I figured I’d get this blog started off properly by looking back on my time in New Orleans, in honor of the five-year anniversary of Katrina’s landfall.
The below were journal entries from my first trip to New Orleans, taken with my then-girlfriend (now wife) and several other students at our college. Thanks to Dr. Scott for lending me the camera, and to Jaclyn for making me pull the trigger on going. Edited for brevity, but hopefully haven’t lost the message. We signed on with Campus Crusade, as they took the lead on organizing the effort- big ups to them. Here we go…
Myself, Jaclyn and Dan embarked on an odyssey from one end of the Lower Ninth Ward to the other, starting with relatively lower degrees of destruction with gradually grew more and more intense and terrifying with each passing block. Walking silent streets completely devoid of people, life, movement. No sound save for the screen doors banging in the wind.
Words are fully inadequate to describe anything I saw today; only bits and pieces can be expressed. Finding thirty-year-old bottles of 7-Up under a layer of caked mud in a trashed garage. Touring an abandoned high school with notes from 8/26/05, Friday, still on the board. Rats the size of small dogs, roosters crowing throughout wreckage. By the time you reach the end of shattered houses and tumbled automobiles into the devastated plain echoed only by Hiroshima, you run out of adjectives. All you can do is try to outdo your own sense of outrage, as each step is a worse affront to the senses. Every step, I feel a little bit more deconstructed and I wonder how far it will take me.
Spent our first day gutting houses today. We go in and remove every single scrap of personal belongings, furniture, carpeting, anything not nailed down, and pile it in the street according to toxicity and who will be removing it. We are kitted out in work gloves, goggles and face masks. It is hot, dusty, exhausting work; within a few minutes you are drenched in sweat and blinded by fogged-up goggles; within an hour your white mask will be dyed brown and gray. Then, we take everything that is nailed down and rip it out of the house, down to the 2x4s. Exhausting. Gratifying.
You don’t realize the fact that this disaster has no scale until you can fathom the little houses, the individual lives washed away in a rage. I ripped apart a house today, found a baby’s shoe and old phonebooks. Tore the drywall from the pillars like meat from a skeleton. Cracked open doorframes, ripped open cupboards, yanked down a whole ceiling with a single stroke of the crowbar. It was so incredibly invasive, but at last, I don’t feel like a fucking tourist, here to take pictures and gawk at the disaster porn.
It’s also profoundly disturbing, in a way. We are literally taking a life, all the assembled representations thereof, and shoving it to the curb. What else can you do? So it’s hard to see all this and feel supremely positive. And yet, Dan summed it up when he looked to the horizon and remarked, thoughtfully, “Today was a good day.” Somehow, it was.
More on tourism: met a Pakistani shopkeeper across the street from Cafe du Monde. He saw Jaclyn looking at a book chronicling the disaster blow by blow. “Look at this,” he declaims, smacking the book with his open palm. “I sat on this rooftop for five days, no one come. No one helps. Now,” his lips curled with disgust and tone heavy in derision, “it is twenty dollars. No one around to help, but you can buy for twenty dollars.” He should just send them to the Ninth with some gloves and a crowbar.
But, another man told us as he was repairing his house, “Take pictures. Show people. Show them things haven’t changed.” He was the only man to return to his neighborhood. It felt like a ghost town, a hot zone. My presence felt obscene. Another woman told us the same thing, though. “Thank you for what you are doing. Take these pictures home and show people that nothing has changed.”
The scale is impossible to quantify; it’s at once all-consuming and painfully intimate. When the only sound is that of broken siding, you know it’s all wrong. We know. You pass through here and know. Contrast that with the cane, photographs, medicine and bullets salvaged from a man’s home today. Way too intimate with the destruction.
My group likes to pray, and I say good. This place needs it and so do we.
So much pain and anger in the air, like a haze over the city, and every person I see and talk to is running on hope and happiness. Simply remarkable. Doesn’t matter if they are local or not. How can I ever let myself be dominated by pessimism again?
If it wasn’t for Jesus, none of this would be happening, our happy little group right here. The faith of everyone I meet is so strong, it is inspiring. Even those of us who are not here out of any religious affiliation (myself) are busting their ass day in and day out to embody His ethic. He is the tie that binds. This is when I love religions- creating good works. Truly beautiful.
I love this work and I don’t want to stop. My days are long and meaningful. The bone-tired fatigue come nighttime is a reward in itself. This is truly a life worth living, and it will stay that way. This clarity and purpose is far too valuable to let go; definitely the most valuable thing I own.
I might be getting my fill of gutting houses and shoveling people’s lives to the curb. The house today was a nightmare. Full of huge cockroaches. Carpeting still wet and stringy; impossible to pull up in large pieces. Soggy drywall that came down like an avalanche. And there’s something disturbing about flipping a mattress out the window to find a store of pornography, stolen cellphones and IDs in a high-schooler’s bedroom. And a handgun. But that is why we are here, to do work, so I’m going to do just that.
Really don’t want to see any more of those roaches though.
Last full day here on the job. Only working a maximum of three hours. I’ve immersed myself in this as far as they would let me. Maybe it’s for the best… I wonder if I could go deeper.
“It’s the work of the good Lord, all this,” says our burly, granite-voiced taxi driver, “and if they don’t get it now, they never will.” Heard a lot about God on this trip. City brings it out of you. So is this the God that brought us all here to do work to help our brothers and sisters? Or the God that killed 2000+ people and ripped the heart out of the city? Who knows. It’s all subject to our vision, timeline and interpretation. He is on a whole new level and different set of rules and priorities.
All the cars that come through these neighborhoods are either massive dump trucks, contractor pickups, or really nice ones driven by locals. Strange.
I’m starting my security shift on the compound here in a minute. Have to divine the difference between someone rifling through their own belongings and rifling through someone else’s. Right. Really jittery head of security, too. Then it’s off to the site. More later.
Actually, that was it; I remember being completely overwhelmed mentally and physically from this week, and never picked the journal back up. No regrets, though. If you would like to see more pictures, please check out my Flickr account here.
Later, I will do a write-up on returning in the spring of 2007, and seeing many of these same places over again. Everything changed for me in New Orleans, and I’m grateful for the opportunity I had to learn from it.