Sunday, April 23, 2006



It is as if we are in a third world country, or a ghost town, with desolate streets and dilapidated buildings. 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. I feel like we have been traveling for days not hours. There are rows among rows of cars covered in a white residue on the sides of the main roads. Road signs fallen or non-existent; buildings reduced to roofs held up by wooden beams. I looked to my professors for input but they simply tell me the worst is yet to come. My mind begins to race, filling with questions in anticipation of what the next two weeks has in store for me and the other student volunteers from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia as we embark on a journey to help rebuild New Orleans.
“Eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee,” I am quickly interrupted by a high pitched squeal so loud that it makes my whole face flinch. It is one of my professors trying to use the loudspeaker on the bus to tell us that we are about to reach our destination. By the time he figures out how to use the loudspeaker, the bus has stopped at what seems to be an abandoned church parking lot that, in my best judgment, seems to have escaped the wrath of Hurricane Katrina. As I step off the bus it hits me. We are actually in New Orleans. There’s no turning back. I am overwhelmed with the images from the media of looters stealing things and the words of my father telling me to be careful of alligators and snakes. I wonder if I have gotten myself into something that I can’t handle. The only people I really know on the trip are my ex-boyfriend, of who I am not speaking to, two of his good friends, and two girls that live upstairs from me. But I didn’t sign up for this trip to make friends. I don’t think any of us did. I signed up to spend two weeks in January rebuilding New Orleans. I did this because I remember sitting in a frat house the weekend before school started watching a football game, while news banners were reeling at the bottom of the screen telling us that a hurricane was predicted to strike the Gulf Coast early the next morning. It came and destroyed virtually all in its path and for weeks afterward, that same television screen was filled with images of people walking through oil filled waters up to their shoulders, people standing on their roofs desperate to be rescued; thousands of people crammed into the superdome in seek of food, of family members, of help. Of our help. My twenty-nine classmates, three professors, and I were here in this church parking lot for that very reason.
Hurricane Katrina struck land on August 28th 2005, totally wiping out the city of New Orleans. Although the entire city was affected by the storm, the hardest hit area was the Lower Ninth Ward, found in the south eastern part of the city. It has been eight months since Katrina’s wrath but the residents are still waiting for answers. Its residents were predominately lower class African Americans but the neighborhood was rich in culture and history, “a remarkable human community woven together by a network rich in family history, social connections, and proximity to relatives and friends” (Gratz). The community has what “many Americans wish they were a part of,” the residents realize the “importance of a close-knit community where everyone works together” (Frank). Katrina has devastated this community and it is quite possible that it will never be built as it once was. A rather controversial issue concerning the Lower Ninth Ward is whether the neighborhood should be rebuilt for its residents or whether it should be turned into the natural wetlands that existed before the development of the Ninth Ward to protect the rest of the city from future Hurricanes.
* * *

The Lower Ninth Ward was originally a cypress swamp that later became the home to African Americans and immigrants who were previously laborers in Ireland, Germany, and Italy. These immigrants moved here because it was an inexpensive location for them to settle. Because the land originally served as a swamp for runoff from the Mississippi River, it had a very poor drainage problem. Because of this, the area developed very slowly. A series of canals were built around the ward in 1910 and were completed in 1923, fixing the draining problem, but also causing the area to be entirely isolated from the rest of the city (Greater New Orleans Community Data Center).
With time the Lower Ninth Ward grew and according to a 2002 census, before Katrina the population was 14,008 with about 98% being African American. The current population has yet to be determined. The average household income was less than half of the United States’ average income at $27,499 and as much as 36% of the population lived in poverty. Many of the homes, however, were handed down through family members and therefore mortgage free for the residents. Cars were not a necessity because friends and family members usually lived down the street from one another as the Ward was only a two mile stretch of land. Resident of the area, Betty Lewis lives in the Ward with twelve of her aunts and uncles and nineteen of their children. She describes the community as a place where “You couldn’t get in trouble without someone telling your mom,” and that “in front of whoever’s house you were at at lunch time is where you went to eat” (Gratz).
The people that live in the Ninth Ward may have been poverty stricken but they were wealthy in ways that many people do not understand. For instance, many jazz musicians including Fats Domino come from the area and chose to move back after experiencing wealth and fame. This shows how much people love the area and are not forced or constrained to it but choose to live there (Gratz). To residents, the community is as cultural and historic a district as the French Quarter. However, because the community is almost entirely African American, the affluent fail to recognize its significance.
My twenty-nine classmates and I got the privilege of seeing this firsthand. When the bus door finally opened in the church parking lot, we began our journey. We made our way through the big doors of the Gretna United Methodist Church and were introduced to a brown haired woman with a great warmth about her. Her name was Lisa* and gave us a tour of the church and showed us to the room that we would be sleeping in. She told us they were blessed in that the only room damaged by the storm was the one we were staying in, but that they had it fully redone so that mission groups like ourselves could stay and help in the efforts to rebuild the city.
The two weeks ahead turned out to be something that I had never imagined I would be a part of in my entire life. I knew we were going to be working on people’s houses that had been destroyed by Katrina, but had no idea that we would be rebuilding their homes, throwing away all of their memories while hearing their remarkable stories and touching their lives just as they were touching ours. These twenty-nine classmates and three professors that I used to call strangers, I soon learned to call family.
We spent our days waking up to the mixed sound of phone alarms going off and to the clang of one of our professors banging a metal pot above our air mattresses at about 7:00 in the morning. We stumbled out of bed sore and exhausted from the day before. We put on our work boots, stocked our tool belts, and made sure not to forget our respirator masks and safety goggles that were ever so important during the course of the day. We were eager to get the chance to help the families that had fallen victim to Katrina. Our initial arrival at each house was often the most intense. Intense with appreciation from the homeowner that they were finally getting help, with images of waterlogged moldy walls and saturated belongings, and most of all with our own overwhelming emotions for these innocent families that did not deserve such devastation.
The inside of their houses looked the way boats do when they have sunk and are later washed up on to shore. Everything was misplaced and rusted. Refrigerators were turned on their sides and water still filled bowls and glasses in kitchen cabinets. Mold had covered everything from the floor to the ceiling and a putrid smell surrounded us as if to push us away. Dark green water lines clearly marked the walls often as high as ten to twelve feet from the ground. Pictures hanging on the walls were faded and the colors all ran together. Beautiful white wedding dresses, now green and brown, their necklines rusted from where they once hung on metal hangers. Photo albums now clumps of paper and color residue. The treasured memories of others, exposed and ravaged by stagnant pools of soupy waste.
This was often the hardest part, taking wheelbarrow after wheelbarrow of possessions outside and throwing them into a pile that eventually reached well over ten feet in height. Our safety goggles shielded us not only from debris, but hid the tears that fell for these families. Flashes of my own life kept popping up in my head. I couldn’t imagine everything I owned sitting in a pile in front of my house waiting to be scooped up and thrown into huge garbage trucks. We worked for hours emptying out the houses, ripping up carpet and linoleum and tearing down walls and remnants of insulation leaving only the concrete floor and wooden beams that stood beneath it all.
As we emptied out their homes of the evidence of their lives, the families stood strong and their appreciation and optimistic attitudes were an inspiration to us all. The first family that we met, Tonya* and Jerry* were working members of the community. Jerry is a sheriff and Tonya a nurse. They resided in an area just outside of the Lower Ninth Ward and had bought their house a year and a half ago as their retirement home. When Katrina hit, Tonya was notified at work that a levee had breeched and that the area was flooding. She picked up her three children and they waded 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 her 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 say it will always be there home. When we asked how they felt they said,
“We haven’t had the time to consume it just yet, said Jeffrey.
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.”
They told us that their home was our home if we were ever in New Orleans again. Tonya, who was quiet at first, started telling us she wanted to have a bigger kitchen and the husband showed us where he was going to make the family room bigger. The way that they could go through so much and yet still feel so blessed made my classmates and I realize that we were doing more than rebuilding houses; we were giving people a new a chance and rebuilding lives.
Other families had stories even more tragic. One woman, Sharon lost far more than her home and her possessions. Her mother died from brain trauma in a car accident trying to evacuate. Her husband was already suffering from congested heart failure and colon cancer and is now diagnosed with malignant bone cancer and will more than likely die soon. They didn’t have full flood insurance or full homeowners insurance and therefore didn’t receive enough money to repair their home because they had to spend their savings on funeral arrangements for her mother.
“I just don’t know what we’re gonna do. We’ve lived here all our life, and my family, they’re all gone; all scattered all over. I don’t know where they are. 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.”
Hurricane Katrina affected Sharon in a way that none of us could truly understand. Her life is not turned upside down and on top of everything she has to worry about whether or not she is going to be able to keep her house.
“It’s overwhelming, you try and get help but everyone tells you something different. What are we gonna do, where are we gonna
live? I know there are others who have stories harder and sadder
than mine. I am just disappointed in my government. I’ve never
asked my government for anything. I’m a good citizen, I pay my taxes. They are not giving us any help with the levees. The best they said they could do by June 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.”

Her story highlighted the sad truth that not everyone had the same support system after the storm and some were affected far more than others. Some people faced things far worse than we had anticipated. All the residents want are answers. Why can no one give them to them?
It is apparent that these families want to move back into their houses and in working with them and hearing their stories I want for them to be able to build their houses back and resume their normal lives. However, I don’t think that this would be the best solution to the problem. The reality of it is that in building these houses back up we would be putting them back into the same danger. Hurricane season will come back again this June and the chances that the same situation could occur are very high.
The people who want to preserve the culture and history of New Orleans think that rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward is necessary. This group consists primarily of the homeowners and people who are actually a part of the community. Many of the residents see the city’s desire to bulldoze their homes as a racial tactic, as “ethnic cleansing” (Klein) which would force out much of the culture that has been instilled in the area out. The residents believe this because in 1927 the levees were purposely destroyed as a way to save the wealthier neighborhoods (Azulay). The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 had a similar impact on the area of New Oreans as Katrina has. The city decided that the only way they could save the city was by flooding the southern areas because it was mostly rural and poor (Slivka). There was false speculation among the homeowners in the Lower Ninth that the levees were destroyed again to save the wealthier areas. They think that the government is purposely trying to shut them out of the reconstruction process because many families are disbursed around the country and have no way of coming back to be a part of the process (Chen).


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