I am sitting here thinking of everything that has happened in my life and the changes since Katrina went through the Gulf Coast, the damage to New Orleans and the remainder of the coastal areas, the levies failing in the 9th ward, the media coverage, the times I have been back to New Orleans and the people I met.
I remember the day like it was yesterday, I was at home on crutches after shredding my Achilles tendon and having surgery. I was supposed to go back to New Orleans for Halloween that year and I was concerned about my leg. Then the coverage of the storm started coming in, I didn’t have a TV because I don’t watch TV so, I went in with my brother to watch.
Just the views I saw were devastating to me, seeing the roads I had previously traveled, my favorite hangouts, and then there was the media coverage after the stormed passed. To put it simply I was furious, I don’t watch TV due to the doom and gloom, to sit there day in and day out and watch things unfold, to see the picture that was being painted onto the entire culture and population. Labeling all as one and implying that all residents were looking for a free ride, after a week I simply turned off the TV.
I focused my attention for the next two months at the gym and working my tendon back into fighting form. I heard the stupid comments, the fact that people who listened to the news assumed people were out for a free ride and the one that made me actually go off was when I heard someone say you notice only the crappy neighborhood and people are out of the area, now it can be turned into a golf course or something nice.
Needless to say my temper came to the surface and I let that little man have it with both barrels. He said he didn’t think anyone would care about that or what happened there. I knew then that I had to go and see for myself.
I did go a couple of months after the storm, I was allowed into closed areas, and I saw things that changed my way of thinking and how I look at the world. How do I describe what I have seen, the smell, the destruction, death everywhere, mold, flood dust in the streets, and the eerily quiet town. As I drove into the first area I came over a bridge and down into the 9th, I had my press pass in hand and was ready to explore. I was driving on the main street and the first things I saw were the thousands of construction signs and the military and police everywhere.
I pulled up and showed my pass and was assigned a pair of guardsmen who would follow me around and ensure my safety. I thought this a bit odd; I drove down the first street and just had to stop. The initial destruction stunned me, I was nauseous and completely speechless, I walked into a church that was off to my right and the only thing left in the room not destroyed was a US flag. The church is totally devastated and most of its contents are sitting outside on the sidewalk, there is a rogue destroyed bible in the middle of the floor dirty, torn and broke. The preacher walked in behind me and simply said God left the area but not our hearts. I couldn’t speak I turned, shook his hand and walked out of the building, outside my phone rang. I suddenly realized that was the only noise for miles and miles.
I found myself unable to talk on the phone or even acknowledge the world outside where I was standing. My guards asked if I wanted to go further and I assured them I did. As I went along each street the bare trees, mold, destroyed property, uplifted houses, houses on cars and complete destruction as far as the eyes could see. This I expected and was not overly surprised by, what shocked me was the fact that there was not a living creature for miles, the eerily silence, the disease fermenting on the food left for animals, and the smell. A smell that one would associate with death, destruction and a complete loss of all that was alive, the sky was empty of birds, the land was empty of bugs and all joy had been stripped from this area. I thought of this area when I was here last, a 6 short months ago, there were no signs, no trailers, and no armed guards.
There was a neighborhood full of working class people, animals running around, birds in the sky and the laughter of children caressing the air. I didn’t see Heineken drinking people, stealing with their hands out, I saw good folks taking care of their families and living in the same neighborhoods they had grown up in. I looked around again to see the empty houses, broken dreams lying on the ground and the all consuming loss that was now New Orleans. I travelled a 20 mile area for what seemed like days only to realize it had been 2 hours. I stopped and realized I was hungry and thirsty, that was a problem, out of the 809 restaurants, countless fast food, and a convenience store on every corner not one place was opened. If you were lucky and had some money on you, you could get a bag of chips, candy, water or maybe even a cold pop from a vendor on the corner; I use the term vendor loosely.
It was a person with an ice chest that contained whatever they had got in the next town the night before. Now they sat on the corner charging $4.00 for small water, can of pop, candy bar or bag of chips.
I drove down the main street a little further to the local Wal-Mart which is where the military, fema and other emergency services had set-up, the guards needed to check in. As I pulled up my eyes landed on hundreds and hundreds of trailers, fema trailers set-up for workers, survivors and the homeless. I thought I had seen a lot of signs before here every square inch of space had a sign, construction poster, or bulletins looking for people from one family or another. The younger guard took my arm and said they had to stay for about an hour and there was someone I should meet during that time.
I am thinking a shrink as I walked thru the trailers, the pain, anger and desperation poured out of the trailers like a lethal gas. They were not excited to see anyone with a press pass, I would imagine they had seen the same things on the TV I did and were more furious than I could have ever imagined. We stopped at a trailer and he said to just go in, oh and I will see you in a while.
I don’t know how long I had been standing there when the door opened, the sweetest elderly African American women stood there looking at me. Her eyes shined with pure joy and behind her I saw about a dozen small smiling facing peaking around to see who was coming in. I just stood there with my mouth open, luckily there were no flies in the area for me to attract.
She looked at for me for a fraction of a second and said her name is Grandma Parker and you really should come in, you are as pale as this trailer. I laughed as I walked up those four stairs, not knowing she would have me laughing several more times before we parted ways. The trailers were the size of studio apartments; the walls were completely covered with drawings from the kids, who were happy and playful. I remember asking are these your grandkids or do you babysit for extra money. Grandma smiled and said I should sit down and stay a while, I did. She told me there were over 3000 children separated from parents and family, the official count is around 2400. That some of the kids got foster care, relatives, or re-united quickly and some were to be placed in a state ran facility until it could all be sorted out.
These 12 energetic faces coloring, playing, laughing and reading were to be placed in a state facility. Grandma put her foot down and took them all in; they stayed in her small trailer, ate her food, and received home schooling from this retired teacher. She told me in the state ran facility they would get food and a bed. Here they would receive food, a bed, schooling and love, something they all needed to heal. At this point I could feel my eyes tearing up, my mind raced around the news stories, and the foul comments I had heard. Where was the media now why could they not report on this? A story of sacrifice, hope and love, well that would be because that is not what sells. I looked around and noticed the neat stacks of books, school supplies, crayons and other supplies 12 young children would need for school and I asked where it had all come from.
She smiled and said my angel brought it, one of the soldiers had heard of her and what she was trying to do and dropped off boxes of supplies for the kids. How exceptional that even during this time people would reach out and help with this project, the supplies aren’t only for my babies she said, I actually have on average 32 students during the day. I watch them till their parents come to call. Grandma Parker has two children who wanted her to leave but she refused, she told them her neighbors needed her more than her children right now. Grandma worked two jobs and took on side work such as sewing, ironing and other chores to put her two kids through college and now they were both successful, she said the only thing she would change with them is the amount of time they spent giving back to their community.
She wrapped the conversation up on her kids by saying they have their own families now and do what they can for others. If they are anything like their mother their neighbors are lucky.
As we talked she put the children down for naps and the others to reading, she told me we would have to move the conversation outside it was time to prepare dinner. She took out large pots, beans, rice and other items outside, while she prepared dinner she told me about her neighbors, how some of them needed help and couldn’t tend to themselves. Grandma didn’t only look after 12 round faced strangers she also prepared meals for 8 of her neighbors and helped them out. As she talked about her life and the life of those around her I found myself sitting there with tears running down my face.
My heart exploding at the seams with the love this woman had to offer, and I was put off at the cost of a candy bar.
Grandma looked up and said there is my angel now, I looked up to see the younger of the two guards coming up to me and saying it was time to go. I walked away with my head reeling from the visit and what I have witnessed so far today. I was told that I would be allowed to go into the restricted areas if I wanted to, I once again said yes. They briefly went over the rules, I don’t remember them or didn’t hear what they said because today I couldn’t tell you what one of the rules was.
As I sit here writing about it I know that I changed that day with the things I saw and what I took away from New Orleans.
As I drove away from those trailers I wished I had gotten information on Grandma to find out how it all ended and what happened next, if I had gotten her information would I have used it?
The further in we drove the more death we experienced. There were bodies of animals lining the roads; dead birds laid everywhere, birds of prey that had tried to eat what was around and died from disease and sickness. The animals were removed every few days, the smell is indescribable, and the human remains were handled a little more discreetly and were taken away as they found them.
I will stop here for a moment and say that you see the pictures on TV and here the stories but nothing prepares you for this amount of destruction and death.
It changes a person, their outlook on things. It is mind boggling the immeasurable power of water a substance we need to sustain life, yet has the potential of pure devastation. I search for a word other than destroy, destruction or devastation and nothing comes to mind that will put this into proper terms for people.
The closer we traveled to the coast line and the swamp the worse it got, the water chose its path and removed everything standing in its way. You would think that the more death you saw the less of an effect it would have on you. It was just the opposite!
As we drove on we came to a rode I knew all too well, it was a long stretch of road with tall Oak and Cypress trees lining both sides of the road.
About 50 feet up on the right hand side of the road stood an old beat up double swinging gate, behind that gate was a lovely meadow that was the home to a beautiful chestnut horse and some cattle. This was my fourth time to stand in this very spot waiting to take photos. This time the lovely meadow was full of debris and trash and as I was about to find out the resting spot for that pretty chestnut horse. As I saw the bodies of the horse, cattle and a couple of people laying there it hit home and I just started silently crying. I have been back a couple of more times and find it shocking how little has changed and how little is being done. The only change I have really seen is the prices of rental properties nearly triple. It is becoming almost impossible for families to make a living and not ask for assistance.
I have spoke to people there who make $10.00 an hour and work hard, they told me it is impossible to pay $900 rent, while living 40 miles from their jobs. That if something doesn’t give soon they will have to leave, they don’t want handouts or Government substady, they simply want to work, pay bills and be able to afford to live.
As we drove back to the Wal-Mart that day I knew it would be a long time before this area truly healed and moved forward. I spent another couple of hours at the trailers, meeting some truly exceptional people.
Early that evening it was time to go, as I drove closer to the French Quarter I noticed the damage was not as severe as in the 9th.
As I rounded the corner into the Quarter I was again found myself surprised. The horse carriages were running right on schedule, the tourists packed the sidewalks drinks in hand, the performers had taken their places, and the smell of the restaurants wafted out feeling the air. I noticed the local taxi drivers were a little more aggressive and much quicker on the horn than in past visits.Will New Orleans completely recover, will the people ever be able to come home and will they be able to afford it when they get there? Will efforts of rebuilding New Orleans be successful such as Brad Pitt’s awareness programs and cheaper housing, the rent pricing on this cheaper living has gone from $500 a month up to $900 a month as a proposed price.
Will the residents be able to survive the higher prices, finding housing and work, only time will tell. I am hopeful.