Tuesday, March 21, 2006

my revised rough draft

After twenty hours on a crowded bus, I awoke to sound of my fellow classmates gasping “ooh’s” and “oh my God’s”. I feel around for my glasses and quickly put them on. I can’t believe what I see when I peer out of the lightly tinted bus windows. It is as though we have been traveling for days not hours. It is as if we were in a third world country or a ghost town, with desolate streets and dilapidated buildings. There were rows among rows of cars on the sides of the main roads, covered in a white residue. Road signs were fallen and some non-existent, buildings now only roofs with woods beams. We looked to our professors for input and the only thing they told us was that we hadn’t even got to the bad parts yet. We kept both our eyes and our hearts wide open for the next two weeks and were in great anticipation of what was to come on our journey to help rebuild New Orleans.
This past January, I signed up for a class to aid in Katrina Relief. I remember when Hurricane Isabel came through the areas of my hometown and the flooding and devastation that it caused. Hurricane Katrina was much larger and stronger than Isabel and there are many people that need help in so many ways. I watched the news and I realized that I wanted to do something more than just give money. I wanted to be more than an outsider on this natural disaster and decided to take the bus ride down and help out in any way that I could. In my case it was by gutting houses of families that had signed up for disaster relief through UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief). My three professors, thirty classmates, and I stayed in a local church in Gretna where we spent our days meeting homeowners who lived in low lying areas whose houses have been totally destroyed due to the hurricane. Over the course of two weeks I kept a journal each day and we also had a video camera to capture footage of the devastation, as well as personal interviews with the homeowners.
We spent our days waking up at about 7:00 am and arriving at the worksite at about 9:00 am. The bus ride was usually spent anticipating how the day was going to turn out. When you first entered the home it looked like a boat does that had sank but a while later, washed ashore. Everything was thrown about and mold had taken over practically everything. Many of the families had not seen their houses until we came down to help because they have evacuated to places many hours away. We didn’t get a chance to meet all of the homeowners but those that we met had such amazing stories. These stories need to be shared and passed on so that we can see a change come about for them faster. I am going to focus on the stories presented by three of the many families that we helped.
The first house that we went to was owned by a family with three children. The homeowner is a Sheriff in the area and they bought the home in April of 2004 as their retirement home. The day the storm arrived, both homeowners were at work. The wife was notified that a levee had broke and that everyone needed to evacuate. She got her three children and they walked together through the water to her car, which was parked on a high level in the parking garage at her work. She carried her son on back and they left with nothing but the clothes on their back. For four days she could not get in contact with her husband, and didn’t even know if he was alive. Since he is a sheriff in the area he stayed to help the city and make sure as many people were being helped as possible. Everything in their house was destroyed but they still call it their “home”. Jeffrey’s story is one of great hope and an incredible attitude, in a personal interview he said:
We haven’t had the time to consume it just yet. We are taking it one day at a time and staying close to the Lord along the way. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and the hurricane has made our family much closer. We are no longer looking in the rear view mirror but ahead, through the windshield. It’s a beginning and we are excited about it. It’s really not depressing at all, it’s a journey to a better future and a start for rebuilding.

He thanked our group many times for coming out to help him and his family calling us “miracle workers”. They told that their home was our home if we were ever in New Orleans again and that once they finish their house they will send pictures. Before we left he told us to remember that many people were not going to be as positive about their stories but to keep our mission in our minds because although 15 houses might not sound like a lot, we were really helping in a big way.
Over the next few days we worked on more houses and heard many wonderful stories. One woman, who was born and raised in New Orleans, went away to nursing school but “realized how precious it was and came back”. Her neighborhood was completely surrounded by water but had never had a problem with flooding before. She lost everything except her positive outlook saying that “We might have lost everything, but we still got each other. Who knows why it happened, only God knows why, but we just gotta move on”. At the end of the first week we worked on a lady’s house who has an incredible story that will remain with me forever.
The homeowner had been living in her home for twenty years with her husband who has congested heart failure and colon cancer. They evacuated that Saturday to avoid the traffic and went to her son’s house out west. Her son was hosting several families in his home that he did not even know and at one point there were four additional families living with him. They left their son’s house to go to their sister’s two days later and she lived in Texas. She said that “two days later I started bleeding out of my breasts. I went to four or five doctors before one would see me because they couldn’t verify my insurance.” They couldn’t figure out what was wrong with her but it seemed to go away after about 10 days. Her sister saw that FEMA was paying for people to stay at hotels and she found one near the doctor’s office in Texas City. They stayed there for three and a half weeks and then had to evacuate for a few days due to Hurricane Rita.
When they returned, she found out that her sister and mother had not evacuated on Saturday as she had, but on Sunday. There was a lot more traffic on Sunday and they ended up getting into a bad car accident. Her mother had “severe damages to her head” and needed brain surgery. The lady flew up to see her mother, who never regained consciousness and died a few days later. When she went back home to the hotel, her husband had to go to the hospital because he was having trouble breathing since he wasn’t taking proper medication for his illnesses. At the same time she was having trouble with her mother’s funeral arrangements. Her mother had prepaid for the arrangements but the building in which she did it with was no longer there and was moved to Baton Rouge. They said they would honor the arrangement but they were not going to pay to have her body moved to their location. They brought her back and also found out that they were entitled to $2,300 for rent purposes from FEMA so they found an apartment that cost $700 a month and are currently living there. She said she took it “because we didn’t have anything, we couldn’t do anything else. We had no beds, chairs, dishes; we didn’t have anything.” After moving in, her husband had to go to the hospital again, where he was diagnosed with having bone cancer that had spread throughout his body. The nurses helped the family a lot and gave them a recliner and a pull out couch among other things. The landlord also noticed that they weren’t carrying anything in and donated dishes and towels and such. Because they were underinsured, they only received $50,000 dollars to repair their home, which clearly is not enough. She looked for houses to buy but had no luck and is scared because she can only live for four years with the money if she continued renting the apartment that she is currently residing in. Her view towards the rebuilding process is as follows:
“I just don’t know what we’re gonna do. We’ve lived here all our life, and my family, their all gone- all scattered all over. I don’t know where they are. My sister’s in Tennessee and my brother’s in Baton Rouge but I don’t know where my cousins are and everyone else is far away. The lady across the street drowned. It’s so devastating you lose so much. I’m gonna lose my husband as well and I lost my mother, my house, my neighbor, my neighborhood, everything. It’s overwhelming, you try and get help but everyone tells you something different. What are we gonna do, where are we gonna live? FEMA says they’re gonna stop giving aid. I thought they would have had something for the elderly in this type of situation. I know there are others who have stories harder and sadder than mine. I am just disappointed in my government. I have been fortunate, blessed I guess, in that I never needed and aid. I’ve never asked my government for anything…I’m a good citizen, I pay my taxes. We’re getting help but its so wishy washy…They told us we have to raise our houses and it costs $60-70,000, where are we gonna get that? If you had more than three and a half feet of water you have to raise it. They give you the option of not raising it but if you don’t you can’t get insurance and who is gonna do all that rebuilding if they can’t get insured? They are not giving us any help with the levees. The best they said they could do by June, which is when hurricane season starts again, is make them withstand the same strength as they did before Katrina, that’s not good enough… That’s my story, I don’t know what that is and where it leads us but that’s it.”

Over the weekend, we took a break from working and went to see the French Quarter. It was crazy to see how different the area looked and I didn’t understand how the city could be putting so much money into the rebuilding of this area, when other areas still looked as though the hurricane just hit. It bothered me a little, to see such a big difference just because this area is where money is made and tourists come to stay. Tourists need to see the real picture and the French Quarter and Bourbon Street are a far cry from the real deal. On Sunday we traveled to Buloxi, Mississippi, and the vast difference was again unbelievable. The houses were totally gone and nothing was left but the concrete slab on which it was built and in many instances a lone American Flag standing tall in the middle of what they once called their home. The trees in the distance looked as though they had snow on them but when you looked closer they were filled with clothes and debris that flew during the storm and there were people on ladders trying to clean it up, little but little. “This used to be our home,” and other words from the homeowners in spray paint was a common sight as well. There was a hotel that was missing the entire wall facing the street and you could see inside each of the little square rooms. Parts of the casinos fell into the Gulf and other parts wound up across lanes of highway. One highway itself was completely torn in half by the storm. Trash piles on the side of the roads reached at least 10 to 12 feet. Seeing this area made us all want to get back to work the next day and help these families because little by little, New Orleans and other areas that were hit, will rebuild.
Over the next week of work we met a family that can only be described as a _________ and _____________. Three sisters and their mother all lived in the same neighborhood, as many families in New Orleans tend to do. We split up and worked on two of the sisters’ homes and the mother’s home because the other house had trees fall on it and was unsalvageable. When we arrived at the houses we were greeted with big smiling faces and the homeowners were already in the houses helping to take stuff out. I worked on the mother’s home and she wasn’t able to keep anything really. I found a certificate of some sort that one of her children must have made for their dad and brought it out to her and she was really happy that something sentimental like that was able to be saved. At lunch time, the family brought us all fried chicken and kool-aid, which was very nice because we were growing rather sick of the peanut butter sandwiches that we usually have. She asked the boy beside me to pick up a heavy piece of a table but he wasn’t done eating so I did it for her and it was really funny because she told me I wasn’t going to be able to have kids if I kept that up.
The family was just very warm and appreciative while being incredibly strong. One of the sisters even made it a point to learn each of our names. She and her husband said “We’re trying as hard as we can and doing the best that we can. It’s gonna be a long process but slowly we will achieve our goals. We’re just trying to stay alive while we get through it.” They are currently living on one of the Carnival Cruise Ships and were really excited about it because they had always wanted to take a cruise together. They were very positive about everything that has occurred and really believe it to be more of a blessing than tragedy. They continued with their generosity by renting out a local restaurant for us to have dinner with all of their family.
When we got there we were greeted by the aroma of true New Orleans cuisine and many smiling faces. It was nice to see the family outside of the drywall blurred vision that we had become used to seeing them in. After eating both dinner and desert, including gumbo, jerked chicken, red beans and rice, ribs, pasta, and many other items. Then the family played a fun gift exchange game so that we could all have a souveneir from the trip and they also gave us all a picture frame to put their picture in. We were all so overwhelmed with the kindness that they showed us and it made our weeks of hard work so worthwhile. I couldn’t believe that they were paying for all of us and buying us gifts when they were the ones who lost everything in Katrina.
Their display of appreciation was completely unnecessary. Through such tragic losses they still found ways to make our stay be more comfortable and if I would not have met this family, I wouldn’t know that the people who live in New Orleans are actually as loving and compassionate as I read that they were in class the week before coming. Before leaving, one of the sisters sang “Let There Be Peace On Earth” a capella while telling us thank you one more time. She said that she and her husband were going to come to Randolph-Macon for the next four years to see our graduations which really meant a lot to us all. I couldn’t hold back the tears at that point and I wasn’t the only one. We gave hugs and took pictures and headed back to Gretna UMC to prepare for one more day of work. This was by far the best night in New Orleans and probably one of the best of my life. That family will stay in my heart forever and I hope that they, as well as all the other families, get their lives back together and never have to experience this again.


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