Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath has transformed our great Gulf States literally and figuratively. She has transformed our country at large and in some cases the thoughts and beliefs that we once held to have been compromised and have been transformed as well. In the days that have now passed since Katrina’s fury broke loose along the Gulf Coast states, the media exposure has waxed and waned covering interrelated topics such as government regulations, political debates, coastal restoration and neighborhood revitalization. As a Southern native, I was compelled by an inherent force to travel to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast and explore any and all areas of assistance that this one person could provide. To explore first hand the aftermath of Katrina, to see first hand what has been conveyed in the media and to see with my own eyes what has not been conveyed by the media. To hear first hand the stories of people who were engulfed with this catastrophe and highly politically debated tragedy. To dive into the rehabilitative work in any way that I could with a little bit of elbow grease, a touch of hearty ‘GRITS’ (also known as Girls Raised In The South), and a whole lot of heart. And so I did.
Upon first glance with my initial explorations into New Orleans, I was taken aback by the apocalyptic nature of some areas of the city. Still, the soul of America continues to fight the good fight, but sadly, has a long way yet to go. With every corner turned and street traveled, the surrealness of the city creeps under your skin. Though the water has now receded, the watermarks left around the tall Oaks and centuries old homes and buildings are a clear indication, a constant reminder in fact, of the stagnant flood waters that attempted to dilute this city of its heritage and culture.
My volunteer work in New Orleans was as varied and spicy as a pot of Gumbo. Every Southerner has a different recipe for this legendary meal and it appeared that every relief organization had a different approach and ‘recipe’ for the efforts and rehabilitative process for this post Katrina city as well. But like Gumbo, no matter the family recipe, it’s better to have some than none at all. We were a medley of volunteers from different backgrounds, perspectives, and areas of the country, forging ahead together. Together we took on a variety of volunteer duties including gutting homes while dressed head to toe in Tyvek suits, steel toed boots, respirators, hard hats and goggles. Together our volunteer team worked to completely rid the home of everything that had once made it identifiable to the family that had lived there, everything that once made the house a home. Together, we stripped the house down to the bare bones and infrastructure so that the family might begin anew. We paired up and canvassed the surrounding neighborhoods in Orleans Parish, talking with home owners and contractors, hearing their unforgettable stories of pre and post Katrina first hand. With few hands we unloaded a 40 foot container onto flat bed trailers until 1 in the morning, full of supplies to be distributed by a variety of relief organizations (thank you mom and dad for the experience of loading up trailers of auction consignments in my younger years. It certainly paid off that night). Together with our hearts on our sleeves, we salvaged through mud and muck to recover beloved belongings for families who had just enough time to flee from the ferocious grip of Katrina and the ensuing flood waters. Together we heard their soft cries as they caressed the wedding album, family photos, and beloved heirlooms that they had regrettably left behind and were now seeing for the first time in the aftermath of Katrina, as we salvaged them from the depths of the debris that filled their home. A family that had lost all material belongings, clutching to their tangible memories and sharing the stories associated with each, with us. A family, who though displaced, praised the support of family, friends, and volunteers who have helped them through these unbelievably difficult and trying times. A family who will begin again in a town called Leeds, Alabama thanks in part to community members there who have given them a shoulder to lean on. A family who is slowly adjusting to the concept of calling the city in which they evacuated to, home.
By the weeks end, each volunteer had changed in someway, never to be the same again. We were able to see first hand the collective desire that people of the post Katrina cities have to help one another. We were able to not only see the devastation and destruction, but more importantly see and bear witness to the hope and the roux that pumps through the veins of these southern people and beats loudly through the heart of the city of New Orleans. As the French Quarter becomes a little louder each night, slowly living up to its expectations and people stroll slowly down Magazine Street taking in the sights and sounds, art and antiques, and food and fun that only New Orleans can provide, it is clear that this city will be strong once again. The people of New Orleans and all of the cities affected by the wrath of Katrina all possess a certain something. Lagniappe if you will. That little something extra that keeps them moving forward, an inherent and unmistakable resiliency to help one another to overcome the past and blaze forward with a vengeance into their collective futures. This, above all else, amidst the destruction and devastation is what I leave New Orleans with: the power of hope and the beauty of the human spirit. The recognition that New Orleans and the surrounding cities of these great southern states affected by Hurricane Katrina will once again “Let The Good Times Roll”.