Words fail me - the New Orleans post (finally)

Tuesday morning. I can't remember if I'd mentioned where I'd be last week or what I'd be doing, so I'll mention now that I was in New Orleans from Wednesday to Sunday, working with the Junior League of New Orleans to help rebuild homes and neighborhoods. I knew, or thought I did, that I would be affected by what I did and what I saw in those five, short days. I had no idea.


It started with an email passed along from the Junior League of New Orleans and an intriguing invitation: Come on down and help us rebuild some homes! I'd been so frustrated while watching coverage of the disaster on television last year that I immediately signed myself up, booked a hotel room, and paid for a flight. Once I'd done that, I realized that TCB would be far more helpful because he's got real construction skills, so I emailed him at work and asked if he'd come, too. He responded that he would and so I registered him with the project and bought his flight as well. Then we both went and asked our bosses if we could have the time off. (Such is the way of things when you're on a mission.)

Our flights on Wednesday were miserable, not because of anything the airline did, but just because I was overly tired and very cranky. No position could make me comfortable and TCB spilled cold water on me just after I'd finally found a way to fall asleep. (He didn't mean to, it was a brief moment of turbulence that did the deed.) I'd taken to looking out the window at the landscape below because that was helping the time pass and, as we began our descent into the New Orleans Airport, I noticed that many of the houses had charming, blue roofs. Others behind and in front of me noted the same thing and then someone said, "They're blue tarps. Covering their roofs." And the plane fell silent. This was just the first of many such moments of shock and awe I would experience in the next five days.

You immediately notice something about the New Orleans Airport: There are virtually no planes at gates and very few passengers waiting for planes. Statistics that I saw said that the airport is back up to 60% of its pre-Katrina capacity, but that does not jive with what I saw. I was in New Orleans in March of 2005 and I remember that airport as bustling and crowded. It was neither last week.

The cab ride provided more glimpses of what has changed: more tarped roofs, high schools with no pupils, FEMA trailers on front lawns, and - most disturbing of all - trash and other debris still sitting on a freeway overpass, left there by real human beings who'd taken refuge during the aftermath of the storm. People died up there and I was passing the remnants of their water bottles, still not removed. I felt a chill. It would not be the last such experience. We got to the hotel and settled in, knowing that the real work would start early in the morning.

The sight of 580 volunteers, most of them women, lined up and waiting for buses at 8:00 a.m. is an awesome thing. I don't know that I've ever been prouder to be a member of the Junior League than I was at that moment. All of us had taken time away from our own lives to be there, fueled by a desire to do something to help people we'd never met but still felt a kinship with. We piled on the yellow school bus (they have a surplus of them because many schools are still not open) and drove off for our days work. TCB went to a house on Soniat Street and I got on a gardening crew.

The house we worked on is located in the Freret Street area. This is the area where I did all of my work. The lovely lady whose garden we worked on that first day had lived in her house for over 40 years and was totally dedicated to her garden. Katrina not only flooded her front and back gardens for weeks, it also smashed up the garden furniture and damaged trees, so things were pretty messy back there when we started. Eight of us worked four hours to clear out the mess, dragging things to the curb for pickup and creating quite the huge pile of debris for whoever came by to pick it up. After lunch, we took the homeowner down to the local garden center to pick out new plants and then we planted her garden anew. It looked like the prettiest fairy garden ever when we left, and I cried when the homeowner came back to take a look. She might be living in a FEMA trailer on her front lawn, but she's got her garden back. (She told me that, as long as construction keeps moving, she ought to be back in her house by Thanksgiving. Her situation is very much not the norm - she's taken out loans to pay for the construction and is hoping that FEMA, her insurance, and The Road Home will enable her to pay off her loans when they come in.)

We also took a bus tour of the areas hardest hit by the disaster. I wasn't prepared for how I was affected by what I saw. Old and young, rich and poor, nearly every demographic was hit. The tour guides were members of the Junior League of New Orleans and they told us that about 60% of League members were evacuated from their homes for an extended period of time. There are parts of the city where nearly no one has moved back simply because it's not economically feasible. Most hospitals have not reopened because they can't find the nurses and other staff needed to function. Part of our tour took us past the Musicians Village project, run by Habitat for Humanity. This is a great project and about 100 of the folks who came down to work as part of the Junior League's project ended up working at Musicians Village for the entire time. Then there were the homes in the Metairie neighborhood, right on the country club. You'd think they, of all those affected, would be back in their homes by now, but you'd be wrong. The sight of FEMA trailers on the beautiful lawns of beautiful mansions is so strange that you can't, at first, process it. House after house, the tell-tale flourescent orange markings still on the front door and the 8'x20' trailer on the lawn. These are people much wealthier than I am and yet they can't "fix" this. (Who can, I wonder?)

I met so many wonderful people: the Honduran immigrant and her daughter, watering the trees we'd planted along the side of their house; the 12-year-old who reminded me so much of Alcott's 12-year-old brother except that this boy was living in a trailer alongside his uncle's house with his mother because their house is unliveable; the wheelchair-bound 82-year-old lady out in her garden giving her half-blind 76-year-old husband directions as he replanted one of the planter beds in her side garden. Each house represents a life and each trailer, each tarp, each fluorescent orange "X" on the front door is a life interrupted, a life changed forever.

After our last day of work, I was dying for a shower. I let the hot water run over me and then, unexpectedly, I started to sob. I cried for everyone that we couldn't help, everyone who feels alone and abandoned...as though they don't matter; I didn't want to leave. I'm someone who solves problems. Whether it's crosswords, brain teasers, product release issues at work, or things that might affect Alcott's life adversely, I fix things. I couldn't and can't fix this and that's not a situation I'm used to. I wanted to stay and keep working. I wanted to call everyone that I knew and tell them to pack up their tools and their Home Depot or Lowe's gift cards and come down for a week or a month. Ineffectual is not a nice feeling.

I'm home now and it sometimes feels like a lifetime ago, as I go about my mundane daily tasks and take all of my little life luxuries for granted. People ask me about it, but I see the glazed look in their eyes as I ramble on about how much it affected me. It truly is as those in New Orleans told me: people in the rest of the country have moved on. There's Darfur and Iraq and the upcoming elections and the earthquakes in Hawaii and "surely New Orleans must be OK by now." I'm here to tell you that it's not. Oh, sure, if you go to New Orleans for a conference and only move between the French Quarter, Bourbon Street, and your Canal Street hotel, you'd never notice the difference. But venture past those carefully cleaned up parts of town and you'll have no choice but to see how small the clean up thus far has been compared to the areas still devastated. Rebuilding New Orleans will be a many year task and it's going to take a lot more help from people outside the region to accomplish. Please consider making a donation to one of the rebuilding efforts I've mentioned, or, if you're able, go down and work on the Musician's Village project with Habitat for Humanity - I absolutely guarantee you'll never find a vacation that will leave you so changed.


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