Monday, January 23, 2006

New Orleans

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Just to warn you. This is a whole lot longer than I thought it would be. I'm having a hard time coping with all that I saw and did in New Orleans, and I'm hoping writing about it will help. Feel free to read as much as you want, or just quit when you get bored. And don't be surprised if I post a whole lot more about the trip.
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I went down to New Orleans recently. It was a difficult trip to say the least.

Going down to New Orleans I was unsure what to expect. I thought I could be going into a war zone, I thought I could be going into a rebuilt city. I really didn't know what to expect. I had heard terrible stories coming through the news, but the news is always trumping up information to make it more spectacular than it really is. I had also heard reports from people who were from New Orleans saying that the town was in really bad shape, but I didn't know that I could trust those reports either. The fact is, I know a lot of people who exaggerate things. So, I drove 17 hours into New Orleans unsure about what I was going to see.

It was already dark by the time we drove in, so I didn't see much on the way in. IN New Orleans at night, you can see the road in front of you. To the left and right of you, after the sun has gone down, it is dark. I didn't think much of it at the time. I just thought, it was night, and I couldn't see because it was night time. Only now have I realized that the areas surrounding a city are never dark. During the night, those areas are bathed in the light of traffic lights, headlights, and living room lamps shining through windows. There was none of this on the way into New Orleans. And as I drove down into the city, I wondered at how badly the city might be affected, never thinking that the darkness I was driving through testified to the fact that the neighborhoods were empty. There was no electricity. There were no cars. No one was up late in the living room watching television. The city was dark, and only now does it seem erie to me.

That night we drove into the mission where we were staying and jumped out of the vans. To our right, behind the mission, was a large field of black. Far beyond that blackness were lights from downtown New Orleans. Unsure of my surroundings, I figured we were on the banks of a river. On the other side of which was the huge crooked silhouette of a scoreboard whose legs had been snapped out from underneath it, and now it stood sideways digging the left corner into the earth. A few guys ran to the edge of the parking lot to look out at the score board, but I was afraid they might climb over the bushes and fall into the river, so I called them back into the parking lot and we hauled our belongings inside. The next morning's light showed me that there was no river at all behing the mission, but it was a huge empty field and there was indeed a destroyed scoreboard at the other end.

After we got indoors, we were met by a Preist who told us that the work we were doing would be hard, dirty, and exhausting. The city he described us working in was sounded like a post-apocolypse world where everyone is gone, and the plants and insects have started taking over. I assumed he was exaggerating, and to some extent he was. We had to be up early to go to work in New Orleans and I was ready to get my hands dirty. I got into my pajamas, and slipped into my sleeping bag looking forward to doing manual labor. I was excited about trying on my new boots, and using my new gloves to go do some heavy labor. The whole thing made me feel like a real man. I was going to get up early, and before showering, I was going to throw on old rugged jeans and a pair of steel shanked boots and sturdy leather gloves. Then I would start work. I was anxious for the next day.

The next morning came quickly, and in excitement to do something different, we all dressed quickly, and headed out to our work site. We caravaned to the Catholic Charities headquarters where we were to meet our job manager. On the way, I began to see what would become the familiar destruction that is New Orleans. From the elevated byways, the sights became increasingly distressing. Downtown New Orleans looks pretty much normal. I remember seeing a boarded up window on a sky scraper and thinking how destructive the storm must have been to have knocked out a sky scraper window, but that was pretty much all I noticed at first.

Then I noticed the cars. Nearly every highway in New Orleans is elevated, and under the highways, there is frequently just dead space where nothing can be built. I imagine that before the hurricane, the ground under the highways is occupied by gravel, or grass, or sidewalks for pedestrians. But now, there are hundreds of cars. Hundreds of grey, destroyed cars. Almost every car has been broken into, and most of them have flattened or missing tires, so they sit under the overpasses like grey dirty tombstones leaning in sinking ground. These are the cars that were destroyed in the flood. In order to open the roads, the city of New Orleans towed these vehicles under the byways and there they remain. Five months after the hurricane. The sit, dead under the highways.

To the right and left of the elevated roads, downtown looks pretty much normal. Every here and there you can see broken tiles on those churches with clay roofs, and many other structures are roofed in enormous blue tarps. From the highway, I looked out at all of the blue tarps I saw, and thought about the company that makes those blue tarps and how their sales must have jumped.

As we drove further, things got worse. We passed a round building called "Circle Food Store" with a spire reaching up above the highway. The building was a curiosity to me. How many grocery stores have five story spires rising up from their roofs? Behind Circle Food Store was the mangled skeleton of an empty billboard. The old advertisement hung in strips like peeled flesh and the iron beams that supported the frame were bent and twisted. The whole structure that used to look out on the road, was now wrenched out of place, and was wrapped around to the left so that it looked as if it were peering over the shoulder of the Circle Food Store. I asked Rachel to take a picture, but we were driving too quickly.

When we finally got off the highway, we started to see just how bad things were. Keep in mind, it's been five months since this storm hit. And there is still trash everywhere. Everywhere you look, the ground is littered with papers, grocery bags, shoes, socks, dolls. Every here and there you'll find a jacket wrapped around a jagged fence, or a plastic chair with a leg shattered off laying in the grass. I saw an umbrella from a porch wedged between the cement pilons on the side of the road, and torn mattresses lying like huge rectangular roadkill on the sidewalk. The larger trash was less common, I only saw a handful of chairs, and probably three mattresses that morning, but still. How many times have you seen a mattress laying in the sidewalk, let alone three mattresses in less than three miles. And none of the stop lights were working, so every stop you came to was a four way stop sign. Almost everything was closed. There were no cars in any parking lots, no pedestrians on the sidewalks, relatively few cars on the streets, and every store was closed. Then, you saw the spray paint on the houses. Every house, every store, every garage, every shack, every building big enough for a person to be inside had been spray painted by the rescue workers. Every structure a person could fit inside had a ten foot orange, black, or white "X" spray-painted on it. In the top of the "X" were letters denoting which rescue team had visited. "NJ-5" or "NO-23" or something like that. On the left were numbers that we never found the meaning to, and on the bottom, in every home I looked at, was the number zero. That bottom space was the space to write how many bodies the rescue workers found in the structure. And, I'm glad I didn't see any "1"s.

When we got to the Catrholic Charities headquarters, we saw the first rescue sign that showed signs of life. Apparently the workers had found a dog possibly under the house. It was a surreal experience to be parked in front of this display of struggle, and the reaction to that struggle, but I'm glad to have had something there that personified the hurricane before I stuck my hands into it.

It turned out that our first work site wasn't going to need us, and the second site we were rescheduled for wouldn't be started until ten o'clock. So, we took a tour of the ninth ward. This was the first I had heard of the ninth ward. I have been living in the college bubble for a while, so I didn't know all of the ins and outs of Hurricane coverage. I'll never forget that place. It was one of the poorest districts in New Orleans before the Hurricane hit, and it was the worst hit of all of the areas of New Orleans. The place looks like it has been bombed. I drove a twleve passenger van through the streets and had to dodge overturned trucks, and scraped against downed power lines. For mile after mile, the place was destroyed. I can't describe the desctruction I was seeing. I have seen images like that in the movies, but never in real life. It looked like Ypres or Verdun after the Blitzkrieg campaigns of WWII. The whole van was silent. It was terrible. For miles and miles, there was no sign of life, only desolation and destruction. No one was moving, and there was no one living in any of the remaining homes. The few homes that were standing must be annihilated inside, and the rest of the homes look like enormous piles of snapped and splintered lumber with cars sticking out of the sides and refrigerators sitting on top like cherries on a hellish sundae.

Then we drove to our work site. Our first day was spent working at St. Theresea of the Little Flower in a predominantly black neighborhood. On the outside, the church didn't look that bad. The tile roof had been damaged, and the huge orange tiles lay broken on the street, but other than that, it looked pretty good. There was a sizeable pile of trash on the sidewalk, but we had seen worse. In that pile was an old piano that had been ruined in the flood. The front panel that covers the piano wires had fallen off showing the ruined hammers and wires inside. It stood there on the sidewalk amidst a pile of other rubble and trash. I knew it had been used before, I knew it had led that congregation in worship for years, and now it was abandoned, ruined standing like a wounded minstrel soldier with it’s teeth and guts exposed to the sky. After we parked our cars and were told what to do inside, I went to the piano to hit the keys a bit. The sounds it made were haunting. None of the wires were in tune of course, and most of them were no longer stretched. It reminded me of when I was a child and I would pluck stretched kite string. Only, somehow, there was a remaining measure of life in those piano strings that you can’t find in anything else. The piano was dead, and had been rotting in stagnant water for months while the flood waters receeded, and now it was baking dry on a hot Louisanna sidewalk, but those strings held the remnants of a tune. It was a haunting magic. None of the keys played their proper note, in fact, none of the keys played a note at all, but they played something. They played a strange haunting dirge for the church behind them. The piano sounded dull and heavy, with a brightness behind each sound that was barely noticeable. But you could tell that at one time, that piano used to sing. I stood there for a moment stunned at what I was doing. I bent over, picked up my Nalgene, and walked into the church.

That day, we worked in the Church. Half of our team went into the rectory, half went into the worship halls, and those mysterious holy wings on either side of the altar. I had never been in one of those wings before, and it was hard for me to think about going into them, so I went into the rectory. In the end, I think it proved harder being there.

The rectory was annihilated. Mold had wicked up the walls about five feet off the ground, and the floor boards buckled in triangular hills standing a foot and a half tall off the ground. The ground was littered with books, and magazines, newspapers, crucifixes, curtains, and broken furniture. While the flood waters were high, they picked everything up from where it had been laying, and mixed it all around. I pictured the books floating in the water until they were so waterlogged that they sunk to the muddy floor. There they sat soaking up water for two months while the waters receeded. By the time the waters dried up, the books had soaked up so much water that they were no longer books. There were no pages in them. They were square chunks of dried wood pulp. Every book lay on the floor opened to page somewhere in the middle with the spine pointing at the ceiling. Every page of every book was stuck to every other page. When you picked up a book, they were still moist, and refused to fold in half. And every book that had fallen on top of another book in the flood, was now fused together with that book. They lay in huge pile and when you picked up one book to throw it away, seven others came up with it as if you were peeling off a carpeting of wooden books.

Once all of the debris was removed, we had to start taking out the furniture. There were great oak desks in the rooms, and couches and chairs. Everything was warped and rippled and ruined. You would reach out your hand to open a drawer hoping to empty it before carrying out the desk, but the drawer was stuck shut. All of the drawers were stuck shut. Every drawer, in every desk, in every cabinet, in every home we went to. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that every drawer in New Orleans that is less than ten feet off the ground is stuck shut. When you go to open the drawer, you pull somewhat gingerly, and the face rips off. It doesn’t take much effort at all. The thing just tears off in your hands. Then you rip off all the other drawer faces, and tip the desk over so everything that is not stuck to the drawer falls out and onto the floor. Everything that comes out of those drawers is destroyed. The notes, and receipts, the envelopes markers, pens, pencils, all of them are ruined. The scissors are orange with rust, and the paper clips are a ball of orange rot. As the contents scatter and drip to the floor, it smells like filth. After you remove the filth from the room, it’s time to take out the desk. Rather than fuss with turning the desk this way and that to get it through the narrow doorways, you just take a sledge to the top and break it in two pieces. Then people come in and remove both halves of the desk and it’s the end. Who knows how long someone sat at that desk, how many times someone worried about bills, or wrote a letter to someone on the glass top. It doesn’t matter anymore. There is no sentiment. Nothing is sacred. We throw away the bibles, we shatter the glass, we break the desk in half and throw it on the sidewalk with all the other trash. I think this is part of what hit me the hardest. The absolute lack of sanctity. Nothing was sacred anymore. At one point I was pulling stuff off of a shelf above my head. I couldn’t see what I was pulling down, I was just trying to get everything on the ground so that I could knock out the shelves and throw them away. Then I would come back in with a wheelbarrow and haul out everything that had been on the shelves. As I scattered everything to the ground, I saw a pile of crucifixes dangling off of the shelf. I stopped, and realized that I was throwing away effigies of the crucified Christ. Conservative Catholics say that you can’t simply throw away a crucifix, you have to bury it. But, there wasn’t time. There were many, many more crosses and crucifixes in the other wings, and we didn’t have time to dig a grave. I scattered them to the ground, and they shattered. Little Jesus arms snapped and Jesus heads broke on the ground. I looked at my feet where fifteen or twenty broken Christs lay, and I couldn’t help but think of John 19 –“Not one of his bones would be broken.” I wish I had grabbed my camera, but instead, I just picked them up and threw them in the wheelbarrow with all of the other trash.

When we got to the kitchen it became apparent just how quickly the people of New Orleans had to evacuate. There were plants on the window sills smelling rotten and foul. The sink had dishes in it that had been cleaned by the flood waters. Everything was covered in a dry brown film of dirt, and the place smelled awful. We started hauling things out of the kitchen and found that every pitcher in the cupboard was still full of water. Every pan had water in it, and every pan was rusted bright orange. The dishwasher still had dishes in it. I went to the pantry to start clearing it out, and a five pound bag of rice had burst open. The rice had fallen on the floor and after sitting in tepid water for two months, it had become a two inch deep slick rotting carpet. I didn't notice the mess on the floor at first, and slipped as I went into the closet. I then realized what was on the ground, and it didn't even phaze me. I just bent over and started cleaning it up. I think about it now, and should I find a mess like that in my cupboard, it would make me sick. If I went to a friend's house and found that on the ground, I would think about what a horrible mess it was. But this didn't upset me. It was in order. I should have expected it. Nothing was a surprise to me anymore, things should be rotting on the floor.

Then we went to the fridge. I had heard horror stories about the refrigerators in New Orleans. There was a whole article on it in Time Magazine, but when you are there, you have to see for yourself. We unplugged the fridge and moved it out into the center of the room, and then we just kind of looked at each other. One of the guys opened the door. Inside, everything was black. It looked like someone had dumped ink inside the fridge and it had just covered everything. You couldn't tell one thing from another because it was all just black. So we leaned in, wondering what each lump of black might have been before. And as we leaned in, our faces came up into the smell. It was like sticking your head into a waterfall. On second, it didn't smell at all, and then I was wet with the stench of rotting food. Everything in that fridge had been sitting there, rotting into every other thing, and the smell was awful. We slammed the door shut and started taking the fridge outside, where we set it up on the sidewalk and walked back inside.

The rest of the day was like that. We just grabbed things from the church and hauled them outside. Everything was ruined, everything was garbage, nothing was salvageable. Toward the end of the day, I went back outside to try to find the piano that I had played earlier, but I couldn't find it. There I was, standing in front of a pile of trash six feet high and fifty feet long, and I couldn't find the piano. I couldn't find a piano. I don't know if you've ever looked for a piano, but they are usually pretty easy to find. I can't believe I couldn't find it. Eventually I did find the piano and I managed to snap a picture. I thought of taking a picture of the fridge, but didn't want to smell it again. Now, I wish I had.

The whole day we worked, an elderly man who we all called Deacon was there helping us. He had attended Mass at St. Theresea of Little Flower for thirty years. He had lived in the rectory for a while, and now he was there, throwing everything away. He had a wonderful attitude about it all, and worked as hard as any of us. I felt miserable carrying out all of those items from his old church, his old home, and just throwing them out on the street. But, it had to be done. And he was thankful. I remember now, when I was out there looking for the piano, I turned around to go back inside and there was Deacon. I looked at him and said, "I'm sorry Deacon. This must be hard for you."

"It's not as hard as I thought it would be." He said. "I thought it was going to be really hard, but to be honest, it's nice to be doing something again. It's nice to think that the church might be up again."

And he meant might. The Archdiocese of New Orleans is not going to be able to afford to reopen every church that was hit by the storm. There is a good possibility that all of the work we did for that church is going to be for naught in the end. They might decide to open a different church instead of St. Theresea of Little Flower, but Deacon, myself, and everyone we were with hoped that by working as hard as we could for the time we were there, we might save that church. You can imagine how that made us drive forward. Never stopping. It was really something, everyone in the group was working themselves into a heavy filthy sweat trying to save that huge old church. And we don't know if we did.

At the end of the day, every one had green mold slicks staining their shirts, and our dust masks had gone from white to black. Even the insides of our dust masks were grey. And when we finished up on the first day, and looked around at all of the work we had done, Deacon told us that we had saved the church $30,000. They had asked for estimates on the cost of removing all of the refuse in the church, and the estimates ranged from $30,000 to $45,000. In 8 hours, a group of 15 people had saved a church $30,000. It felt great. We had done something. And not only had we saved a church money. By working in that church that day, we told the community around the church that things were under way. Work was being done. Eventually, they will be able to hold mass at that Church again, and when they are able to do so, the few people who have returned to New Orleans will have a place to go again. We were building hope by throwing away all those sacred items. We were telling the city that it was time to come home. It was time to rebuild. And while we didn't save New Orleans, and we may not have even saved that church, we worked. And right now, that is what the communities need. They need someone to work. They need to see that something is happening. It has been almost six months now since the hurricane hit, and the people of New Orleans need to see that things are getting better.

If you look around the streets of New Orleans today, it does not look good. The place is annihilated, and don't let any governor or news reporter tell you otherwise. The fact that New Orleans is going to spend money on hosting the Mardi Gras party this year infuriates me. They are going to spend money to get tourists down to the city, while people don't have homes to sleep in. I can't understand. But, I guess it isn't up to me to understand. It is up to me to get my hands dirty when I can. It is up to me to go and help where I can, when I am able. And I'm glad I did.

We were in New Orleans 5 more days. We worked on the church again the second day, and then the third day we went to a woman's house. On the fourth and fifth days we finished the woman's house, and started another man's house. I may come back here to talk more about what it was like to strip a woman's home to the studs while she sat in the front lawn taking pictures, but I don't think anyone is going to read all of this even. I needed to write about St. Theresea of Little Flower. And I needed to write about Deacon, even if no one reads what I've written. Because more than anything, those images have stuck with me. I still see Deacon scraping the marble tiles off the floor, and I still see him smiling. I'm sad that I couldn't have helped more, and I'm sad to think that the church we worked on might not last, but I'm glad to have done what I did.

Since I've returned from New Orleans, I have had a very hard time. I keep thinking about the pictures I saw. You know that circle store we passed so often? Someone was found floating just next to it, and I have seen the photo. An African-American man face down in the dirty flood waters, bloated and bulging with tears in his skin where the birds had eaten. He was there. Floating just feet beneath the road we passed every day. Those are the things I can't stop thinking about. All the people who died, all the destruction that remains, all the work that there is left to do, and Deacon. I keep thinking about Deacon. That happy old man who was glad to have us with him while we ripped apart his place of worship, and threw it on the sidewalk.

I've been sad since coming back. And right now, I'm merely exhausted.

1 comment:

jennifer said...

Thank you for coming. I know many people whose lives were ravaged by Katrina. My school accepted 75 Katrina's Kids for free--free tuition, books, school supplies, lunches, uniforms. Most of them have left us by now, but we still have a few here who are still trying to find their way.

I am hoping that America doesn't just forget about what happened in NO. It is a problem that is going to take a LONG time to fix...and a lot of prayers and volunteers.

Thank you.