Monday, June 20, 2011

the big easy...nola part one

10. Sacrifice a weekend away for a good cause. - DONE!

There's a part of me that will always love New Orleans.  It's easy to love.  It's a mostly blue collar city, much like Baltimore, with a strong French influence, an insane amount of diversity, culture, and deep appreciation of the arts, especially music. 
And the food!  Lord have mercy, don't get me started on the food!

It's obviously also a city that knows how to have fun. :)

It's also a city that I was thisclose to moving to for college.  If only Tulane tuition hadn't been the equivalent of purchasing a luxury vehicle every year for four years, I may have been a student there. 

Sadly despite a scholarship, Tulane was not to be for Nasrene. 

But I never stopped loving New Orleans from a distance. 

My first visit there was when I was a baby.  I was too little to remember, but we visited one of my Mom's college friends who had moved there.  I have one piece of photographic evidence of that trip...a picture of baby me, laughing in the bathtub with a pile of beads around my neck.

My second visit there was when I was 17.  My boyfriend at the time and I had gotten the bright idea to hop on a plane and go down to the Big Easy for an extended weekend.  Nevermind the fact that we weren't 21 yet, and nevermind the fact that I WASN'T EVEN 18 YET, and nevermind the fact that I may or may not have told my mother (seriously kicking my own ass for that one now, as I'm sure karma will come back to bite me).  It was a great time, and it was the beginning of my love affair with that city.

Fast forward several years, and its the last week of August, 2005.  I was sitting at my desk in my office building, next to my co-worker (at the time) Karen.  We were glued to the internet as reports started coming in that a Hurricane named Katrina was set to do a ton of damage to the Gulf Coast.  She had gone to college in Alabama and her in laws lived in Mississippi (I think).  Regardless, she was nervous for their safety.  I think everyone was when we got a glimpse of how massive the storm system was.  

I mean, really, remember this?

That thing was frickin' huge.

I remember Karen reading aloud the testimony being reported of someone in Biloxi, Mississippi.  I remember the description of the wind and rain whipping so hard that trees that were one standing straight were bent at such an angle they were almost touching the ground. Homes were being destroyed by the dozens.  I still remember her reading the final sentence of that person's update..."this is truly hell on Earth."

Over the next days we all saw what havoc Katrina wreaked on the Gulf coast.  We saw the flood waters, the destroyed homes, the aerial shots of towns which had once been there but were now gone.  We expected this. 

But then a few more days past.  And the reports came that people were STILL trapped in their homes, unable to get out or get help.  Stuck on their roofs for days at a time.  Footage of hoards of people at the Superdome, waiting for buses to transport them.  Families being split up.

Mass confusion.

The Coast Guard seemed to be down there getting things done, but was anybody else?  Sadness turned to outrage as it appeared that FEMA did little to help the thousands of people who needed help.  A state of emergency was declared, but what did that mean?  There were still hundreds stranded in Charity Hospital.  Doctors and nurses struggled to keep patients alive with no electricity and minimal food and water.

Was this really happening in America?

Then the reports became more grim.  People were dying, trapped in their homes.  Patients were dying in the hospital.  People in the Superdome were waiting, waiting and waiting, with no running water, electricity, or sewage disposal. We didn't expect this.

And then I heard the story of Ethel Freeman.

I remember seeing the iconic photographic of Mrs. Freeman, in her wheelchair outside the Convention Center.  She had died, while waiting for help.  She passed away, in her wheelchair, at 91 years old.

And her body sat there for days.

How can this happen in America?

I realize that some may say that with so many people to rescue, help should be given to those who could benefit from it...those who could actually survive.  But doesn't this woman deserve dignity in death?  How could bodies be left, for DAYS, with no regard?

It astounds me, it truly does. I realized when I heard her story that the situation down in New Orleans was much graver than I could have ever imagined.

And then I had to stop reading.  It was too much devastation and sadness.

So I went on with my life.  In Baltimore.  Where there was no Katrina, no flood waters, and no devastation.

I chose to ignore it, because it was too much for my conscience to bear.

And years passed.  And I found that whenever New Orleans would come up in casual conversation people would talk about it like it was someone who survived a tragic car accident, but had life long injuries.  Like there was "New Orleans before Katrina" and "New Orleans now." Like it would never be the same, or what it was before, but wasn't it an awesome place before that bitch Katrina came through?

I didn't go back, I didn't visit, even when I had the opportunity.  Because I don't know how I would've felt to go back to that city if it didn't have it's's's joie de vivre.

And I know I may sound very dramatic right now..but it's really how I felt.  But overall, I think I felt this way because I knew deep down that if I had made just a few different life decisions when I was 17 years old, I would've been in New Orleans.  I probably would've been there when Katrina hit, and I probably would've had my whole world turned upside down.

But I didn't.  Nothing changed for me.  So there's this weird guilt. It's very weird.  A guilt that I didn't choose that city, and now look what's happened.

When I put #10 on my list, I didn't know for sure, but I thought maybe I would be able to complete this in New Orleans.  I talked to my sister about it, and when the opportunity presented itself, we booked our trip.

We decided we'd support New Orleans in two helping someone rebuild their home through New Orleans area Habitat for Humanity, and by being tourists!  Let's face it, the tourism industry is something many cities rely on, and no doubt Katrina took revenue away by keeping wary tourists away. We needed to help change that.

Plus my sister had never been, and she needed to experience the insanity that is Bourbon Street. :)

I chose Habitat for Humanity because they do great work, but mostly because my friend Katie has been building her own Habitat House for most of the past year.  I initially really wanted to complete this item on my list by heading out to Iowa to help her work on her home.  However, by the time I could realistically get out there her home was in the finishing stages, and even just considering flights to get me there started to look like a logistics nightmare.  But I knew I wanted to still support Habitat, even if I couldn't get to Iowa.

So here we go: our trip to New Orleans. :)

Neda and I arrived in New Orleans with a little time to spare to go out and grab dinner.  It was amazingly delicious, just as I expected:

We took a little time to walk around the French Quarter.  We knew it would be an early night since we had to wake up to build in the morning, but we couldn't pass up the view of Jackson Square at night:

And I couldn't resist getting my sister hooked on Cafe du Monde's beignets:
Love at first bite

The next morning we had to be at our Habitat site at 7:30am.  The location of the home we were building was on the appropriately named "America Street."  We met Andrew the head carpenter, and Alyssa his apprentice from Habitat who would be instructing us that day.  We started off the day just straightening up the front lawn, getting rid of debris.  The task on the agenda that day was to frame out what would eventually be the driveway, sidewalk and front walk, when the cement was poured.

Manual labor, y'all.

Soon the rest of the group of arrived.  Please don't take this the wrong way when I say this, but the rest of our group was a group of 8 Asian American pretty boys from LA who came dressed in their designer skinny jeans, and fitted name brand t-shirts.  More than half of them were hung over from the night before.

(I rarely use this acronym, but let me tell you, watching them dig in the dirt, trying desperately not to dirty their True Religions made me ROFLMAO.  Can you picture this image in your head?  Cause it was HILARIOUS.)

For the record, I later learned that they were a bachelor party, and the groom decided that he wanted his friends to do a good deed among all their partying.  They won major points in my book for that one!

We were also soon joined by Antonio and Floyd.  Tony, as he was called for short, was 26 and his brother Young Floyd was 20.  They spend most of the morning tryin' to holla at me and my sister.  Which was laughable considering we looked like crapola since we knew we'd be working all day (hear that LA crew?!) But what I learned from Antonio was that he was there to add to his sweat equity hours so he could begin his own Habitat House (sweat equity is how Habitat Home applicants provide their working their assess off on other people's homes).  He told me how he had lived in a neighborhood adjacent to this one when Katrina hit.  His family had evacuated (seven cars deep full of family) and had traveled to Houston; however just a few weeks later they had to evacuate Houston and head to Dallas when Hurricane Rita hit.  He told me it took him three years to get back to New Orleans, and half of his family remained in Texas, refusing to come back.

And then I met William.

William was small and unassuming.  He walked slowly, with a limp, and didn't say much.  I learned from Alyssa that the house we were working on was William's.  I went over to him late in the morning.  We had been working side by side for several hours, and he hadn't really said much of anything to anyone.  I introduced myself and said, "I understand you're William and this is your house?"

"Yes, ma'am, I am and it is."

"Well, my name's Nasrene and that's my sister Neda.  We came all the way from Baltimore just to help you build your house today," I tried to break the ice.

He seemed genuinely appreciative, but looked down humbly, not really making eye contact, "well thank you ma'am, I sure do appreciate that."

"William, if you call me 'ma'am,' one more time I'm going to start taking offense that you think I'm old. And I'm going to have to address you as 'sir'!" I told him.

He laughed, "well okay."

I asked him if he had children.  He said he did, three of them.  His son was 8, his daughter was 3 and the baby was just a few months old.

I told him I had a three year old daughter too, and his eyes lit up, "you do? She keep you on your toes as much as mine does?"  He looked me in the eye for the first time.

"She sure does, William."  And for the first time, we were on even playing field.  We were two parents of sassy little girls comparing war stories.  I didn't wanted to take up too much time, and I prefaced my questions by saying, "William, if I ask you something and you don't want to answer, just tell me to mind my business, kay?" He agreed.  I didn't know how to go about asking how he was affected by Katrina..for some people (like Tony and Floyd) they just volunteer the information. For others, it seems like the elephant in the room...the thing no one wants to ask or speak about. 

He told me quite simply, "We evacuated.  When that big storm came, we left.  Took as much as we could.  It took 10 hours to just to get out of the city.  Almost ran out of gas several times, but we made it to relatives out of state.  We didn't come home for awhile, but when we did, there was nothing left."

And then he said so simply what may have been the understatement of the year, "So we just rebuild."

I asked him when his home was slated to be completed and he said late August/ early September.  He really wanted to be in the house and settled when the kids started school.  I told him he must be really excited for the holidays this year, to have everyone together and in the same home.

"Yes ma'am," he said genuinely, "that's going to be real nice." 

I made a mental note to add William to my Christmas card list year.

Soon it was time for lunch and my sister and I walked the four blocks to the main street to get some lunch.  As we walked, we got a clear picture of how America Street was truly a neighborhood in transition.

 Our crew framing out the driveway and walkways before lunch.

Where the sidewalk ends.

A common sight in this neighborhood.

This is all that was left of this house.

Over 5 and a half years after Katrina.

And directly across the street from that fragment of a home, stands this one.
It's hard to ignore the gaping holes in the roofs...evidence that people were trapped in the attics, and escaped through their roof.

The two faces of America Street in New Orleans East.  A beautiful rebuilt home stands next to one still abandoned and boarded up.

Despite the obvious devastation this area experienced, there are signs of hope everywhere.

This home is not as hopeful.

Each home tells its story, and "X" marks the spot where a full two weeks after Katrina hit this home was searched on September 12th, at 1pm.

Evidence of the neighborhood's transition...the pink home was boarded up, the one in the middle had it's bones bare, and the blue one is completely rehabbed.

Visible damage of just how high the water this house it was over halfway up the windows.

A blank slate.  A clear plot of land, just waiting for a new foundation to be build.

Five and half years later.

This home was my favorite.

The ironwork on the door was so pretty.  I can't imagine what it must've felt like for it's tenants to leave it and never come back.

I couldn't imagine leaving my home and never coming back.  But then again I couldn't imagine coming back and seeing this.

This is America Street, New Orleans East, June 2011.

Back to work. Remember that fear of heights I mentioned?  Yeah, it's still there a little bit...

Neda and Andrew finish off the fascia.

William's home at the end of our day.

All day long I kept thinking about how much work still needs to be done in this city.  Sure, the French Quarter looks as it should, with it's tourists bustling down the streets, but the French Quarter was spared from the worst of Katrina's floods.  Out in New Orleans East, it's a different story. The areas where the real people of New Orleans lived is what was hit the worst. The area near the 17th Street Canal was destroyed.  Much of the lower Ninth Ward remains dead and empty.  Outside the city, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes were ravished.  

You go back to these areas, and it's like visiting the Mayan ruins.  You see these crumpled shells of homes and know that people once inhabited this area, although they are not there now. 

There are constant reminders of what happened.

As I dug in the dirt that morning and found mounds of seashells buried deep in the Earth amongst the rock and clay, I remembered.

As we walked down America street and saw pieces of mattresses laying in a lot, a jar of pickles sitting in an abandonned yard, and pieces of a rusty bike left in a rumpled head, I remembered.

When we sat at lunch, trying out some crawfish, and I overheard a lady in the booth behind me talking on the phone to her friend about contractors, and "when we'll be able to get the money together to get the work done," I remembered.

But the hope is overwhelming.  The optimism has returned to New Orleans.  People are eager to move on, 5 years, 9 months and 2 weeks later.  As we walked down the street heading to lunch, a group of little children ran out to us to say hi.  They were playing and having fun.  Life is normal.  An elderly man sat in a rocker on his front porch, waved "hi' to us and nodded in our direction, as if we were neighbors he saw every day.  People are kinder, gentler to one another.

And at the end of the day, as we closed up shop and said goodbye to William's house on America Street, we got to hear Alyssa's story.  We were waiting for our cab to take us back to our hotel, when the driver called to tell us he had a flat and would be 20 minutes late. 

"Hop in the car," Alyssa said, "I'll give you a ride."  We were really grateful, not only because we were in desperate need of a shower, but also cause she saved us $20 bucks by offering.  On the way I asked her how she got involved with Habitat.  She told that me she had been working for a cushy firm in Raleigh, wearing dresses to work everyday, and living the good life as a single girl in her early 20s working in the city.  But she didn't feel fulfilled.  The opportunity to work with Habitat through Americorps came her way, so she applied.  Within a couple weeks she had traded her heels and dry clean only dresses for tennis shoes and paint stained shorts.  She had never been to New Orleans, didn't know construction, and certainly had never helped someone build their home.

She has been there since August, and estimates she's worked on about 25 homes at this point.  She says despite the heat, the hard work, the lack of perks on the job, she loves what she does.  She found her purpose and she feels fulfilled.

I was a little jealous of Alyssa, I'm not gonna lie.

My belief that Habitat is an awesome organization was re-affirmed that day.  New Orleans is rebuilding, but it's not because of FEMA.  It's thanks to the generosity of organizations like Habitat, the hard work of volunteers and resilient spirit of the residents who will not let the city die.

I have so much more to say, but that's enough for today. 


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