How do I find myself down here in New Orleans, on a volunteer mission more than four years after Katrina? My friend Mindy did this more than a year ago and couldn't stop raving about it. I had a hard time grasping how such a short trip could leave such an outsized impression or make much of a difference, but I'm here to tell you that it can and it does.
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Granted, they had us running from early morning until well into the evening. Within that three day framework, we volunteered at three different projects, hitting the hotel for a quick shower before heading out, still damp, for dinner at local synagogues. Interesting locals, including the executive director of Tulane's Center for Public Service and Jordan Hirsch of Sweet Home, New Orleans, spoke at dessert. Stu Himmelfarb, who attended graduate school with Mindy and me, has been orchestrating these trips since 2006. He invited me to come along. I'm glad I took him up on it.
This particular mission came into being because of two New Jerseyans, David Goodman and Larry Weiss. Goodman attended Tulane as an undergraduate and Weiss was down here for two years at his first job after college. In that time, each of them connected with this city. After the hurricane, they immediately started brainstorming about how to get down here to help. They found a welcome ear at their local Jewish Federation [UJA NNJ]. The first mission was launched within a year. Since then, they have brought groups down to the Gulf Coast five times. Many of the participants are repeaters; one woman has come three times. Larry, David and Stu show absolutely no sign that their interest is flagging. And over the years, they have fine-tuned this program until it almost runs itself.
It's as if everything I knew about Katrina before - through reading, watching footage and documentaries, researching, and doing interviews - produced a snapshot inside my head. As I have begun to experience the city for myself, that snapshot has begun to morph. It's been enriched, infused with color, emotion, and depth. Every morsel of new information fills in a little more detail, plumping it up - transforming what was once two-dimensional into something fuller, real and raw.
All the people I meet are incredibly eager to tell their stories. We who come can't help but find them individually compelling, and, when taken together, overwhelming. Story teller and listener form an intense, symbiotic connection. They need to tell; we need to hear. Some snippets of what I have heard over the last few days.
Myrty works at Camp Hope III, a project of St. Bernard Parish, where we volunteered the first day. When Katrina hit, she was at the hospital with her mother. When authorities decided to airlift her mother to a hospital out of state, they refused to allow Myrty to accompany her, although there was room in the helicopter.
When Myrty was finally airlifted out later, she saw another helicopter load up a mother and two of her children, leaving her other two small children stranded on the ground. Only strident intervention on the part of the ground crew got the helicopter to turn around and pick up those toddlers. Since returning to New Orleans, Myrty has been coordinating rebuilding efforts for St. Bernard Parish, while battling to rebuild her own home. She just moved back into her home two weeks ago, over four years later.
Then, there's T, our personable tour bus driver. He was transferred from Houston and arrived in New Orleans four days before Katrina hit. He spent the following days evacuating nursing homes and transporting evacuees to Baton Rouge and Houston. He tells about the challenges he and his partner faced, loading up non-ambulatory patients, complete with oxygen tanks and wheelchairs. Many of the patients had not left the premises for years and remembered no other life. They were anxious, overwhelmed, and a number of them were disoriented, clearly unfit for travel. Several died along the way. Policy has since been revised; now nursing home evacuation is the sole responsibility of the federal government.
Carol, our tour guide, told us how she got out. She set up two computers to coordinate searches for hotel rooms and flights. Finding a flight was worthless without a hotel reservation for the same destination. It took quite a while, but she ended up on one of the last planes out before the airport was shut down. Having lived in New Orleans for years, she knew the drill. As usual, she took only enough clothes for three days. But it was fully three months later when she finally saw her home again.
Frank, a retired fireman, lived in St. Bernard Parish. When the water started rising at an alarming rate, he used his axe to gain access to the roof. A passing boat picked him up and transported him to the roof of a bank several miles away. He was forced to leave his dog and birds behind. For seven days, he and the others were stuck on top of the bank. Eventually, they broke into the bank below and raided a vending machine. When Frank finally returned home, he was thrilled to find that his pets had survived. His garage is now part of the office of St. Bernard Project, which helps local residents rebuild their homes.
Downtown, there is a cluster of several hospitals. During and after Katrina, as doctors ran out of medicine, they would swim from one hospital to another, in order to bring back supplies.
We have gradually learned more about the government's onging, inadequate response to the disaster. Those who survived Katrina have shown a sustained and admirable resilience as well as indomitable spirit. But, in too many cases, local and federal agencies have actually made recovery slower or more cumbersome. For example, Gov. Jindal slashed subsidies for Louisiana's food banks this year by 90% - from $5 million to $500,000. Is this logical, wise, or humane?
Much has been accomplished over the last four years - largely by the inhabitants themselves, aided by hundreds of thousands of volunteers and the grass roots organizations which have sprouted up. These outsiders have poured in from all over the country, most showing up for a few days or a week or two. Some stay on for several months, or even a year. Camp Hope has seen 83,000 volunteers pass through its doors since Katrina, the St. Bernard Project over 17,000.
Residents who have chosen to stay and rebuild are inordinately heartened and empowered by these volunteers. They express their gratitude freely, often with a tear in the eye and a catch in the throat. We, in turn, feel a tad embarrassed by the display; we clearly see that our small, individual efforts are drops in a very large bucket.