting it from the equipment trailers to the actual site was pretty difficult. From there, large metal posts had to be precisely measured and cut before being set in the ground. After that, the chain link fencing had to be measured, cut, and affixed to the posts using installed fittings, tension rods, and railings. After the fences were erected, gates could then be applied.
This was undoubtedly the most difficult job I took on. With all the steps and the arduous labor attached, I don’t think I’ll ever look at another chain-link fence the same. My hat goes off to the folks who do this for a living.
Vinyl siding: I’ll admit, doing vinyl siding installation wasn’t too difficult. The bulk of my siding work involved cutting the vinyl; pretty easy to do with simple power saw and a utility knife, nailing the siding, and – as needed – installing scoffits and fascias; which – I admit – was far more difficult than the siding itself. Though this is pretty time-consuming, it’s a relatively easy job that does lots to make a home more energy efficient.
Interior insulation: Even though the insulation made me itch like crazy, I had a pretty good (and easy) time installing insulation inside one of the houses we worked on. Admittedly, it was a little nerve-wrecking at times to do work in higher areas like the attic from a ladder. But overall the job was pretty simple and effortless.
Drywalling: If you can picture it, I actually gained some experience in drywalling a house. I was largely responsible for scoring (precisely cutting) the drywall, remove the excess debris, and even doing some of the actual installation.
While this job wasn’t nearly as physically demanding as fencing, it was far more nerve-wrecking. This was a pretty frustrating job for me largely because most of cuts to the material created rough edges; making it difficult to butt the pieces together tightly enough. This is a delicate skill that I don’t claim to have. Nevertheless, I finally got the hang of it and was able to learn some of the tricks of this trade.
After the meeting the demands of a work-filled day, our group spent most of our nights in the tourist sections of New Orleans; particularly in the French Quarter. Even though we just missed Mardi Gras by a few days, the atmosphere was still pretty electric. I mean, some of the ladies in our group couldn't walk ten yards down Bourbon Street without getting party beads thrown at them (Relax. They didn't do anything to "earn" those beads except for being there and looking beautiful. They were able to stay classy even when the crowd was...well...Bourbon Street-ish). I was amazed at how much life and vitality this portion of the city had; especially considering how lifeless some of the surrounding sections of the city were. While there, we were able to enjoy hoards of live music, great food, and shopping.
Habitat's volunteers got a pretty good suprise toward the end of the work week. Apparently, pop star Justin Timberlake was scheduled to be on the site, joining in the volunteer effort (to coincide with a concert he had slated in New Orleans at the time). But Habitat coordinators indicated that -- out of concern for him losing his performance energy -- he would not be joining us at the site. Instead, he donated tickets to each of the volunteers who signed up for the week. I didn't go to concert myself (largely because I don't like his music, and because I was one of the group leaders in charge of keeping up with the non-concert going group), so I can't speak much to the event. But the group who went got a terrific treat.
For many of us, the nightlife was a much need escape from some of the experiences we realized.
Most of my commentary about the Katrina disaster used to primarily focus on the government and their massive failures, my theories on how the levees gave way, and the environmental questions left to be answered on how the hurricane will impact the area. But after my experience in New Orleans, I’m done passing the blame; though there is much to go around. Instead, seeing the after effects of the storm has given me a greater concern for the years and years of work that will still need to be done and a much greater appreciation for those who continue to battle Katrina.
We actually arrived in New Orleans late Monday evening; largely because of the some breakdowns in our trip’s coordination (I’m not gonna waste my time commenting on this). So there isn’t much to speak about for the first night there. But, I spent a few hours during the week touring the area while making notes of the all the destruction that remains even to this day. Looking around at the devastation almost made me forget that the storm which made these marks was close to two years removed already. In many areas of the city, it looked like the storm had just hit only a few brief moments earlier. Interestingly, there actually were many houses and buildings in the area that were pretty unscathed. Incidentally though, many of those were either erected on higher ground or were in affluent neighborhoods. But those unaffected buildings were too far in between. If you went one block over (in some case, if you went just next door), you were quickly reminded of the damage that really took place. The hundreds of homes that were completely obliterated far outnumbered those that were untouched or restored. It wasn’t very difficult to get past the reality that redemption for New Orleans, should there actually be any, is still many years away.
Some of my tour took me to the famous (or should I say ‘infamous’) lower 9th Ward. Most of this part in the city, simply put, is finished. Located just feet away from the industrial levees that broke down and completely collapsed, this part of the city was most victimized by the sheer power of the storm. The 9th ward was completely slammed with a tsunami-like force and was left to immerse underwater for weeks thereafter. Today, even after the waters have receded, entire sections of the 9th ward have been reduced to clear lots, vacant houses and scattered debris. Every so often, I’d stumble upon houses and buildings made of brick and mortar, steel, or cinder blocks that were moderately preserved. Moderately, of course, because the exteriors had not been completely ruined. But everything on the interior was, of course, completely and utterly destroyed. Now that think about, the term “destroyed” doesn’t quite do the scene justice. These areas were submerged in contaminated water for weeks, then left untreated in the hot and sultry New Orleans air. When I think about some of the things I saw, to say that things were ‘destroyed’ is an understatement. I find it difficult to fathom the idea of this area ever being inhabitable again.
Most of the wooden homes in the area didn’t stand a chance. The winds ripped through them leaving them shifted, moved, or destroyed. If the winds were not effective in destroying the homes, the water was. Since most of the homes were only built to sustain flooding of a foot or so (about the height of the cinder block foundation upon which they were built), any additional water would travel its way in through the wooden boards in the floors and on the walls. If you look inside of the typical wooden-structured home, it’s pretty likely that you’ll see the floors and walls expanding outward; likely where the water exploded from the ground into the house. With enough power and force (that comes with millions of gallons of water), moving houses from their foundations is a definite possibility. In one of my pictures, for example, a house had its front end completely ripped away while a large portion of a neighboring house (they look similar in the picture, but these are actually two different homes) was ripped from its yard and landed on a vehicle. This is only a sample of the types of images we ran into all over the 9th ward.
Optimistically speaking, there were also many parts of the city that were in pretty modest, decent, or completely restored and in inhabitable conditions. Some of the displaced residents of the city (many of whom with enough resources to do so) have moved back to the city and have began; even completed, their rebuilding. Areas like that do two things: (1) remind me that even in the face of horrible natural disasters, people can overcome and (2) but not so cheery; that there is a blatantly obvious level of disparity in the city; shaped just as much by class as it is by race. While I was encouraged to see the beauty of the city restored to an extent; especially in the virtually unaffected French Quarters, I also couldn’t help but to feel a great deal of frustration and exasperation knowing how some of the city is progressing while most of it is left to decay and be absorbed later by greedy contractors and property owners. For them, New Orleans is a gentrified, solid gold piece of real estate.
Every single building in the area; even those currently occupied; were labeled with codes used to represent the condition of the buildings during the time of inspection. The numbers listed on the homes signified the number of dead animals found, the number of dead humans found, the known (or suspected) address of the building, the level of damage sustained at that location, and the date(s) of inspection. Every few blocks or so, I noticed multiple inspection dates on houses which, I suppose, was an indication that there was at least some progress made by the inspection crews. Also, it was good to see that damage levels in many areas wasn’t that high, there was only mild flooding in some areas (if there really was such a thing), and casuality levels were pretty low.
It made it that much more unnerving when I actually did see houses that have numbers on them greater than zero; especially in the human causality section. It was hard to imagine that the bodies of the dead were found in these homes. Hearing about a death toll is one thing; physically seeing the places where they either died and/or were found dead is another. At one point, for example I ran into what appeared to be a church. It was small house-like building with a cross on it. While most of the churches in the area were pretty modernized, there were a few older churches still around, which is what I thought this was. But, as it was later explained to me, this building that I thought was a church was actually a home, where the owner placed a cross on the roof to mark where one of his relatives died while awaiting relief (I didn’t get a picture of it because it was too disturbing of a story for me. I felt it disrespectful to do.) Stories like that gave me an unadulterated version of Katrina; without the media and political spins and soundbytes. These were actual people with actual stories told with actual emotions.
I also noticed other signs and messages painted onto houses that told other stories of and relayed stories from that home’s inhabitants. Some messages were optimistic while others were spine-tingling. I read messages that spoke to human courage and soul like “We’re at home. 504-xxx-xxxx”, “Thank you Jesus”, “We're alive!”, or to human agony like “Help!” and “Possible body inside”. Interestingly, I didn’t see many messages advertising political disdain, anger, or frustration. There wasn’t much about Bush, FEMA, or the government. I could only speculate why people decided not to express their disappointment at the government for failing them. But, one of the residents with whom I spoke gave me his reasons for not initially criticizing those who failed him. “I didn’t want to bite the hand I was hoping would feed me.” This quote is word-for-word. Perhaps this was the predominant sentiment of the other victims or maybe they were too tired and overwhelmed to think about their anger. Whatever the case, there wasn’t much of a public display of people’s anger. I can’t tell whether this is good or bad for the city.
During some of my touring and picturing taking, I also had a chance to meet several of the city's residents. In fact, I met residents all throughout our trip. Let me go on the record by saying that the people of the city were incredibly terrific to us. They were genuinely interested in hearing about our work and also shared their incredible experiences with us. Even when many of their stories were somber and heartrending, the positivity and energy they projected only encouraged us more. There was at least one resident, however, who appeared to be incensed by our being there. While I was taking random photos of the area, I heard him say (though not to me directly), “I’m sick of these goddamned tourists!” I felt compelled to inform him that I was here primarily to do volunteer work and that I was only taking pictures to remind others about how the situation in the area has not improved. But I left it alone. I suspected that this man, along with thousands of others, was simply releasing the stress and anguish that came with being involved in a disaster, losing everything they own, and trying to start over from scratch.
This leads me to another point (I apologize for the digression, but this sordid situation leaves much to talk about). Perhaps one of the most fascinating things about the people and their rebuilding efforts was that while I was there, I only noticed a few random residents rebuilding, a few people using tools, a few trailers being inhabited, a few contracting companies doing work. Simply put, I didn’t notice much community or governmental action taking place; largely, I suspect, because most people aren’t even there anymore. Individual or small group action was the central theme of the rebuilding effort. This is not to say that there was not a volunteer group presence (in fact, as I shared earlier, that’s exactly what we were apart of.). But given the magnitude of this disaster, I was surprised not to see more governmental support. This storm didn’t just impact a city or town. It affected an entire region of our nation. Though regional compositions of homes, stores, churches, schools, streets were destroyed on a massive and widespread level, the large bulk of the rebuilding was left to individual inhabitants and volunteer organizations. Human presence in an area, to me, is a complicated idea that calls for an equilibrium between people, buildings, economy, and public work services like electricity, gas, sewage, and road work; all of which impact how much quality of life can be restored as rebuilding is accomplished. Simply put, you can rebuild a house all you want, but what good is it if you can’t have basic services like heating, electricity, and clean water?
As we traveled back to our campsite, I got a look at parts of the new levee system. Frankly, I wasn’t impressed by what I saw. Most of the levees were pretty meager, stark, and insecure. To put it another way, if another storm like Katrina came around tomorrow, I’m not convinced that what I saw would effectively do much against additional flooding. What disturbed me more than the weak and frail levee system was the fact that this is the protection that a vulnerable city has against another disaster that is just waiting to happen. We’ve already seen the results of inferior levees. Do we have to see it again? Talking to some of the residents made me realize how nervous folks are about the possibility of more disastrous hurricanes and how unprepared the city is. After seeing the new levees firsthand, I don’t think their reactions are all that unreasonable. Considering how close another catastrophe is and how emotionally threadbare people are, it makes perfect sense why people have yet to – and probably never will – fully recover.
Most of the lower 9th ward was comprised of rented single-family homes, apartment buildings, gas stations, small malls, and rental houses (interestingly, not that dissimilar from Flint). Looking at the buildings, you have clear indication of the extent to which the flood waters rampaged the area. Flood lines reached as high as 15 feet in some areas and buildings and their environments were completely demolished. We drove passed miles and miles of condemned, tame, and unrestored property. This property will likely remain unoccupied, repurchased by new owners, and used to generate large profits down the road. At most complexes there was no obvious restoration activity going on.
In many of the suburban areas of the city, a different tale is told about the impact of the storm. In this section; mostly made up of middle to upper-middle class residents, houses were generally intact. While waters did raise to at least half way up the first level of these homes, they are still pretty well intact; although some structures made of wood were either collapsing or pretty significantly damaged. The need for restoration around these areas is not as demanding as it is for places like the 9th ward, but is still pretty bad. Homes in this area, while in one piece, still have notable damage caused by the water; like with appliances, furniture, and other unsalvageable goods. Even when infrastructures were of quality, a combination of contaminated water, lack of utilities and penetrable fungus and mold were enough to damage even the most well-protected homes. Unlike in the 9th ward, most of these homes have either had substantial work done on them or were in the process of getting worked on. Even still, many of these homes were decorated with Home for Sale signs in the front yard. This suggested to me that many people wanted to sell and get the hell out of Dodge. But I couldn’t help but wonder what family in their right mind would buy a home in New Orleans now. But given all the restoration projects taken on by volunteers, it’s not too hard to imagine that many rich buyers will be looking to buy land at dirt cheap prices; only to charge premium rates later if and when the city is revitalized. I suppose that only time will tell...
Located in front of quite a few homes were the ever-infamous FEMA trailers. If you know anything about these trailers, these units were either not delivered to the area on time or not delievered at all. Even the trailers that actually were provided were not nearly equipped with the necessary items to make them livable. One of the residents shared a story where she and her family were assigned to a trailer, but given the wrong keys. They had to wait for an additional three days to get a new set; but not before they took it upon themselves to break in to the unit. Though there were many vacant lots with lots of space, many trailers were situated right in front of people’s homes. The trailer units have newly-built step (or, as needed, ramps for the physically impared) which lead up to the trailer’s entrance.
The trailers I’ve seen created mixed feelings for me. On the one hand, they were symbolic of the government’s attempts to at least minutely assuage some of the anguish of the disaster. But, on the other hand, they also represented nothing more than a big lump of unequipped and lacking homes taking up space that needed to be restored. Interestingly, one of the residents I spoke to indicated that – for him – his trailer was a much needed breath of fresh air to allow him to escape from his unlivable house and provided him and his family a place to live, reclaim a piece of their neighborhood, and ultimately to recreate the community in which he resides. Versus living in a homeless shelter or jam-packing the Superdome, these trailers were a step up. Far be it for me to argue. But even if this man (or people like him) would rather live in the subpar conditions of a trailer instead a shelter, this doesn’t give the government the license to completely neglect their needs for a home. I’ll argue that until the day I die. If this city is ever to survive again, it must do so through its people. But the people must first be supported by their government. This includes through the use of decent trailers.
Unless the government steps up with its support (improving from its lackluster performance thus far), the damage done to the city doesn't appear to be completely fixable unless the residents can themselves afford to handle the work. Residents who can afford to do so have hired various construction workers to do most of the restoration work. A man I met in the French Quarter; for instance; was able to somehow collect enough money from his insurance agency, combining that with his own money, and was able to hire expensive contractors to literally rebuild his home from square one. But the residents from the far less affluent neighborhoods are left to rely solely on grassroots volunteers and low-end (more than likely foreign) workers as their source of rebuilding. Although their efforts to rebuild are inspiring, much needed, and welcomed by the residents, they are not enough to eliminate the problems faced by the city. Eager students and residents armed with a hammer and nails is not enough rebuild an entire region; or a city no less.
I think that’s important to note that Katrina did more than destroy infrastructure. To many, it destroyed lives. It destroyed to city’s ability to ensure economic survival for its residents. But most of all, it destroyed the power of people’s spirit to aid the city in sustaining itself. This is not to say that the city was absent of spirit. In fact, the dozens of people we met tell another story. But this city cannot survive off of just its spirit. Actions must continue to be taken. The work is dire and the labor is great. It involves restoring an entire collection of people, an economic base, and a renewal of human vigor. We must find a way to reinvigorate people; even more than what jazz, gumbo, and Mardi Gras can do, so that they will be willing to start afresh.
I hate to admit it, but Katrina openly exposed some of the our nation's most hideous aspects of social, economic, and environmental injustice. It reminded me of our nation's inability and/or unwillingness to support and protect the rights of our fellow countrymen; while prioritizing profitable foreign 'conflicts'. But on the positive side, my experiences also taught me importance lessons about hope, continual optimism, and the significance of diverse peoples unifying with one common goal. Above all, it reminds me that even when we faced on of the greatest disasters in our history, the waters did recede.
The destruction that has taken place will be sure to resonate with those who were there; as well as those who volunteered their time in the relief/rebuilding efforts. I'm eternally thankful to have had the opportunity to participate and for being able to share my experiences with the world. I hope that you will each have a chance to see this for yourself; so that you can fully realize the extent to which the need for aid still exists.
Please continue to keep our brothers and sisters of the Gulf in your prayers.
Saturday, March 03, 2007