December 30, 2010

Four Days - One Pair of Hands, How New Orleans Stole My Heart ... Again

When Freddie Mac announced that there would be a unique volunteer opportunity offered that would allow 100 employees to travel to New Orleans for four days of working onsite at one of three selected homes that had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina – I was interested. As the days went by, I could not get the images and more importantly the feelings that I’d had when the levees broke and people were faced with the loss of their families and memories out of my mind. I applied and several weeks later received my ‘Golden Ticket’ as we would later come to refer to them that put me in a very special group of people whose lives would each be changed in some way by this once in a lifetime experience. As a single parent, the biggest driver for me in wanting to participate in this volunteer effort was my overarching desire to have my daughter understand the obligation that I believe each of us has to serve others in need. I personally derive a deeper meaning from hand-on work versus writing a check – though I certainly provide financial support to a number of organizations with whom I also have a hands-on relationship and understand how needed economic support is as well. New Orleans needs money, but at this time, New Orleans needs PEOPLE – and I wanted to be part of this effort, if only for four days. I also wanted to go back to New Orleans because I’d spent a week there when I was in college at a leadership summit and it was the most incredible week of my life. I fell in love with New Orleans as if she were my long lost best friend. I lost myself for a week in the city’s cemeteries, wandering through bookstores that smelled like time itself, drinking chickory-laced coffee at midnight with steaming hot beignets from the Café du monde, taking in the random jazz quartet in the French Quarter and heaven help me, feasting on bread pudding and seafood like nowhere else on the planet. If there was anything that I could do personally to help to put any part of this city that I fell so in love with over twenty yeas ago back right, I wanted to be part of it.

My four days were spend working on the home of a gentleman, Mr. Lazard, who is related to and whose home has ties to the late Mahalia Jackson. The whole of Mr. Lazard’s home had to be completely gutted due to water damage. There were twenty-six of us assigned to his house and when we arrived on the first day, we all crowded into what had been his living and dining rooms (not difficult, since it was gutted). Our Site Captain, Rob, explained what our tasks would be for the week. There was a collective intake of all our breaths when Rob showed us where the waterline was in Mr. Lazard’s house and used me as a living measuring stick – I’m five feet tall … the waterline was four and a half feet. I had difficulty breathing at the thought of being in that house filled with water to within a half inch of the top of my head. I volunteered to be part of the six-person demolition team. Our assignment: pull down two structures off the back of the house and rebuild siding on the exposed walls. My experience level going in … zero!! It was a humbling experience and also one that I am so proud of because at the end of the week, we’d pulled down those sheds and installed new cedar siding on both sides of the back of Mr. Lazard’s house that will last at least thirty years – barring another natural disaster.

Our work was done in the Broadmoor neighborhood in the Lower Ninth in New Orleans. We were housed at the Marriott only steps away from the famed Bourbon Street, so we were bused out to the houses we worked on every morning. While there were still many lingering signs of Katrina's visit, it was obvious that this part of the city – the tourist part – was on the economic rebound. However, within blocks of this pulsing tourist trap, the poverty and devastation lurked only blocks away and we would see it up close and personal in due time.
Literally two city blocks to the west, an entire tent city of homeless residents had established itself under a bridge adjacent to one of the city’s oldest and most beautiful cemeteries and ironically … City Hall. Our bus driver explained to us on our first day out to the houses when we were at a stop light that positioned us right in front of this tent city, that these were diplaced residents from Katrina. This was the final stop for those whose homes were destroyed with no place to live. I saw a woman with a broom sweeping the small slab of concrete right in front of her lawn chair that was flanked by two shopping carts filled to the brim with all of her belongings and realized with great sadness that was her ‘front porch’. For all of us, the mood changed in that moment as we realized that the work we were going to do would ensure that the people whose houses we workd on would not find their way to this or any other tent city in New Orleans. We became even more determined to work as efficiently as possible and to get as much done as we could in a quality manner so these people could return to the comfort of their homes.

As we moved further and further into the neighborhood, I was struck by the lack of societal infrastructure that you would expect to see and that we are so accustomed to - the things that make a neighborhood livable. I did not see one grocery store anywhere within miles of the neighborhood we were working in – they have not come back. There also were no pharmacies, restaurants or other convenience stores. However, the staple liquor stores were on practically every other corner. We were especially careful about injuries not only because we didn’t want to be hurt, but because though there are officially 14 hospitals in New Orleans, they are terribly understaffed and the average Emergency Room wait is upwards of 20 hours.

It is obvious that the difference between people who were able to rebuild their lives and neighborhoods and those who could not was money, pure and simple. The steep distinction that determines quality of life in the rebuilding of New Orleans comes down to cold, hard cash. Yet, in the neighborhood where we were working, people came over to talk to us. They thanked us for not forgetting about them. They offered us food and cold tea and water. They asked us to tell our friends and family about what we’d seen and to remind people that they were still out there and still needed our help and our HANDS. I cried everyday at the generosity and the stories people shared about neighbors who could not get out of their homes or who just disappeared – ostensibly washed away.

When the week was over and we returned home, I went through a bit of a culture shock that I had not expected. Upon walking into my two-bedroom condo that I share with my daughter, all I could think about was how tall the ceiling was (it’s a standard eight-foot ceiling), how white the walls are and how luxurious it looks to me with the contrasting crown molding and granite countertops. Don’t get me wrong, it is a very nice place to live – I’d just stopped seeing it that way because it is where I live everyday. I came home with ‘New Orleans’ eyes and by those standards, this condo looked positively palatial. It shamed and saddened me to think of the new friends I’d made and left in New Orleans who were living in double wide trailers and who had been for at least two years. Of note, about seven months after our return, FEMA began moving families out of these trailers because there has now been documented proof that there are toxic levels of formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) inside these trailers that were almost unbearably small and toxic – to add insult to injury. I noticed for the first time how many grocery stores are in my neighborhood – within five minutes of my home I have a Harris Teeter, a Giant and a Shoppers Food Warehouse. The nearest liquor store is not a stroll away for me as it was for so many of the families in New Orleans - this is a good thing.

My time in New Orleans provided me with a keener awareness of the insidious nature of how poverty inflicts itself as part of societal infrastructure or lack thereof. The ability to purchase food, medicine, and fuel close to where you live and to have choice in those selections is a critical part of creating a stable neighborhood framework. I can only hope that in the next waves of revitalization, these things will come back so these residents can truly rebuild their lives.

My life was changed in ways I never would have expected in the four days that I lent my hands and heart to the effort to bring one man’s house back to a livable state.

I am better for the experience.

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