My New Orleans trips, yes plural, were mostly focused on Katrina relief. While many call New Orleans home, some close friends included, it’s not the place I would personally live. While a popular tourist area on Bourbon Street and during Mardi Gras, and yes, the beignets and the gumbo were fantastic, the rest of the city looked to still be in a state of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. I’m sure that it’s improved since my last trip in 2008/2009, but I haven’t been back to see the differences for myself. I will say though that in between the two years I was there, there were a lot of changes, wonderful changes, particularly with one of the residence that we worked on.
The first trip was during my junior year of college. A friend of mine had found a catholic charity to which some of us, about 15 or so, were able to sign up with for an all expense trip to NOLA specifically for Katrina relief. Finals were done and we boarded the plane in LAX to fly to New Orleans a couple weeks before Christmas in 2006. We were staying there a week, sleeping on air mattresses on an empty floor in a housing unit for older, lower income folks. The plan wasn’t to renovate houses. Our goal for the week was to assist in emptying out an apartment-like complex called Nazareth Inn, a senior housing unit. Located right next to the water, the buildings were evacuated a day before the hurricane hit. This was evident by the fact that some of the residents had daily calendars in their rooms, untouched.
Residents had eventually come back to take some of their belongings with them. We were left with removing the rest. Most of the furniture was damaged from mold and we would push them down the hallways and off the balcony into the large trash bins below. Side note: watching a sofa fall six stories was extremely satisfying. Refrigerators were sealed shut because the food had been sitting in them for nearly a year and a half. And the smell was just awful.
Cleaning out these rooms felt a bit invasive. Looking into the private lives of these men and women, most of whom had taken the most personal and sentimental trinkets with them. Others had probably passed on in the time being, leaving everything they owned…their entire lives…in these rooms. Some of the rooms stuck out and were starkly different. There was the horny old man whose used red condoms were everywhere. He was an artist and had some very sexually graphic paintings. Another older resident, her room was a mess, and the smell was so bad we had to wear masks to clean everything out. We found some dentures in a satin pouch, which lightened the mood but it was emotional because as a whole it was all you saw. We didn’t know these people. We just saw what remained and had to remove their abandoned stuff.
Anything of value, money, coins, good furniture, etc, were put aside to donate for charity. Especially the contents of a room that belonged to a nun. This room was so immaculate, it was as if the resident had left the day before. Everything still had it’s place. There was very little dust that had accumulated on the furniture and the room had absolutely no smell. Nothing at all like the rest of the building.
Of the days we stayed in NOLA, the weather was decent. While a week before Christmas, it was still a bit warm. Our last full day required a change of plans due to a torrential downpour. The roads were flooded and the first floor of the housing unit we were staying in started to flood as well. Unable to drive to Nazareth Inn, we stayed back to help minimize the flooding damage as much as we could. Some of us had buckets to pour water down a tub and we created some barriers outside to direct the flow of water away from some of the entry points to the building. This was after just a few hours of rain. Imagine the flooding and damage during and after the hurricane itself.
I returned to New Orleans just before New Years in 2008. I drove down from Columbus, MS and met up with the same folks who made the trip two years prior. We stayed at the Madonna Manor, a home designed to shelter children with dysfunctional families. The place had a weird vibe to it (the third floor was abandoned and especially creepy), and some research showed that children staying at Madonna Manor, along with other similar shelters, were abused in the 1950s and 1960s. The scandal broke out a few years prior to our staying there, but a settlement wasn’t reached until October 2009.
The week’s work was focused on renovation and building, as opposed to cleanup and tearing down. A visit to the lower ninth ward allowed those who hadn’t seen the damage take in the view of leveled houses, the levy and an art piece by Leandro Erlich entitled “Window and Ladder”. It’s still sad to see how quickly these families lost their homes and how devastating it must have been. Last I remember, there were plenty of buildings that still had the FEMA markings used during the during the search and rescue.
Our efforts varied from painting to building, but they focused on a yellow house across the street from a chapel that had flooded during the hurricane. It was single story and elevated above the ground on concrete bricks. The plan was to paint the home: a fresh coat, the trim, everything. The owner and her young children were very happy with the changes and it did give the house a different feel to it.
The exciting part of the trip had to be our return to Nazareth Inn on New Years Day. It was truly unforgettable.
This housing unit smelled of mold, saw water damage, and was dirty when we went to help clean up a couple years prior. Just shy of the two year anniversary of our previous trip, Nazareth Inn opened its doors once again. The renovations in one of the two buildings were amazing while the second still had sustained significant problems. We had gotten a tour of the available rooms. Everything was brand new, spotless. It was as if there wasn’t a hurricane, as if the people’s rooms we had cleaned out never existed. For Nazareth Inn, it was a fresh slate, offering new homes to new people.
Eventually I’d like to return to New Orleans, maybe during Mardi Gras since I never had the opportunity to go the years I lived in the South.