The Spirit of New Orleans

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“The fabled phoenix is a crimson, gold, and purple bird with sweeping tail and jeweled eyes.  It lives in a distant garden of flowers and crystals springs. When it’s wings become heavy with age, the bird builds a nest of spices, herbs, and resin in the top of a date palm. The heat of the sun ignites the twigs and the phoenix stands in the flames with outspread wings.  The bird burns to ashes.  In cool starlight a young phoenix forms in the remains of its parent.”

In honor of the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans August 29th, 2005

In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, my daughter Carrie and I joined a group of people for 10 days at Thanksgiving to go help with clean up.  Carrie felt devastated by what had happened and wanted to find a way to go and help.  I had friends who were going down there and we joined the group.

This story was written when I returned.

My daughter, Carrie and I spent the week of Thanksgiving and several days after, volunteering with Mission from Minnesota doing reclamation and relief work in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit. We were there 3 months after the hurricane hit and it looked like it had just happened.

Our home base was in The First Street United Methodist Church, in St. Charles Parish, where we slept in sleeping back on the floor of the sanctuary. The story of what happened in New Orleans was one of death, destruction, hope and heroism, a paradoxical situation that is hard to take in when you are in the midst of it.  “You have to see it to understand” is so very true.  From my safe, warm house in Minnesota there was no way to comprehend what was happening to my neighbors in the south, partly because of the selective reporting of the media and partly because there is no way to understand without being there.  It is like a phoenix, rising from its own ashes that were toxic and dirty before Katrina hit.

Biloxi, Miss., September 3, 2005 -- Damage and destruction to houses in Biloxi, Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina caused extensive damage all along the Mississippi gulf coast. FEMA/Mark Wolfe
Biloxi, Miss., September 3, 2005 — Damage and destruction to houses in Biloxi, Mississippi. Hurricane Katrina caused extensive damage all along the Mississippi gulf coast. FEMA/Mark Wolfe

The snapshot in time that follows can only begin to convey what it is like in New Orleans, right now as I write this, three months after Katrina.  This article is my beginning attempt to make sense of it.  I have struggled to find words to convey what I experienced.  I have been home nine days and each night I dream I am still there working on another project with my group.  Is it possible that I might be doing night travel on the astral plane to continue my work, or is it another way of integrating my experience?  It is hard to know.

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A MOMENT IN TIME…

(This is the story of a man who accompanied us to New Orleans, who lived there when Katrina hit)

He excitedly told me about how beautiful his apartment was and couldn’t wait for me to see it, forgetting that most of what he owned might not have survived the hurricane. It is three months after Katrina devastated New Orleans and it is his first time back.  He came in the caravan from Minnesota where he had evacuated, to volunteer with our group and also see if he could salvage any of his belongings.  Home had been the St. Bernard Development, which was the most violent housing project in New Orleans and high on the list of violence in the country.

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BEFORE

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AFTER

We arrived at the complex of brick apartment buildings in St. Bernard that had now become a ghost town.  A police car followed us in.  My new friend had to show the police identification to prove that he was here for valid reasons and we had to show our Mission from Minnesota ID cards to relieve his suspicion.  Suspicion was high all over New Orleans at the time.

We suited up in protective Tyvek suits, eye goggles, plastic booties and respirators, looking like the Ghost Busters once we were dressed.  We went to the back entrance of the building and he pushed the air conditioner inside the window and peered in.  All we could hear was a low, questioning hum coming from his throat as he shook his head.  We would hear this hum from time to time as we walked through the rubble that used to be his home.

I came in through the door he had opened and was shocked at what I saw! Black mold and greenish grey grime covered all of the surfaces, furniture tossed about like doll furniture on to a floor now black with slime.  I remember seeing his refrigerator flipped on its side as though it was a toy.   This, juxtaposed upon a clear mental image of what used to be a cozy home. as burgundy lace curtains moved in the breeze and what was left of a floral border danced around the ceiling.  I was heart broken and wanted to cry for this man who had very little to begin with and lost everything and had little means of rebuilding his life.  Life would now be even more of a struggle than it had been before the storm.  Miraculously we found his high school diploma and Nurses Aide Certificate sandwiched between soggy papers, untouched by the water.  Here was a ray of hope that he could begin again in his new home in Minnesota.

He had also talked about wanting to retrieve a large print of the skyline of New York before 911 and his record collection. When he broke into his apartment window and came to the door to unlock it for us he had the New York print in his hand.  The glass had broken but miraculously the print was not damaged.  We figured it must have floated to the top of the water, because it has a foam backing, and floated back down with very little damage, when the water receded. We retrieved his record collection but had to throw all of the album jackets away.  The rest of his belongings could not be saved.

We all have stereotypes of what a person must be like to live in the projects in poverty and violence, but those images are just stereotypes and this 200 year old complex of buildings was home to many people.  This gentle, faith filled black man does not fit the stereotype at all.

The first day of our trip we stayed in a camp along the way.  He began to describe what it was like to live in this particular project and the violence that often occurred and I asked him what kept him from taking the path of violence he was describing.  He said it was his faith in God. I witnessed that strong faith in most of the hundreds of people I encountered in the 10 days we were there.

The day we were going to his house to see what was left he reached into his pocket and handed me a violet colored plastic rosary.  He told me he had gotten it and two others at a shelter on his way out of New Orleans. He told me it was blessed and you could tell it had been handmade. He had on around his neck, he had given one to his son and now he was giving one to me. I could tell how much it meant to him and because he believed that it would protect me, I wore it around my neck for the rest of the trip and felt honored that he had given it to me.

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He took us on a driving tour through all of New Orleans and we saw the various level of destruction as he told us stories from his prospective and experiences of each place.  Most of the neighborhoods still looked like a war zone with piles of trash lining the curbs and in some places the smell of death still hung in the air so strong we had to roll up the windows in the car. At that time New Orleans was still a police state and we often encounter the peoples, many times with their guns drawn and pointed at us.  I can’t even explain the depth of feelings I was having.   New, expensive houses in rich neighborhoods next to old houses in poor neighborhoods were made equal by the devastation of the storm as everything lay ruined.

What struck me most was his story the day Katrina hit, which is a story I heard many times in different variations.  As the water rose in the housing development, he put his 15 year old son, who couldn’t swim, on his back and took them to safety on the upper floor of one of the buildings.  He said he could hear women and children screaming for their lives.  He was able to save a couple of children before he had to stop because the water was too high.  He felt bad that he couldn’t save more people.  People died around him.  Twenty to thirty people huddled together in 100 degree heat for three days, without food or water, before boats rescued them and took them to a freeway over pass where they stayed for 5 more days without food or water.  I remember seeing that on the news and now I was talking to someone who had been there.

This is not an isolated story. One woman came to the distribution center that was set up in the church for food, diapers and supplies.  She told me she had been 9 months pregnant when Katrina hit.  She tied a rope around her protruding belly and tied each of her three young children to the rope and she swam to the Super Dome, where they stayed for 5 days.  She said she was that she would go into labor because of the pressure on her belly.  Her baby was born 10 days later.   It is amazing what one can do to save their life and those of their children.

There are so many stories that I could tell about my time in New Orleans but I will leave it with these.  I can say this was the most difficult thing that I have ever don’t and yet the most rewarding and to be there with my daughter was a gift.

This is a snapshot of the nations poor, who have been neglected for a long time.  I believe Katrina was the earth’s way of not only cleansing but also revealing what was hidden.  The sad thing is, New Orleans is not the only city in our country that his hidden poverty in its midst.  It is everywhere and it goes unnoticed.  I know this from 20 years of experience working with people who live in poverty in Minnesota.  Prejudice and discrimination still play a part in keeping poverty in place.  I hope some good can come out of this catastrophic event.  The group I was with made a tiny dent in the debris that was there, even with 24 people working 12-hour days, but I know we had an impact because people who have been forgotten discovered that people do care and that is a beginning step in repairing the damage and rekindling hope.

Please follow the link to see what Brad Pitt is doing to help people rebuild in New Orleans.

This is how the 9th Ward looks today.  This photo from Brad Pitts Website and his project called Make it Right that has been helping New Orleans rebuild.

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