A lot of people think that New Orleans is back to normal and that life goes on as usual in the Big Easy.
Our crew of 11 from Tuscaloosa Vineyard drove into NO on Wednesday, and I was shocked to see a vast number of abandoned buildings, a defunct Wal-Mart and roller coasters sitting lonely and shut down at a Six Flags that doesn't have a sign any more. This was my first time to NO since Hurricane Katrina.
The group made it to Kenner Vineyard about an hour later than we said we would, got settled into camp, then helped make preparations for a weekly dinner that Mercy Response serves in Gentilly. We loaded up the delivery truck and hopped in our cars to go serve the meal at a FEMA trailer park.
As soon as we arrived on-site, people started lining up. Pam, our contact with Mercy, told us they have been serving 800 people per week on average. The Tuscaloosa crew got busy: I was putting ice in cups and pouring lemon-aid and tea; Miranda was handing out drinks and bottled water; Benji was separating cookies and rolls; Brittany was in charge of salad; Ashley handled the pasta; Blake took care of the meatballs; Wesley and Ryan placed a cookie and a roll onto the to-go plates; and Megan closed the plate up and handing it off to be bagged for the folks waiting in line. Jon and Ben took plates and drinks to the security guards for the trailer park.
The crowd that lined up was certainly diverse. There were black people, white people, Hispanic people, young and old and in between. Some were eating their first meal of the day. Many requested multiple plates so that they could have an additional couple of meals to sustain them in following days.
We didn't see much of the neighborhood itself, but what we did see was a contrast between gleaming white rows of FEMA trailers and run-down buildings that still carry the marks of the storm - broken windows, missing shingles, boarded-over doors and red or white X's accompanied by numbers and letters that at one time meant more than they do now.
Once the crowds had dispersed for the most part, the crew was able to sit down and enjoy a meal together. While we were eating, a Hispanic man approached us and attempted to tell us ... something. We tried to tell him that we couldn't understand him, but he wouldn't slow down long enough for us to grab a translator. What we did understand is that his "daughter", who is blond and blue-eyed, apparently, is going to be on TV one day because she is going to be a queen, and that we would remember talking with him because he is the Spirit of New Orleans and he would be riding on a bicycle. He also apparently said something about Republicans, Democrats, Europe and the Antichrist. Yeah, it was odd, but extremely funny.
The next morning we got up early for breakfast, and Pam filled us in on what we would be doing for the following two days. We would be going to an area called Lakeview, which was flooded when one of the levies broke, to do yard work at homes that had been abandoned since the storm. No problem, we thought.
We arrived in Lakeview around 9 and unloaded. Sharon, who was our contact in the neighborhood, showed us where all the tools were and showed us the lots we would be working on.
I have seen some big weeds in my day, but I don't think I've ever seen weeds that huge. Some of them were TREES!
The crew hit the ground running and soon the air was filled with the sounds of weed eaters and high hedge trimmers mowing along, loppers clicking and clanking as workers cut down the more hefty weeds, and wheelbarrows rolling along to be filled with debris and dumped at the curb for pickup. The humidity was so high that we were all sweating almost immediately, and we had to take frequent water breaks to prevent ourselves from getting dehydrated. Sharon told us at the beginning of the day that we would probably want to quit working around 2, and we initially told her that we would try to press through until later in the afternoon. After a couple of hours of work, though, we agreed with her.
It was pretty awesome to see our group start to work together and click. The guys took charge of most of the machinery - Ben, Jon and Benji weed-ate while Blake and Ryan pushed hedge trimmers. Wesley, Brittany, Ashley, Megan and Miranda cut down weeds and small trees with loppers, helped clear out debris and raked as needed. Sharon and I hauled wheelbarrows full of debris, limbs and larger weeds to the side of the street, where trash collectors would pick them up.
By the time lunch had rolled around, we had pretty much finished the first lot, which was impressive, considering that Sharon figured we would only be able to finish two lots at the most by the end of the week. We sat for a while, chatted and cooled off while we enjoyed our brown bag lunches of turkey sandwiches, potato chips, Oreos and chocolate chip granola bars. Then it was back to work for us!
In the afternoon, we began work on a second lot that was neighboring the first lot we worked on. This one was a bit smaller, so we knocked it out pretty quickly. Sharon brought us Popsicles, so we took a short break to enjoy those before finishing up lot #2.
Once we were done with that, rain seemed fairly imminent, so we gathered up the tools, hosed off all the grass remnants on our arms and faces and said goodbye to Sharon for the day. We flew back to camp and took wonderfully cold showers to remove the day's grime. We spent the rest of the afternoon napping and playing cards. Thursday evening's meal was particularly good because Pam fixed sausage jambalaya for us. It was delicious!
We also went to the movies Thursday night. As we were waiting in line at the movie theater, we saw this:
I didn't manage to capture the whole thing, but it was a full rainbow, and one of the brightest I've ever seen.
We ended up seeing Transformers, with the exception of Benji, Ashley and Brittany, who went to see Harry Potter again. I was pleasantly surprised, because I really didn't want to see that movie. It was actually extremely good.
After the movie, we headed back to camp and went to bed, knowing we would have to arise early the next morning. I made the mistake of drinking a large cup of Sprite before bed, so I had to get up twice during the night for a bathroom visit. This was a bit creepy, because to get to the bathroom trailer, I had to leave our tent and walk back to the trailer. I very nearly ran to the bathroom and back. The first time I returned, Brittany was sitting up and staring at my bed. I wondered if I should say anything to her. I didn't. I laid back down, and when I did, she laid back down, too. I was slightly amused. I asked her about it the next day, and she didn't even remember it!
Friday was our second day of yard work and, if this is possible, was even hotter than the first day. While the crew was waiting for Stuart, Sharon's husband, to drop off some tools, Sharon gave us a tour of their house, which they are in the process of completely remodeling thanks to the hurricane.
Seeing the inside of her house definitely gave me a new perspective on how much devastation the storm caused to individual families and homes. The inside of their beautiful, two-story home had to be entirely gutted, and very little was salvageable. It's been almost two years, and they are still a long way from having a livable home; the house is barren, with electrical wires and plumbing pipes sticking out in random spots and bare white walls begging for paint. They decided to raise their entire house by about 10 feet by building in a basement, which will help prevent future flooding. The inside of their house, unfinished as it is, is gorgeous. I can only imagine what it was before the hurricane. They are living in a FEMA trailer in their own front yard until they finish renovations, or until the government takes the trailer away.
Through the course of visiting the house and working in the yards with Sharon, we also learned a bit about her and Stuart. Stuart is a contractor and does architecture-type work. He mostly works on older, nicer houses in the old parts of New Orleans. Sharon used to be a vet, but this has been put on hold so that she can focus on getting the house finished and helping her neighbors out with rebuilding, as well. She said she had always been passionate about her job and frequently worked extra-long hours even before the storm, just because she liked it so much. After the storm hit, there were countless animals hurt, left homeless and even abandoned in the city, and she was frequently working 14-hour days - many of those without even the aid of electricity - to try to help meet the needs of these critters. She finally realized that in order to get her life and home back together, she would have to give up her practice, so she did.
Friday's work included lots more yard work, of course. We cut a yard for a woman in Sharon's neighborhood who's had a rough time taking care of her property since she returned after Katrina. Then we (rather illegally) did the yard of a house that's been abandoned since the storm. Apparently this yard has been a real eyesore in the neighborhood, so Sharon asked us if we would take care of it. We cut down the mini jungle in the backyard and mowed over the front lawn, which wasn't quite as bad. The backyard appeared to have been a really nice one at some point. There were chunks of pavement that were possibly a back parking pad or a basketball court, several different types of plants, a nice storage shed, and some broken pottery. We also took care of Sharon's neighbors' yards, which didn't take nearly as long and really only required mowing.
Again, it was really cool to see the Tuscaloosa group bond and work together through this. I was amazed at how much effort everyone put into getting these yards clean. Yard work is not exactly a glamorous job, and for some it might take a stretch to see how it's really helping with hurricane relief/clean-up. But our Tuscaloosa crew jumped right in and got more work done than was expected of us. The guys were all troopers with the mowers, trimmers and weed eaters, and the girls stepped up to fill in the blanks and wield trimmers and clippers and loppers and leaf blowers.
Once again, after we finished up in Lakeview for the day, we jetted back to the camp site for showers. After we had de-grungified, we played Phase 10 and Uno for a bit. Our plans for the evening were to visit the 9th Ward, the area of the city that had been hardest hit by Katrina and its aftermath, have dinner at a local seafood place, then hit the French Quarter for a few hours of touristy activities.
This was all great in theory, but my car had different ideas.
So we all load up, and for some reason my car decides it does not want to start. The engine would turn over, but the car just would not crank! After several minutes of Jon, Ben and Blake examining everything under my hood, calling over a guy that happened to be at the church at the time, attempting to charge my battery and finally banging on the starter with a wrench, we got the car to start.
Ben warned me not to turn my car back off for any reason whatsoever, and we finally set off toward the 9th Ward.
Driving into the 9th Ward was sobering, to say the least. We began to see numbers besides 0 on houses - enough people died in this area that we didn't have to search for the numbered houses. Barely standing houses marred the landscape. Lots of overgrown weeds and bushes marked where someone's home once stood. Overturned cars sat long forgotten atop downed trees. A school bus lay on its side in front of an abandoned white church building. A boat rested in the middle of the road.
We only saw a handful of people roaming this area. Long-forgotten toys and certain spurts of graffiti reminded us of the people that once lived here. On the side of one house, someone had written in blue spray paint: "Home. This was home."
It began to rain as we were leaving the 9th Ward, and it seemed somehow fitting.
Due to my car troubles, we were unable to go to the French Quarter. We drove back to Kenner and took my car by Advance Auto Parts, where a worker was able to verify that I did, in fact, need a new starter. My friend Lorna, who lives in Baton Rouge and had planned to meet me for dinner, helped me find an auto repair shop in the area that would be open on Saturday and led me to Green Acres Auto Repair while the rest of the Tuscaloosa Crew enjoyed dinner at a mom-and-pop seafood place on Loyola.
Lorna and I dropped my car off and then enjoyed some Cajun-style burgers and fries at a restaurant called Ground Pati. It was actually surprisingly good (almost as good as Mugshots in Tuscaloosa!). We had some hilarious conversation, which included me learning from Lorna that (apparently) monkeys are expensive, but you can buy used ones.
After dinner, Lorna and I headed to the Starbucks on Esplanade, which is where our mutual friend Barbara used to work. I enjoyed a Dulce de Leche Latte while Lorna sipped on her to-go tea from Ground Pati, and we discussed New Orleans politics, Louisiana's crazy alcohol laws and how we each deal with too-cold air conditioning at work. Post-coffee, Lorna dropped me back at Kenner Vineyard, and we parted ways. Car woes aside, it was a good evening.
On Saturday morning, Ben took me to Green Acres Auto Repair bright and early in hopes of getting my car fixed quickly so we could all get back to Tuscaloosa. We were first in line and very excited about this until the woman at the front desk informed us that it would cost about $380 for them to fix my car! Ben informed me that this was a total rip-off and offered to fix it himself. I readily agreed to this, and we were able to buy a new starter at Advance Auto for $140. And it only took Ben about an hour to fix it. He was my favorite person on Saturday.
The ride home was uneventful for the most part. It rained a lot. It was good to get back to Tuscaloosa. I hope I'll be able to go to New Orleans again before the summer's over.
I'm not joking.
3 weeks ago