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Remembering Katrina – From Afar (Part 2 of 2)

August 28, 2010

Despite living more than 1,000 miles away from the Gulf Coast, I feel linked to that region. There was something about Hurricane Katrina and the events that followed that gripped me and pulled me in. Since then, I have visited the Gulf Coast twice – once to Mississippi, and once to New Orleans. My son, Alex, now lives there, working the last two years to help rebuild homes, first through the Presbyterian Church (USA), and now through Americorps (although still with a PCUSA-sponsored organization, Project Homecoming).

In Part 1 I wrote about my memories of the storm itself, and my trip to Mississippi in 2006. Today is about my family’s trip to New Orleans in 2009.

When I left Mississippi at the end of a one-week service trip in August, 2006, I had those fleeting, crazy, “what if?” kinds of thoughts about how to remain so I could help with the rebuilding efforts.  Or maybe I could come back? But after a few weeks of initial restlessness upon my return home, the reality of day-to-day life set in and I set those “what if” ideas aside.  I did not forget the people of the Gulf Coast, however.

Within two years, the region would be once again front and center in my life. It turns out our son Alex had been deeply affected by the storm coverage, as well. Though still in college, he had an idea that one day he would move there to help rebuilding efforts. He graduated in June, 2008, and two months later he was headed for New Orleans as a Young Adult Volunteer with the Presbyterian Church (USA).

It turned out he was headed right into Hurricane Gustav. He arrived in New Orleans just in time to be evacuated out of the city. Fortunately, Gustav did not pack the same punch as Katrina three years previously.

Since that time, Alex has personally overseen the rebuilding of 7 homes, working with more than 1,000 volunteers in the process.

We visited Alex in March, 2009, to see first-hand the work he had been doing. On our first full day he took us on the tour he has taken many volunteers on through the city, pointing out places affected by the storm and flooding. As we headed over the Industrial Canal on the Claiborne Avenue Bridge, Alex told us to look to the right of the bridge. We saw neighborhoods just on the other side of the canal. Then at just the right moment, Alex said, “Look to the left.”

Turning our heads, we saw what looked like a wasteland. It was what was left of The Lower Ninth Ward. There were specks of life here and there, but mostly there were hundreds of empty lots, with only sets of concrete steps marking where homes once stood. I thought back to two years earlier, when I first saw the devastation first-hand in Mississippi.

As Alex drove us around he explained how the disaster had unfolded. He detailed the environmental degradation and human errors that had contributed to the tragic events, how residents nearly lost the ability to return and rebuild to the neighborhood due to political maneuvering and greed, and how insurance companies had stacked the deck against people collecting monies. He also talked about how residents were being thwarted from returning to the city either through governmental rules or lack of resources.

I felt my anger from three years earlier returning. While remembering the shock I felt watching the calamity on TV in 2005, I was taken aback that residents were still lacking the help they needed to rebuild and return. I was very quiet through the rest of the tour.

On Monday morning we found ourselves in a church fellowship hall with about 100 other volunteers from all over the country for an orientation. Afterwards we were divided into teams for each home rebuilding site. Our family headed to the site Alex was supervising. For the next few days we painted, caulked, laid floor tiles and helped with general clean up. At night Alex took us to more sites around the city, making sure we experienced the classics of New Orleans’ cuisine, music and culture.

By the end of the week, I was in love with the city and its people. We got to talk with the homeowners of the house we were rebuilding. We spoke to other natives of the city and region. We got to see parades, outdoor markets, classic old neighborhoods, and local nature. From our experiences it seemed that this was a place that celebrated life with gusto in the face of death.

The anger I had felt just a few days before was not gone, but I realized that the anecdote to that anger was turning that anger into action, like the rebuilding efforts. These efforts were not just rebuilding physical buildings, they were – and are – rebuilding people’s lives. And throughout the rebuilding, we can, and should, embrace and celebrate life, just as generations of New Orleans and Gulf Coast residents have done.

Five years after Hurricane Katrina there is still more left to accomplish. Organizations like Project Homecoming are helping uninsured, under-insured, disabled and elderly homeowners rebuild their homes, even five years later. It very well could be another five years before the remaining homes are rebuilt. With the BP oil spill, the region is hit with new woes, making help all the more imperative.

There is no easy ending to this story. No quick fix to New Orlean’s problems, which are extremely complicated. But we as a nation should not give up on New Orleans, or the rest of the Gulf Coast region.

You can help! Go to http://www.phroadtrip.blogspot.com/ and donate money for Project Homecoming. This organization has rebuilt more than 120 homes in New Orleans utilizing labor from more than 8,000 volunteers from all over the country and world. There is still lots more to do, however. Money and volunteers are still needed.

If you live in the Silicon Valley, you can also help this Sunday, August 29, by eating at Roux Louisiana Kitchen, on Santana Row, in San Jose. A portion of the restaurant’s profits that day will go to Project Homecoming.

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