Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?

Hello Everyone, and Greetings From New Orleans,

Ann and I arrived here for our 25th trip on August 18th. A few days later, New Orleans would officially remember the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. We chose to come for a couple of reasons. The anniversary brought back a lot of corporate money and volunteers, and we wanted to be with our Rebuilding Together people to help spend that money and use those volunteers. Selfishly, too, we also wanted to reunite with some of our early volunteer friends we hadn't seen in years, to catch up and remember together the work we did so long ago.

Right after we arrived, we visited our friend Peggy Severe, who lives in a Hollygrove home we helped rebuild in 2007. On every trip home to NOLA, we get to visit with Peggy, often enjoying lunch at her favorite place to eat, Mandina's in Mid City. This time, we had the pleasure of bringing Liz Russell, the woman who headed up the rebuilding of her home, to Peggy's home to reunite and catch up. We haven't seen Liz since I can't tell you when, but we see Peggy frequently, and she never fails to ask us if we've seen Liz and how is she and so forth. Getting to watch the two of them go from room to room of Peggy's home, talking about the work and about life in general made Ann and me happy.

Several years ago, Ann and I decided that our 2 or 3 or 4 trips a year to help could be scheduled to avoid the summer heat. The summers here are murderously hot and humid, just like it was for thousands of New Orleanians stranded in the city after the floodwalls failed and the city filled with water. It is a humbling reminder. When the Heat Index hits 111 degrees, as it did on August 24th, you feel the same heat so many New Orleanians felt for days atop their roofs and on top of elevated freeways where they were stranded. If they were lucky. If they hadn't drowned in their Lower Ninth homes, or made the mistake of obeying instructions to flee to the Superdome or, worse, to the Morial Convention Center, where Hell waited for them. And we had water to drink.

We were assigned to two homes on the Westbank in Algiers. At Miss Marva White's home on Pelican Street, we set about to finish window trim on the outside and to build a back porch and stairs. We were paired up with a young architect who was visiting from France and wanted to spend a week helping in New Orleans along her way across the US. Lea was a great addition to the team, and we knocked our work out on time while showing her the joys of fried shrimp poboys. She also got to spend an evening with us at our pal Macon Fry's home on the river side of the levee. I hope we helped provide some memories.

Following that project, we went to work on Murl Street at the home of Mr. and Mrs. James Holmes. Mr. Holmes is wheelchair-bound, and our responsibilities included setting the foundation for a wheelchair ramp that will finally allow him to leave his home under his own power. Ann and Lea and I worked there for a few days ahead of the Katrina 10 Service Day team, getting the project laid out and ready for a productive Saturday with a large group of volunteers from Shell Oil, who also funded the project. In addition to the wheelchair ramp, we were also building a back porch and stairs, a new front porch rail, and setting hardwood flooring in the room adjacent to the wheelchair ramp. On Saturday, our team built the back porch and stairs (Ann ran that project, of course), set all of the posts for the wheelchair ramp, built the entire front porch rail, and laid a bunch of the hardwood floor. A productive day with a team of willing and fun volunteers.

As we worked on the Westbank in the usual summer heat and humidity, we thought often about just why we were there.

I listened to a podcast of This American Life, which restored some of my early Katrina memories. Podcast number 296 aired on September 5th, 2005, less than 2 weeks after the floodwalls broke, and reminded me what we were thinking when we decided to come to help. Paste this link into your browser and devote an hour to some fresh accounts of what happened and why....

I've thought about how different the experience is for us volunteers and for our homeowners. Here we are, both in the same place, working toward the same objective, but often in different dimensions. What it boils down to is, we weren't there, and they were. The shocking things we saw on TV, and then in person, they lived through. The realities of life for poor, often African-American citizens here in this Deep South city that we read about, they lived with. Cops didn't even see us. They saw the residents of Central City. Or worse, if the cops saw us, they looked after us, and warned us about the residents of Central City. Central City became our home. These residents became our friends.

The work we did earned us a spot in the hearts of many people here. And a seat at their tables, where we enjoyed Sunday Dinners in the middle of the week. Soul Food. Their souls, poured out of ladles onto our plates.

This trip, in addition to the pleasures of seeing our friends Peggy Severe, the Bellanger family, Macon Fry, Gabe Sneller, our pals at Finn McCool's, our old HandsOn pals Nic, Liz, Kellie, and others, we also got to think about the juxtaposition between the tragedy wrought upon this city and its people, and the purpose we volunteers found by coming to help. They lived through the troubles, and we were given a gift. How can that be?

I think I know.

The work we did became part of the story our homeowners tell about their recovery. Slowly, we were woven into the lives of the people we served, and they into ours. Their troubles became ours, and our gift became theirs.

I was 49 years old when I first came to New Orleans to help. I laugh sometimes when I think about how much easier the work seemed back then.

Time marches on, for us and for them. Now, 10 years after the floodwalls failed, there are still thousands of homes left unrepaired. Many people are living in homes that have no water or no power, invisible from the street. They fixed the front of their homes to keep them off demolition lists, but had no other resources to go further. Their storm-damaged homes are all they have, and they are still hanging on. It's a complicated situation. Some of these homeowners received Road Home money from the Congress and gave it to unscrupulous contractors, or didn't use it for rebuilding, or didn't have enough to finish their home repairs. They are hiding out because the government might want the money back. Homeless in a home.

This is the kind of shit you get when a major American city is destroyed by a Katrina-class disaster. There is no simple, tidy epilogue. 10 years on, here we are, better in many ways, unchanged in others, worse in still other ways. And the people of this city persevere. I've still got a lot to learn.

My Love to All,