Wednesday, September 3, 2008

New Orleans Revisited

With the coverage of Hurricane Gustav and the three-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina last week, I've had New Orleans on my mind a lot lately. I also recently returned from my second volunteer trip to the Big Easy, so I thought I would share a bit of my experience of the city in this post.

My first visit to New Orleans was in March 2006. At that point the city was still reeling from Katrina with a seemingly insurmountable amount of recovery work to be done. I spent a week volunteering with Catholic Charities doing what was probably the most difficult work I will ever do in my life. Without experiencing it firsthand, it's nearly impossible to describe the physical and emotional process of systematically gutting someone's home. Dressed in a Tyvek suit, gloves, goggles, a hard hat and a respirator, we endured the Gulf Coast humidity to literally turn someone's home inside out--stripping out the water-bloated possessions, the moldy carpet and the soaking wet drywall to leave the skeletal remains of wood framing and floors.

Previously important possessions were removed and discarded in a giant pile on the street in front of the house. Carpet, furniture, and appliances followed suit. Trust me when I tell you that removing a refrigerator brimming with six-month-old floodwater is an unenviable task, and if the fridge falls open, you best be wearing that respirator.

Fast forward to August 2008.

Catholic Charities gutted more than 1,900 homes and apartments and the rebuilding phase has begun. While it was still unbearably humid in NOLA, the work was decidedly more refreshing. Instead of using crowbars to bust up drywall, we were using paintbrushes to put new coats of paint on newly completed walls and ceilings. We were sawing plywood and using nail guns to fasten down sub-flooring.

The word that kept coming to mind was "rejuvenation." The work of home creation is decidedly more fulfilling than home destruction, and the city of New Orleans itself reflected this rejuvenation effort in so many ways as well. The city seemed alive again (at least compared to 2006) with a bustling French Quarter during the day and a packed Bourbon Street every night.

Best of all, the residents seemed to be back in a big way. Local businesses that I had remembered seeing boarded up on my first trip were now open and residents seemed to have returned to their neighborhoods. Maybe that's why the idea of evacuating the entire city seemed so outlandish to me. How could a city that is so alive with music and people and culture turn into a complete ghost town? Well, Mother Nature provided strong motivation and the city cleared out.

This is what Bourbon Street looked like on August 9.

And this is what it looked like last week.

By the time it reached NOLA, Hurricane Gustav was thankfully quite toothless, but the evacuation was still warranted. I fear that every major tropical storm from now on will compel city officials to order such a mandatory migration and it makes good sense. No one wants another Katrina. But how many times will people be willing to leave and come back to their water-logged and partially destroyed home? That's the pressing issue now.

When I walk around New Orleans, I am overwhelmed by the city's vast history, deep culture and undeniable pride. Citizens of NOLA seem to know that they are living somewhere special and they are anxious to share that with visitors--usually in the form of good music, delicious po'boys and fresh beignets. It would be a true shame if nature finds a way to bury that way of life at the bottom of the ocean, but I have to wonder how long N'Awlins has left.

1 comment:

Anna said...

Nice description of what it must be like to be NOLA, Matt.