Posted by a volunteer who participated in our July volunteer trip in New Orleans.
You do not know what hot is until you swing a hammer with all your might for an hour in 90 degree heat and 60 percent humidity. A person would have to be out of their mind to do this on their dime, for no pay, and with no hope of success.
We came down practically strangers to each other. We joined a rag-tag operation that didn’t have money for shiny vans with logos, t-shirts, or swag. We were refurbishing a three-story, 111 year-old school; a project that has no budget, no resources, and a deadline to be done by September when school starts.
It was nuts.
But on the first day, we all grabbed hammers and brushes and started doing what we could, with what we had. And it was hot, insanely hot.
And at night we lamented our fate, laughed instead of cried, and got to making lemonade out of the hill of lemons we found. The food tasted better. The drinks were more refreshing. You looked across the table and saw someone who knew your pain and was laughing with you.
It was New Orleans! And we mixed our sweat with her soil, fed our blood to her mosquitos, and hopefully drank so much that those little leech-bastards flew right into the path of an oncoming bus.
But I digress.
In the lower 9th Ward, we saw a rural-looking area of sparse houses and fields of waist-high grass. This used to be a dense neighborhood of shotgun houses, packed like sardines. This neighborhood had the highest homeownership rate in the USA – over half – and for many, these houses were the only bastion they had against destitution and ruin.
It’s gone now. The neighborhood where families had lived for generations without ever leaving New Orleans has been destroyed. When the waters crested at 26 feet in the wake of the Katrina floods, anything less than two stories was submerged. Houses floated up off their foundations, were crushed by currents, or just so damaged that the only way to rebuild was to gut them to the studs and start over.
I heard a cabbie in the French Quarter calling the citizens of the 9th Ward ‘lazy’, citing that “after Hurricane Betsy there was 8 feet of water in the 9th Ward, and that the people stayed, worked together, and were nearly back to normal in three months.”
People don’t leave New Orleans. Betsy was 40 years ago. The ‘lazy’ people he was talking about are the same ones that rebuilt the city in 1965 too.
But the people who lived here have been scattered across the country. There are no neighbors to “work together” with. The insurance companies will not be paying for replacement homes.
The neighbors then, have to come from somewhere else.
“I don’t know if you know this, but July is STILL SUMMER in Louisiana.” This was the most common reaction I got when I told people I was headed down to work with Katrina Corp in New Orleans. And, unfortunately, what they imagined was pretty much the way it was.
But what they didn’t get to see was that it also allowed the best in people to come out. Katrina Corp basically consists of two guys that came down from Michigan and dedicated their lives to helping heal the grieving city of New Orleans. They get room, board, and $100/week. They handle groups of a single volunteer, on up to 300. If FEMA or Habitat or some other big name outfit gets stuck or can’t do something, Ray and Marshall jump into the breach. And if nobody shows up to volunteer (like because it is the middle of July) no work gets done.
As a volunteer you get to see where your money is being spent: there’s the van, there’s the coolers and tools, and there’s the two guys that have been working on this school before you showed up and will be working on it after you leave. Ray and Marshall are the epitome of volunteering and service; and for one ridiculously hot week in July, so were we.
When I look back on what we did without budget or t-shirts or fancy photo ops; but with only our backs, our hands, and our teamwork and desire, I have to believe in the impossible. I was there and watched it happen.
To Alli, Ariel, Eleni, Karianne, Lee, Rebecca, Sarah, Stephanie, and Tammy: You gave a damn and made a difference. Thank you and it was an honor to serve beside you. You are all heroes in my eyes.
To the rest, ‘impossible’ is still out there, but it’s not so sure of itself now. Come down in October!