So much to do: An Islander volunteers to rebuild
Every generation should have a cause, something that inspires people to take action, even to travel across the country to do something about it. For many people, including a group of Tufts University students, that issue became the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.
Six of us, funded in part by the university, volunteered in New Orleans for ten days this past December and January. The most overwhelming impression was that, despite the rhetoric of help and sympathy expressed by so many Americans, there is still so much work to do.
We spent most of our time in the lower Ninth Ward, the part of the city most devastated by the storm. During the storm, floodwaters reached 15 feet in some places. The district, with its demolished and abandoned houses, is a shell of itself, a ghost town of boarded houses marred by red X's spray-painted by federal officials to indicate they were unsafe. The vast majority of those we saw were unlivable, abandoned and beyond repair.
I was told about the Johnson family, who lived in Houston a year after the hurricanes hit. Mr. Johnson, the father, survived the flood by sitting on his roof as it floated in floodwater until a Coast Guard helicopter plucked him off - but not before his granddaughter slipped overboard and was sucked away in a torrent of water. They moved back in six months ago. But they are surrounded on two sides by empty lots and on the other two by rotting piles of wood, the former frames of houses waiting to be removed. They have no neighbors and aren't likely to get any soon.
For the first part of the week, we worked in the Lower Ninth Ward Village (lower9thwardvillage.org), an old warehouse that some remaining residents hope to turn into a community center. We cut Plexiglas to fill empty window frames and did basic construction.
The director of the Village is Mack McClendon, a heavyset survivor about 60 years old with a wiry beard and a tattered bright purple Saints windbreaker who "ain't gonna let no flood run me from my home, Lord knows." Mack evokes God's name like He lives across the street.
The Lower Ninth Ward Village is totally dependent on volunteers to do this work, which is frustrating for Mack because he has to train each new group that comes in and out and works for less than a week at a time. That costs time and resources. Despite Mack's caution that the materials were expensive, I broke a few Plexiglas sheets until I got the hang of it. Mack, grateful for the help, was understanding.
One time we saw a pillar of smoke billowing a few blocks from us. We drove over to find an SUV engulfed in flames and a few kids with bikes watching from 20 feet away. The strangest part was the silence: no sirens, no fire trucks, no ambulances. A forgotten neighborhood.
Some volunteer organizations in New Orleans:
Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN)
Habitat for Humanity
At the community center, we worked with a different group of volunteers every day. Teams of energetic students down for winter break surveyed the options for work at the center - usually light carpentry or hauling lumber - and most decided to move on. Mack gave us a goal by the end of the week, to fill all the holes in the window frames with Plexiglass. We stayed until we finished.
We worked for the ten days that we were there, about seven hours a day, 8 am to 3 pm. The short days gave us time to explore the city at night. One benefit of working with locals is the connection to an uncommon nightlife. Instead of relying on expensive nightclubs on Bourbon Street, one night we went to Frank's Place, a smoke-filled jazz joint jam-packed with locals - and no cover charge.
Just because parts of city were leveled doesn't mean the Creole spirit is dead in New Orleans.
We stayed in a hostel in the Garden District. This part of the city, the upper-scale residential community, was the first to be rebuilt, along with the business district and French Quarter. No immediate damage from the hurricane remains in these parts, but after a ten-minute drive along I-10, we found ourselves in the middle of lasting devastation.
Organizations like ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) try to locate the owners and assist them in receiving proper compensation, if not encouraging them to move back. But after two years, if there are no other residents, no schools, no jobs and a weak infrastructure, there is little incentive for people to want to move back.
Volunteerism is essential. There isn't enough capital in the area to pay people to do the work that needs to be done. The community center needs walls, computers, and structured programming before it will be completed, and that will only happen if volunteers donate materials, money, and expertise.
There are some respected community organizations in New Orleans working for fair compensation to homeowners and developing community resources that can help some of the people who need it most. But even their best intentions are hollow without volunteers. Mack McClendon's favorite saying is, "It takes a village to raise a child." Lord knows.
Duncan Pickard, a sophomore at Tufts University, graduated from Martha's Vineyard Regional High School in 2006.