As the rich subtly aromatic scent of roasting Farmer's coffee beans floated unseen but strongly sensed through the Louisiana night air we negotiated our way home via poorly lit side roads and sometimes obstructed lanes or cluttered highways back to Faith Church from the meeting recently held at the Carrollton Avenue Church of Christ (non-instrumental) which fed several neighborhoods of congregation and visitors (like ourselves) every Wednesday evening around 6:30.
This went along with a sermon usually on a topic reminding us of our mortality and our sinfulness in the light of Hurricane Katrina, a visitor now in distant yet hauntingly familiar memory.
The preacher, the mild mannered director of Building Better Communities and I usually managed to get some grocery shopping done at this time as it was conveniently close to a large warehouse like store providing the basics and at the same time luxury goods such as toilet paper and coca-cola. My friend the preacher was partial to these products having been raised in the industrial region of an east coast city and then by dint of hard work and innovative ideas and consistently good grades made it to the halls of middle class respectability, and not to be outdone by the do-gooders arrived fresh and ready for battle for the souls of stricken victims of New Orleans.
Which is where I also became a volunteer and freedom fighter (strictly speaking, neutral) in the notion that it is better to volunteer than to read about disaster ridden catastrophe after the fact and via the modes of media not always abiding by the rules of honesty and fairplay, an American ideal.
The preacher and I both lived (a useful term here but slightly exaggerated) at the complex where several disaster relief groups were housed (a more accurate description) and which abandoned facility had been discovered shortly after Hurricane Katrina had ripped her monstrous way through and beyond this scene of apocalyptic mayhem, by an enterprising helicopter rider looking for a place to plant a huge seed, and generally known as a church-planter.1
Whether the notion of a Hurricane drawing congregations by some kind of lymphatic attraction would or could ever hold water this is the genesis or potentially part of some biblical account of what happened as witnessed by a lot of people mostly on a secondary basis through television and newspaper accounts spreading the gospel of hope and political necessity.
The genesis or 'trigger' for the visit to New Orleans was in part due to an unforgettable yet inauspicious meeting in a bohemian coffee house in the Nob Hill area of Albuquerque, New Mexico in September of '05. This was destiny in the making, a date with fate with a Katrina victim, refugee, artist/painter, student of psychology who was looking for a place to rent, hauling a U-haul with 3 dogs, her 14 year old son named Pablo and two box turtles named Cuba and Nickie.
Also, gifted along with these things and charmingly alluring came a beautifully cadenced French accent only requiring a James Bond like presence to create the illusion of a movie atmosphere.
Now, in January 2007, She, the refugee was pregnant again and with the usual accompanying emotional mixture of joy and anxiety a baby was duly expected and safely delivered at the Tulane Lakeside Hospital, born 2/23/07. The baby boom in response to the death and obliteration of the Crescent City was never announced: it just happened!
Global warming too was becoming a dominant issue dramatically making itself felt rather more insistently than being heard here in this French outpost historically, showing its mettle by pounding and smashing its freedom loving way into the backyard of America.2
Climate change 101 is here to stay and Hurricane Katrina was merely a hiccup in the introduction to those whose claim is that they just didn't know. I guess they didn't know either that ignorance is no excuse and neither is the myth of eternal youth.
The spectacle of the incoherent myth here applies. I was there personally to help support my friend's incubation and baby who turned out to be a bonny boy named Callum Jean-Marie an inspiration culled from a magazine which just happened to catch his mother's hungry eye at a critical moment in time.
As an artist she was and still is mostly drawn to the visual as much and even more so than the audio. Being of Basque origin she is always aware of the importance of language and so this baby boy, born in the chaos of adversity literally at the dawn of a new century, was to be the founder of a new dynasty of French speaking post Katrina citizens of New Orleans.
Carrying with him the profound and the profane of a lost citizenry yet hopefully to flower and bloom in the years to come and to follow this seeming act of god: perhaps a mixed blessing.
The mixed reaction to volunteers ranged from a mass hysteria kind of evangelistic euphoria to the blind though genuine appreciation of a desperate people who had been shamefully abandoned by the government and who were willing to do just about anything to put the clock back.
One person offered a crew I happened to be sharing accommodation with a check each, made out for $300 apiece, he was so grateful. At a baby shower I attended people came up to me personally to thank me for my presence when they discovered I was an outsider and here to help rebuild their homes and city.
The current political language inducing a climate of fear has turned a nation sour and when we hear those words of justification we understand what is meant by collateral damage. This is NOT a movie this is real!
My task I felt was and remains to record the passage of time perhaps like Camoens the famous early 16th century Portuguese explorer, and to try to evoke the historical past without offending. To give a fair and equitable account of this journey to the disaster that in some minds never happened and to others should not or could never have happened in the way that it subsequently evolved or in the way that it actually did.
Strangely or not this visit occurred at a time which coincided with an event celebrated by me as a sign that I should move on. The sign was a storm or series of white-outs that came to the place I had called home for over 23 years and now threatened once again to carve out a legend that spelt havoc and ruination to the area I had called home and which havoc and ruination was marked by the ceremonial building of igloos on the campus sports field. Not one igloo but many of various hues, shapes and sizes, proudly erected by students wishing to demonstrate their education and innovative or perhaps latent talents for winter survival.
A year earlier I had thought about following my new found friend to the south and the city of music and home to such jazz giants as Louis Armstrong and the once memorable movie of the Marx brothers called At the Races in which great musicians of the past paraded in deadly earnest across the black and white screen. The other reason of course was the romantic urge to start a new life. After all this was the home of the bridge location used in the movie Sleepless in Seattle.
Another seemingly innocuous coincidence was in the fact of a year spent between 2000 and 2001 in a mosquito-laden area where I had lived in East Europe making a living by teaching English which topographically exactly fitted or suited depending on your point of view the wetlands of Louisiana inhabited by such folk who had just been evacuated following Hurricane Katrina.
This land in the east was originally called Czechoslovakia and was noted by biologists as the breeding ground home of 30 species of mosquito. Anyway, now was the time to decide and act and so I did…
I went to New Orleans as a volunteer and from a Katrina disaster relief perspective set myself the task of asking the question of how I might evoke the historical past without offending those whose sensitivities provoke my own insecurities and proclivity to vulnerability.
While pondering these weighty matters and on arrival a phrase kept coming to mind which image kept coming back to me. This ominous phrase "Who Dat" I realized was a mantra for the Saints who had made a name and a home for themselves in New Orleans.
On walking by the French Quarter the sounds and smells of some other time and place, possibly European exudes from the spectacular scene before your eyes. The Mississippi river flows serenely yet darkly reflecting lights of the paddle steamers invoking the ghost of Mark Twain. Music seeps through the cracks in the sidewalk and multi-colored beads flash and sparkle at the approach of the visitor's footfall.
Bourbon Street beckons to the unwary and seems to mock the innocent tourist not quite at home in this haven of freedom or in the certain knowledge his soul is going to Hell.
Deluge, flood of rain: TORNADO! These words evoke a sense of hopelessness and hope at the same time in the city of New Orleans at the beginning of 2007 the date almost two years on when the hurricane season turned into a nightmare for thousands of citizens some of whom lost their precious lives due to a bureaucratic incompetence defying belief and others because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time and the predictable result that cost them their futures.
I was on a mission hardly planned to go help the people of New Orleans get back on their feet. At least the 40% who remained stubbornly clinging to the precipice of a misplaced faith or hope in government help slow in its coming. Perhaps stoically, facing the uncertainty of a certain distant future rebuilding and putting the blocks of their shattered lives once again on the line.
Some might prefer to refer to this 60% dispersal as a diaspora or as a racist plot given the choice that is in a climate of fear and loathing and that a majority of those dispossessed were black. A journalist in the Superdome shortly after the storm, noted witnessing the unbelievable fact that in the 23,000 faces he observed there he saw only four white faces.
In the aftermath of two of three heavy winter storms unlike Katrina in their unexpectedly mild ferocity and before the third and last hit it became possible to leave Albuquerque in the early hours of a stormy January dawn while not escaping the ominous reflection that rats desert a sinking ship.
Almost like the barely legible scrawled hand-written laundry sign yellowing in a dusty window of the weak sunlight of an empty business I found in my wanderings along Carrollton Avenue which said ominously: "closing early due to bad weather". It was dated August 28th 2005, reflecting the brief but calm unhurried window of urban life hours before the visitation, the unexpected attack when death's blow struck.
16 months almost to the day, and 24 hours later I arrived in New Orleans. Unprepared for what was about to then become my life existing day to day in the morass of dried up caked mud the detritus of a powerful flood and humanity struggling to make ends meet somehow crammed into FEMA trailers and still reeling from this horrific blow. I was due to work with church groups who were taking crews from everywhere in the US cleaning out empty and often abandoned homes.
They came from local, national and international sources whose roots stemmed mainly though not always in church based outreach as well as college based student activities groups. They came from as far away as Ohio, California, Indiana, Utah, Kentucky, New Mexico in the USA and Canada and England, Scotland and Wales in the UK.
Question. When is a house not a home? When it's been reamed by a massive hurricane with winds up to 160 mph and drenched in a cataclysmic downpour rivaling the antediluvian Flood of bible fame.
Other biblical signs are very much in evidence here with the large X being painted in a bloody red cross usually front and center on just about every empty dwelling as a source of coded information to let search parties know conditions shortly after the rescue efforts were initiated in '05. The vital information about victims either human or animal was written in the four spaces of the 'v's of the scarlet X's.
Top was the date of the visit, next, anticlockwise to the left the name of the group or rescue organization, frequently the National Guard, and bottom the number of human fatalities. At the right the number of pets or animals involved whether lost, dead, found alive but injured or simply starving to death. If it was a yellow label with a big red cross printed unmistakably across it it was to let the absent owners know and others, whether legally there or not be aware that the building was scheduled to be demolished.
My first day of 'mudding out' on the job of 'gutting' a sodden dwelling down to the studs was an experience never to be forgotten as also was a night spent in a disaster hit elementary school now fixed up with bare sheetrock exposed to the visitor's stare which began this odyssey.
The spooky sight of a smudged dirty wet line 15 feet above the gym floor hinted at what once had been the level reached, remaining I had heard for three long and heavy weeks, of a briny sludge which had swiftly filled the vacant space still scarring the walls in the school, Rowley Elementary in Chalmette.
The group of college students family members and individuals like myself volunteering at Hilltop Disaster Relief, an agency out of El Segundo, California, clambered into the van which was to take us to the job-site previously agreed upon by the organization's planning staff.
Incidentally, in all I volunteered with a total of three distinct relief organizations. Leapfrogging each time there was a vacancy or a new mission to fulfill as well as helping Fannie Mae by working to complete one out of the total 6 playgrounds they planned to erect in a single day and taking part in a tornado rescue effort which rivaled the St Valentines Massacre in its devastation (below).
That one day which turned out to be a rain day for the kids meant in turn they were not able to witness until the following morning the spontaneous miracle of a Katrina rebirth in their very own backyard, in their school playground. At least that's what we were told by our masters at Fanny Mae.
The anomalous week I subsequently spent sitting at a tiny desk in a dimly lit church office, invoking grant writing proposals convinced me that mudding out was a lot more productive, satisfying and actually more honest than this vain and empty gesture.
Promises of buried treasure notwithstanding, I decided to let go those dreams and pots of Fool’s gold in the Ninth Ward where these not so Elysian Fields exist which still haunt my dreams and waking consciousness.
The order of dumping 4 to 5 piles of separated materials to be dumped on the sidewalk went something like this: White goods (Fridge, cooker, dishwasher), Electric (radios, TV, irons, CD players, plugs, wiring) Chemicals (bathroom cabinets, medicines, cleaning fluid, acids etc), and other stuff that had been soaked for up to at least 3 weeks in a witches brew of toxic briny oil-polluted water sometimes up to 12 feet or more deep ruined everything it came into contact with.
Any firearms found which occurred fairly frequently post Hurricane Katrina were to be handed over to the EPA posthaste. Looters are still an issue (not the plague) and you can be arrested for picking up anything from a sidewalk which you are not legally entitled to.
I heard of one woman who was arrested and sent to jail for just picking up a clock sitting in the middle of the street.
A list of over 800 dwellings, the ones (dwellings) left over to be gutted after Hilltop quit my second week as a volunteer, the last day being without an evening shower, hot or cold. The reason ‘they’ the agency said because the agency had already donated this valuable equipment to another agency, it being so extremely needed. That was the agency where I had tried to be a grant writer but failed miserably in the attempt.
At the dwelling all piled out and formed a prayer circle, typical for the church group members, the gutting out crew who routinely give up family time and vacation time to volunteer, among the hundreds of agencies in disaster relief still plugging away 18 months after Katrina hit.
After unloading the tool trailer of shovels, picks, bolt cutters, crow-bars, wheelbarrows, pliers, scrapers, screw drivers, we get a safety talk by the lead hand and told how to wear the obligatory gas-mask, which way is up, before setting to work neatly placing hurricane debris on the street curb precisely in the proscribed manner (above). Likewise at days end a prayer circle is formed to conclude the celebration of healing and renewal before packing up the trailer and returning to base and closure.
Conversation turns around the 'mission', the focus of each crew or group who had individually paid up to $700 just to get there whether by air or road, by car, bus, plane or as one individual did, by bicycle all the way from Florida and who eventually became the chief cook at the base we stayed in at Faith church in East Orleans: this plus a hundred bucks for accommodation and a couple hot meals a day.
Back at base part of the daily clean up is the gas mask or air filter which has to be taken apart and rinsed out with alcohol and cotton wool swabs to get rid of the toxic mold accumulating around the removable parts that give the wearer the appearance of a fighter
Appropriate in that a sense of battle fatigue has set in here in New Orleans, cabin fever even with many feeling the effects of delayed action. The frustration of the bureaucratic machinery taking the controls away from the individual home owner putting it in the hands of politicians and distant law makers in Washington, remote but profoundly present.
The intolerance of youth I felt here, though typically not all Christians are bad just like any other social group, but in some special circumstances such as disaster relief the young can be the most trying.
The biggest challenge for the older experienced volunteer and sometimes vice versa. The newcomer, the volunteer who is attempting to negotiate the prevailing atmosphere of campus tensions in a mood akin to Finals week often reflects the disposition of certain young minds toward their more senior peers and fellow helpers both Christian and non-Christian fellows as volunteers.
At least this was what I discovered during my sojourn in this almost lost and forgotten corner of the bedraggled American dream.
I noticed a rather suspicious smattering of a thinly disguised veneer within each mission itself occasionally of 'attitudes' bordering on xenophobic shades of mistrust which sometimes invade the prevailing 'Christian' atmosphere of wellbeing and altruistic intentions to do good.
This was particularly true as I witnessed at first hand a game of poker ostensibly to raise mission funds by members of staff of one nameless organization.
It was the day of the Saints semi-final game and the mood was just about as high on Jefferson Davis Street as any could have been expected. The air of expectancy permeated the usually squeaky clean atmosphere of religious order. As an outsider and a nominal Saints fan to boot I was distinctly a fish out of water in this fishbowl arena and being a European made me distinctly visible, almost an intruder.
My ‘suspicious’ accent made everyone jump or at least behave oddly and even though the local Saints team lost this particular game it was a seminal lesson in volunteer protocol. As any self respecting Cultural Anthropologist will gladly tell you, cultural taboos exist even between people of the same or similar race, whether black, white or brown.
I took this incident at face value in order to partially share the blame, or at least the fifty percent of it I could account for as a diplomatic blunder.
Attitudes which one usually associates with any creative task such as building a better community (incidentally BBC is one of the better local relief organizations in New Orleans with whom I interacted though not as a volunteer) is not immune from the crab bucket syndrome.
This well-known feature of crab life reflects the somewhat bizarre actions where an individual is weighted down or held back by the many as an audacious rebel captive crab caught in a bucket will try to leave.
In the case of humans we tend to act just like the token metaphorical crabs, whether as rebel or as a ‘committee’ member who see themselves as being more important than the rest. The purpose of this peculiar behavior is or seems to be about whether to stay home or not to risk 'difference' in the greater scheme of things.
Perhaps it’s a learnt trait or about being a team player and sticking with the program. In New Orleans on the day of the Saints Semi-Final the lesson appeared to be about being on the ‘same’ page: “do as I say not what I do.”
Needless to say I weathered the genteel southern breeze and lived to tell the tale.
An example here of this dual standard, which I believe was going on would be the way in which some of the rescue missions' grouped skilled labor (carpenters, electricians, AC) over unskilled labor (washing dishes, janitorial cleaning) which took precedence when assigning the daily work schedule.
This habit leaning toward the elitism of a hierarchy of class A and class B workers neatly dividing the 'good' and the 'less good' volunteer was subsequently not always such a success in its practical application. (The key to an understanding here was a firm belief in family values and ownership of a home or property).
Any volunteer could potentially be asked to do a number of necessary jobs from kitchen duty to putting in temporary power poles at a house being put back to life, being rebuilt almost like new especially when it was raining.
Sometimes and quite frequently both vocations were expected of the volunteer on the same day, or night. The expectation went without saying and it was kudos to expect the unexpected. The paradoxical was the norm in this place.
This was my experience as a handyman cum volunteer who, ironically, like the new recruit for the military who on being asked what was his job in civilian life and answering 'mechanic' was immediately assigned to the kitchen.
In my case the answer would have had to have been oxymoronic, 'writer' or 'musician' and these two occupations being classified as 'reserved occupations' I would have been ordered to dig latrines.
Instead, fortunately for me, having been saved from that embarrassment I got asked to help with domestic electrical installations on top of gutting out the worst of abandoned properties left after the hurricane. This onerous task, gutting out, being the least important on the list of priorities for most disaster relief organizations.
A reaction hard to understand and an attitude not necessarily in sync with the physical realities of New Orleans nor shared by its poorer citizens and yet probably the more important task to deal with in the current era of recovery for the average homeowner. 80% of homes in New Orleans are owned by the residents who live there.
The exception to this heirarchical attitude possibly being the Common Ground Collective based at St. Mary’s in the ninth ward, the commune-like people responding in the most humane manner.
A perspective not necessarily shared by all the participants in the battle for recovery, the game or business of relief. An uncommon value among the legions of would-be do-gooders both onlookers and spectators, when altruistic principles take a back-seat on the bottom line question of who pays the bills and why.
The tenuous nature of being a 'volunteer' became clear to me one day after a close encounter with a major contributor of large amounts of financial support to one local church for disaster relief support. After discussing the pros and cons of post Katrina he turned his pipe-smoking attention to me saying that as a volunteer you don't have to be a decision maker and that simply was the bottom line.
One day, just about Valentines Day we were called away from a gutting out operation to aide a tornado hit neighborhood, the second major disaster in less than 18 months for these hardy folk just waiting on the next apocalyptic event to blight their geographical location, wisely or not chosen.
The lady who needed our assistance had been in the direct path of the tornado, taking off her roof and flattening the house next door to smithereens leaving a green space between her property and the pristine façade of her next but one neighbor untouched and unmarked.
That's when reporters showed up from the Times Picayune newspaper to document and take photographic evidence of the disaster. In the middle of all of this the local energy company was attempting to restore order to the power lines and blocked off whole streets for its purposes. Subsequently it was hazardous to do much except to load the unfortunate woman's belongings of a lifetime into a U-haul and drive it away.
My experience was not unique by any means in that hundreds or thousands many more post-Katrina volunteers already have had or will have in the future a similar or shared relationship with somebody who was the 'Local Hero" briefly but all too soon as a 'Katrina Warrior'.
But the main message here hopefully will be to pass on to the world the word of what happened and should continue to happen here at home in the USA while the memory is still fresh and alive in the minds of both victims and rescuers alike.
Those who were lucky enough to survive with hearts and minds intact and not on some foreign war largely self perpetuating itself at the expense of a tax-payer whose wishes and voice remain anonymous but unheard.
Leadership from a dangerous authoritarian government or not, a weak government in crises seems to be currently the reason many areas of responsibility are being abandoned with respect to the national security of New Orleans, albeit the National Guard.
These good people in Chalmette, Center City, Kenner, Mid City, Carrollton Avenue who experienced the bitter wrath of Katrina and by dint of good fortune were able to make the cut being assigned to the lists of voluntary groups such as Crossroads Missions, Hilltop Disaster Relief, Building Better Communities etc. and in which good company I was proud to serve as a volunteer can vouch for the readiness and honest attempts rendered in the name of neighborly support that despite politics were able to assist those most in need.
On reflection, looking back to the shared experience from a position at a relatively safe distance from harm it seems that the ones affected even more so than the victims of Katrina, the storm that is, are the church groups, among others, who went to assist. In the aftermath these individuals came out of the blue, literally, to put back the jigsaw puzzle of humanities broken anatomy, head, back and body, and by doing this physicians’ work glued themselves in the process to each other’s lives.
That remains a big plus for the organizers who are proportionately losing a number of those people, individuals and teams prepared or otherwise, willing to volunteer in the field.
On a visit to Salt Lake City recently I attended a reunion at K2, a church group out of Utah, itself a relatively new church plant out of Detroit called Kensington, ‘K’ for short. I visited some volunteer friends met during the heroic struggle in New Orleans earlier this year.
In an attempt to try to recapture that golden thread of co-existing zealous team spirit and obvious remorse for the hurricane victims and their families, we reviewed the retrospective.
This included photographs digitally preserved on CD and newspaper articles, such as the Times Picayune which happened to feature on the front page an article and picture about our tornado rescue efforts with volunteers from K2, in which I appeared.
It was on this visit that I ran into the mayor of Salt Lake City, Rocky Anderson, giving an impressive address on the evils of global warming at the University of Utah Student Union, along with several members of the science faculty at U. of U.
He was quite impressed with the mention of volunteer groups in New Orleans stemming from the K2 church organization and was effusive in his praise of this and other Salt Lake City groups. When asked he was quite positive in advocating his global warming perspective, even suggesting he be safely quoted in this article.2
If there was some positive aspect it seemed to come from the sum of bridges built already or in the process of being built, between team members and individuals. Throughout my brief visit to K2 it was a distinct pleasure to share our experiences.
This group shared the obvious prize for the speed with which they stripped a flooded house, now abandoned, bare to its studs in almost a day. Normally it would have taken this many people at least two full days of a paced but strenuous dedication to the task.
This may have been to do with the propensity of the number of women, the weaker sex, in the group engaged in the very physical labor, relative to the less numerically strong group of men. They attacked the building with such a ferocity, almost Katrina like, at odds with their very feminine demeanor, and invited the guys follow suit. We agreed, there was no choice other than to do their bidding and follow our fearless leaders.
Volunteer helpers are still desperately needed in New Orleans and there are plenty of cool and not so cool websites to view out there on the internet.
For example on Facebook.com there are tons of people linked to organizers of disaster relief including the American Red Cross. Craigslist is for sure a great resource especially for New Orleans where there is a special Volunteer section for the potential recruit willing to sacrifice time, money and an internet search.
1) The term Church Plant is something hard to avoid yet easy to define for the fund raiser and is becoming a global term for anyone referencing activity by missionary sponsors and NGO members involved with rescue and relief, whether a disaster or some UNESCO attempt to right the plight of the world’s disadvantaged youth.
2) Like Aids, in that the modern plague or challenge to current civilization, storms, tornados and hurricanes are going to become more, not less, revealing in their number and biblical intensity.