Friday, May 2, 2008
Carlisleans help rebuild New Orleans
Hurricane Katrina struck more than two and a half years ago, but New Orleans’s Lower Ninth
Ward is still a disaster area. When a barge burst through the wall of the Industrial Canal, blocks of homes disappeared. Now all that is visible are a few sets of concrete steps. Farther back from the break, very few homes have been rehabbed or rebuilt. People who have been able to return are surrounded by wrecks of houses or empty lots. They don’t have neighbors.
The Broadmoor section of the city lies between downtown and the Garden District and still has many homes and buildings at various stages of demolition or reconstruction.
The one bright spot (literally) is the Ninth Ward, across the canal from the Lower Ninth, where Habitat for Humanity has built block after block of brightly colored new homes.
In February a group of 17 – four from Concord, 12 from the First Religious Society (FRS) and another Carlislean – went to New Orleans for a week to help in the ongoing rebuilding effort. FRS member Margaret Darling worked long and hard to organize the effort. The group stayed at the Annunciation Mission in an Episcopal Church in the Broadmoor section; the church had six feet of Katrina floodwaters in it. During the reconstruction the decision was made to build facilities specifically to house 100 volunteers whose help they knew would be needed to get the city back on its feet. More volunteers can be squeezed in and some are now housed in a separate youth group building.
The hospitality of Annunciation Mission was wonderful. The women in the FRS group found that living in a dorm room with eight others, with the bathroom down the hall, was actually fun. Van, the cook, made lots of hearty, cholesterol-filled food. Breakfast included scrambled eggs, sausage patties and wonderful country biscuits, sometimes with sausage gravy.
On March 2 at the FRS, members of the New Orleans group shared some of their memories, which are excerpted below.
Mahalia Jackson’s house
Margaret Darling: I worked at a duplex home on Delachaise Street in the Broadmoor neighborhood, bought by the late gospel singer Mahalia Jackson for her aunt. Mahalia was named after this aunt, affectionately known as Aunt Duke, who raised her and her brother after their mother died when they were young. Whenever Mahalia visited New Orleans, she stayed with Aunt Duke, who lived in that house until her death.
Lloyd Lazard, the step-grandson of Aunt Duke, lives in the other half of the duplex and owns the Delachaise Street house. After Katrina, his home had to be completely gutted, and he has been living in a FEMA trailer in the side yard ever since. Volunteers with Rebuilding Together have restored the left side of the duplex, and our group was given the task of “finishing up,” which turned out to be more extensive than it sounds.
As we worked, we had many opportunities to talk with Mr. Lazard, and at one point he ticked off seven or eight states from which volunteers had come to work on his home. He spoke warmly of the “positive energy” that had entered his house through all of these efforts, the kindness of good-hearted strangers. Though he didn’t use religious terms, his words conveyed a strong sense of spirituality.
Mr. Lazard is very proud of his relationship with Mahalia Jackson and one day he brought out a well-worn book entitled Just Mahalia, Baby which he opened to show me a picture of his stepmother and his Aunt Duke and to point out the paragraph referring to Mahalia’s purchase of the Delachaise Street house. He never considered giving up his home, despite the hardship Katrina brought him because, as he put it, “My father, my stepmother, and my Aunt Duke lived and died in this house.” He struggled for a word to describe his feelings about the house, and when I suggested the word “sacred,” he looked at me and said, “Yes. It is a sacred place to me.”
A collage of memories
Ann James: I remember leaving the icy roads of Carlisle and greeting the blooming azaleas and camellias of New Orleans. I remember messages spray painted on houses in the Lower Ninth Ward, one noting “Chicken Under House” and another pleading, “Do Not Demolish” this house. I remember the two-story house that had been completely submerged after Katrina and looking at the rebuilt levee in the Lower Ninth Ward and thinking that the 20-inch-wide wall didn’t look substantial enough to hold back much water.
I remember Michael Dundorf knocking down the NENA (Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association) storage shed with a 2x4 (we didn’t always have the right tools and had to make do) and looking down a side street in the Lower Ninth Ward at a long line of FEMA trailers. I remember the quiet, calm dignity of Mrs. Emerson as 22 volunteers swarmed around her house, carting out debris to the dumpster and her personal belongings to a storage pod. Mrs. Emerson’s house repair grants were put on hold because 27 people claimed it was their house, but she had the documentation to finally prove herself head of household.
There was the ex-Marine who told us about coming home from his job at the pumping station on an inflatable mattress after Katrina, and the water marks on fences and inside houses and churches that showed how high the water had risen in that particular area.
I remember how “infectious” cleaning up a neighborhood can be. As Max [Barber] and I were scraping windows, we saw the clean-up underway in Mrs. Emerson’s backyard and next door we saw a woman come out into her backyard and start to clean up. Then Alison [Saylor] and Dian [Cuccinello] went over to help her. I remember a great jazz band on Bourbon Street, Marguerite [Shaw] cutting up fruit for everyone for lunch, lots of dark chocolate (for energy of course!), lining up four deep for my turn in the shower, Cajun food, red beans and rice, catfish, gumbo, biscuits and gravy.
I remember conversations with new friends, laughter with old friends, new experiences . . . lots of New Orleans memories!
False promises by contractors
Michael Dundorf: One of the saddest stories we heard about concerned the contractors who
promised homeowners that they would do work on their homes, collected the money at the start of the work, and disappeared with the money. This was not an infrequent occurrence. The worst scenario that I heard was about a contractor who promised to rebuild the foundation on which a house stood. He collected full payment and raised the house on wooden pilings to prepare to remove the old foundation and replace it with a new one. Unfortunately, the house fell off the pilings. The homeowner was left with no money and her house was collapsed into a pile of rubble.
There was also a touching moment with Regina Payton, the owner of one of the houses we were working on. In her yard was a walkway made of bricks leading to her garden. One of the bricks was embossed with the manufacturer’s name, St. Joe. We asked Regina if we could bring the brick back to Carlisle to include it in the walkway of our soon-to-be completed Memorial Garden [at FRS]. She was extremely pleased to do so since her husband died in December 2007. When she saw the name on the brick, she said that it was the perfect brick, since her husband’s name was Jesse, close enough to St. Joe. We now have the first brick of many more to come.
Many lessons learned
Nancy Kuziemski: What did I see? A beautiful and unusual part of our country that is still recovering from massive, near fatal damage, though at this point many areas look good. The wealthier Garden District, the tourist areas of the French Quarter, the downtown are all operating busily. The damage is concentrated where the people of New Orleans live, or used to. There seem to be many police visible, and I know that New Orleans has a reputation for serious crime, but I never felt afraid there.
What did I do? I am quite unskilled at all hands-on tasks, but I am willing and strong. I helped
lug boxes out of a lady’s house. I cleaned and painted in a gentleman’s house. I did a little digging (literally). During a spectacularly rainy day, I helped check files and make phone calls to people who had applied for assistance. I was probably better at that than at building, so the activity was actually gratifying. On a few evenings, groups of us went out to explore, heard some good music and had interesting food. I enjoyed these experiences too. I guess we contributed to the economy!
What did I learn? I learned that New Orleans has a long way to go and that government agencies did not meet the challenge. I was horrified to learn that children are still not in school. I learned that volunteers can actually help. I constantly struggled with questions about the actual value of all our work, since most of us (our master carpenter and gardener among the exceptions) were amateurs, and I worried that not just altruism but also curiosity entered into my motivation mix. But I was impressed with the organization and sensitivity shown by both Rebuilding Together and the Broadmoor Improvement Association with whom we worked. I was reminded that people who work together for the sake of a community can indeed achieve positive results, despite many obstacles.
About myself I learned that I can adjust to my old youth hostel days when I want to. I was nervous about the communal living arrangements since I cherish my fancy travels, but the Mission was fine and so was I. I learned that many kinds of people might show up at such a place -- church and synagogue groups, younger and older people. I was again reminded that I have wonderful Carlisle neighbors.
After the trip . . .
The juxtaposition of affluence/poverty, action/inaction, and the humbling aspect of helping just a few people with the almost overwhelming task of rebuilding – these are the overriding impressions carried home to Carlisle by those who gave their time and energies to the residents of New Orleans. ∆
© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito