Monday, April 23, 2007

A New Orleans portrait of grief and hope

In a corner of New Orleans, in a neighborhood called Gentilly, next to the infamous 17th Street canal that breached during Hurricane Katrina 1-1/2 years ago, there are signs of hope and grief – and evidence that so much more needs to be done.

Volunteers who come to this city acquire some understanding of American history circa 19th century, as well lessons in failed 21st century domestic policy, while lending a hand in the enormous rebuilding process that daily confronts New Orleans residents.

On a recent Saturday morning, I accompanied a group of ACORN volunteers who gutted a small, one-story brick Gentilly house. Fourteen were students from Elon University in North Carolina and an equal number of bloggers from all over the country who post and contribute to, a progressive blog that gets an average of 2,500 visitors a day. They called themselves the Katrina Krewe.
After a short orientation by ACORN’s volunteer coordinator, (don’t swing the crowbar wildly; position the ladder firmly before climbing on it; put the face mask over your nose and mouth), volunteers, ages 18-70, went to work, tearing sheetrock off the walls and hauling it out to the street.

The house had hardly been touched since the storm, and the yard was completely overgrown. A mountain of debris and Christmas decorations were set out by the curb, along with lamps, a wheelchair, stereo, microwave, dining-room table and world globe. A black Fleetwood Cadillac was grounded beside the house, its tires completely flat. In the back yard, a raised plastic swimming pool sat empty.

The owners of the house, sisters Elizabeth and Ava Burnette, evacuated to Fort Worth, Texas and New Iberia, La. Elizabeth is an entrepreneur with a disabled son who hopes to start a home for foster children. Ava is a nurse.

“I plan to return,” Elizabeth said decisively in a phone call to Fort Worth. “That’s our house, so we will be returning. It is very precious to me,” she said of the home where she and her sister were raised. “The house is paid for and the taxes have been paid,” she said.

No one from ACORN’s Home Cleanout program had yet called to say the house had been gutted but is infested with termites. It is uncertain whether it can be rebuilt.Their father had been a landscape architect and designed many of the grounds around Dillard University, nearby. Their mother, Florence Burnett, 70, passed away last April from the stress of Katrina and dealing with FEMA, Elizabeth said.

“I send my love to those college students who helped clean my house,” Elizabeth Burnett said.

The rest of the neighborhood is a mix of occupied and empty homes and FEMA trailers, still in use. It seemed uncertain whether the majority residents would ever be back. Many were elderly, said Elizabeth, and had died as a result of the stress caused by the hurricane.Behind the house is a community garden begun in the 1960s, which is still being cultivated. While the gutters began their work, I inspected the garden. Macon Fry, the community garden coordinator for Parkway Gardens happened along in his truck, greeting me with a smile.There are grapefruit, lemon and Satsuma trees in the garden, he said, and the gardeners are raising grass for the Gulf Coast Wetlands Restoration Project. They’re also hoping to start a flower farm, Fry said.

The garden sparkled with dew and friendly handmade signs invited visitors to join in the volunteer effort. The leafy vegetables grown there get distributed to needy people.

The greenhouse was rebuilt, plant beds made, compost bins and rain cisterns built by Common Grounds volunteer gardeners, “They’ve been sensational,” Fry said.

When the gutters took a break, the next-door neighbor brought 120 chicken wings over for lunch. He lived in a FEMA trailer, but let them use his bathroom since there was no plumbing in the gutted house.

“I think what we did was for the neighbors,” said Scout, a blogger. “I don’t know if that house is salvageable, but the neighbors were happy because it was an eyesore and it was not safe.” Elizabeth said drug dealers had occupied the house for a time.

“That was the second house I gutted,” Scout said. “It’s the first step. We are not even talking about rebuilding,” she said. “The pace is so slow.”

Scout reminded the Elon students that the residents of this neighborhood are like their parents.
A Russian exchange student with the Elon group said her country thinks of the United States as rich, but this was shocking. “Your people don’t have homes,” she said.

“It is such a sad statement about America,” Scout said. “It’s incredible when you see other countries get it. Qatar gets it better than Joe Schmoe in Cincinnati.”

On her first trip, Scout visited the Ninth Ward, but for the second, she went to Lakeview, which was largely middle-class. There she spoke to a man working on his home. “We did everything right—we played by the rules,” he said. When Congress visited Lakeview, he was among the residents who tried to flag down their bus. “I wanted those people from Congress to see my wedding picture,” the man said about mementos ruined in the floodwaters.

“This could happen to you—broad neglect and abandonment by the government,” Scout said. “You almost have to see it to believe it and to grasp the scope,” she said of the flooded neighborhoods. “I’ve tried to convey that to people in an effort to get Congress to come down.”

Scout, who has been blogging from Madison, Wis., since 2004, visited New Orleans for the first time in the late 1990s. “I thought at the time it was the most unique city in America.” She made her first post-Katrina trip in February 2006. After she wrote that she wanted to go to New Orleans, the blog raised the funds for her trip within 24 hours.
“You can fly in and take a cab to the French Quarter and everything doesn’t look that bad,” she said. The devastation is just a few blocks away and continues on for miles.

“We talk about how important New Orleans is culturally and how important it is financially with all the oil and gas,” Scout said. “I come from social work and I’ve seen bad things, but it’s almost like another planet.

Alison, aka Athenae, from Illinois, who also blogs on First-Draft, had never met her fellow bloggers nor been to New Orleans before the gutting trip. “I came down with very few expectations, but seeing it had enormous impact,” she said. A journalist, she focuses her First-Draft writings on moral values and ethics in journalism.

“New Orleans has a character that is unique and inspires devotion,” Alison said.

“What offends me,” she said, is why people outside New Orleans say, why should I care?”

“People want to think it’s handled. Failing that, they want to blame the locals,” she said. If we can shove our responsibility into some dark corner, or on Mayor Nagin, then we don’t have to lift a finger, she said.

“When we say we can survive without New Orleans, what’s next? These places are not expendable.” When some part of America is destroyed, then America must rebuild it. Otherwise, none of us are safe, she said about the lack of a national disaster response plan. We cannot so easily give up, she added.

“I have so much admiration for the people who live here,” Scout said. They know how to live there—good food, good music, good stories."

“How many cities are there that people would fight this hard to save? Scout asked.

Read the Katrina Krewe's stories here.

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