COVER STORY ‌ Katrina's Invisible Wake 

One volunteer chips away at the massive cleanup job in New Orleans

click to enlarge Common Ground volunteers help pile the trash in front of a house in New Orleans' Ninth Ward
  • Common Ground volunteers help pile the trash in front of a house in New Orleans' Ninth Ward

Last month, I spent three days in New Orleans volunteering with the Common Ground Collective, helping displaced families begin to rebuild their lives. For me, it was one of many stops in a cross-country trip home from Mono Lake, Calif., to Charleston for the holidays. My only regret is that I did not give myself more time to help in Louisiana, although I am still feeling the effects of mold in my lungs after just three days. After work each evening, I made sure to write about my experiences that day, with the vague idea of turning it into an organized story. After three weeks of reflection and a quick reread of my journal, I don't think that's possible. I still can't draw any conclusions. Race, money, heartache, death, loss, greed, displacement, anger — the number of factors weighing into any New Orleans discussion is baffling. Here are my rough notes, as I wrote them in New Orleans. Hopefully they'll be of use to folks trying to grasp what has happened and what is occurring now.

December 11, 2005

The situation in New Orleans is too big to fully understand. Disaster, heartbreak, and complications continue to occur here on a massive scale. My arrival yesterday evening at the Common Ground Collective headquarters on Franklin Avenue was a solemn introduction to what's happening. After attending a victims' rights rally, a bus full of volunteers somehow crashed, injuring several people and killing one girl, known to me only as Meg, from Maine. I heard people questioning the worth of giving up weeks of one's life to travel to New Orleans and work for the benefit of people they didn't know, when it resulted in death. I second-guessed myself for coming.

The Common Ground Collective (www.commongroundrelief.org) formed in the wake of Katrina, when a group of friends in the Ninth Ward, a historically poor, black neighborhood, gathered together for solidarity in the days when gun-wielding gangs were still roaming the neighborhood. They decided something needed to be done to help the holed-up people of the Ninth Ward who had ridden out the storm. Their house became a food distribution center, soon expanding into a free medical clinic and then a base for volunteers. All of this I knew before arriving. I was excited to be part of a "collective," an organization born of necessity without a given leader, and operating solely on volunteers and donations.

Today I threw away all the material possessions of a family I don't know. The first look in the front door of their house this morning brought me overwhelming physical and emotional disgust. A green haze of mold spores drifted in the air. The water lines on the walls neared the ceiling. Every single thing was destroyed.

Gregory, who owns the house, had returned to town while his family remained in Houston. Throughout the day, neighbors occasionally drove by, and he stopped and exchanged stories with all of them. The encounters were happy — surprising considering the news of lost loved ones and uncertain futures. For the most part, the neighborhood is deserted. Gazing down his street at sunset, Gregory said, "This place was so full of life." For a moment I could see children playing in the streets, old men on their front porches, and mothers chatting in their yards. Then the reality of ruined cars and piles of debris returned.

I can't imagine what this is like for Gregory. Together we hauled out all the major appliances, but it is the small loads I carried on my own that broke my heart. I tried to save photographs as I dumped out drawers and boxes, but most were so warped and water damaged that the people were unrecognizable. Boxes of clothing, music collections, knick-knacks on the dresser — nothing was salvageable. The floors were soggy and caving in. The walls were black with mold. I constantly felt sick and had to run outside for air.

Sometime late in the afternoon, Gregory asked me to come with him to the neighbors' house and get their fridge out, since the fridges are all extremely foul after sitting since August. Upon entering another home, I was again blown away. This is not a disaster that's struck one family, one house. It's not just Gregory's family; it's his entire street. It's also the street behind theirs, and the next one. I'm baffled by the sheer destruction, and question whether our work is worthwhile — can they really ever move back in here? The lower Ninth Ward, eight blocks away and across the canal, is forever gone. The houses are unsalvageable.

click to enlarge Due to high levels of mold spores and other toxins, Stratton Lawrence (far left) wears a biohazard suit while helping to clean, gut, and prepare ninth ward houses for rebuilding — these pictures show two residents' houses at various stages in the process
  • Due to high levels of mold spores and other toxins, Stratton Lawrence (far left) wears a biohazard suit while helping to clean, gut, and prepare ninth ward houses for rebuilding — these pictures show two residents' houses at various stages in the process

Larry, another friend, pulled up, and he and Gregory shared stories of who's all right and who's not. (This is December — their first chance to return and see their homes.) We talked about the impossibility of saving this neighborhood. Along with Common Ground, there are church groups and Mennonites working in the Ninth Ward, and the Red Cross drives around distributing hamburger patties and Rice Krispie treats, but I've seen no signs of FEMA or other federal aid. "When the United States blew up Hiroshima," Larry said, "we rebuilt it. After the war, we poured money into Germany and Japan to get them back on their feet. Right now the country's resources are all in Iraq, rebuilding. Then a city in our own country gets wiped out and the people get no help." He said it so matter-of-factly that I wonder if he's angry or has just come to terms with reality. The night before, I walked through the French Quarter, and in most places you wouldn't have known there'd been a hurricane. Café du Monde was packed, musicians played in the street, drunken frat boys stumbled down Bourbon Street. The city has plans to put on Mardi Gras, and the biggest controversy you hear discussed on the street is whether the Saints will stay or go.

At the end of the day, an NOPD squad car pulled up, and the policeman got out and embraced Gregory. Officer Cecil Plant grew up down the block from Gregory, and shared an invaluable perspective on the situation. He praised the NOPD for its reaction to Katrina, but the further I pressed him the more he opened up. Three days after the storm, he had several unaccounted-for relatives in the Ninth Ward, but was ordered to guard the French Quarter. When he went on an unofficial rescue mission as floodwaters continued to rise, he was almost fired. He and 85 percent of the NOPD now live on a cruise ship in the Mississippi River. When the ship leaves in March, Officer Plant and many others who lost their homes will take jobs in new cities. He sees no point in trying to rebuild. "The city wants to expand the port — this neighborhood borders the water. It's a developer's dream." Furthermore, he says that by last August, New Orleans was on its way to 400 murders for the year, but there were no murders in October or November. What an opportunity to push the crime-riddled neighborhoods out to the fringes. It's becoming increasingly clear why the Ninth Ward has received no government aid.

With this information coming from a cop, I wonder if the work I've done all day is worth it. This barely salvageable home may indeed be doomed in a doomed neighborhood. Looking at the faded photographs I separated from the monstrous trash pile, I know that crime is not the central theme of this community. Perhaps more than anywhere else in America, poor neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward are centered on family and community. I see it in the hopeful faces of Gregory's friends. I hear it in their jokes and stories, even as we carelessly toss their big screen television to the curb. This neighborhood was abandoned long before Katrina by corrupt politics that left inadequate levees in disrepair. It has now been left to die until its rot is so pungent that the people give up and start over elsewhere. Most likely in 10 years, the Ninth Ward will be home to a port, some waterfront homes, and maybe a casino or two in the lower parts. For now, I still see its old spirit in Gregory's friends, and that's a hopeless cause well worth a few days of my time.

December 12, 2005

Day two on the job. This morning I woke up with a deep sore throat. At one point yesterday, my mask slipped off while negotiating a fridge on a hand truck, and I waited until I had it out of the house to reposition the straps around my head. There are over 50 people sharing floor space in this room and everyone seems to be hacking, so I'm hesitant to ask for a different project, but health is wealth and I don't want moldy lungs.

A man named Tyrone came to breakfast and needed volunteers to gut his mother's house and his church in Plaquemines Parish, an hour south of New Orleans. I raised my hand. On the way down, I learned that he is the reverend of this church in the tiny community of Phoenix. We picked his mother up at her temporary apartment in Algiers, took the ferry across Big Muddy, and journeyed south past houses without roofs and orange trees without fruit. The village of Phoenix has no store, one church, about 100 houses, and as many piles of debris. On the street where Tyrone's mother, Dorothy, lives, every house is (or was) owned by a family member. Just like the day before, I am speechless. The underlying theme of my thoughts today seems to be hopelessness. There is no light at the end of the tunnel. On entering Dorothy's house, I thought to myself that it would be more productive, even easier, to knock it down and build a new one. But, just like most of the houses in the Ninth Ward, her grandmother lived here before her. These houses are genealogical establishments. FEMA brought Dorothy a trailer two days before, but she refuses to use it. "I didn't even wipe my feet when I went in that thing," she said. If she's coming back to Phoenix, it'll be to her house.

click to enlarge At left, a church in Phoenix, Plaquemines parish: the painted "0" is good news — it means no dead bodies; at right, in another part of the Ninth Ward, after four days of work from a six-man team, a gutted house is ready for rebuilding
  • At left, a church in Phoenix, Plaquemines parish: the painted "0" is good news — it means no dead bodies; at right, in another part of the Ninth Ward, after four days of work from a six-man team, a gutted house is ready for rebuilding

Over the course of the day I ripped out dry wall and insulation, hauling big, dusty load after load to the curb. I threw the rotted wood paneling that once divided rooms into a pile in the yard. The town is planning a big New Year's bonfire. Dorothy donned her inadequate paper mask and tried to salvage small items — she'd likely have thrown a fit if we made her wear one of our funny-looking filter masks into her own home. Most of the day she stayed in the yard, making piles of twigs and branches, filling me in on when she planted each tree that has now fallen. "I put in that acorn tree in the spring of 1961 — that thing got big!" All day long she thanked me, blessed me, and insisted that I take breaks. Another group worked on the church throughout the day, but I was glad to stick with Dorothy and continue my history lesson.

Another of her sons surprised me when he said that most of the flood damage in Phoenix occurred after Rita, not Katrina. After the first storm, he returned and lived in his house. After the second, he came home to an empty lot, his home a victim to the tornadoes that spun off far to the east of the eye. He pointed out mold lines underneath the eaves of the church's roof, inside of which the baptismal pool had floated from the altar to the front door.

Back at Common Ground, a nurse gave out tetanus shots and helped the sick. I am feeling better, but took advantage of the acupuncture clinic, which gave me some good time to sit quietly and think as I tried to ignore the needles in my ear. There is beauty that emerges from disaster. Big watermelons are now growing in Phoenix where they were never before seen. I doubt that before now, a white person has ever stayed in the town longer than enough time to fix a washing machine or phone line. Natural disasters have the ability to blur social class lines. In the aftermath, the greed of developers to acquire new land has raised suspicions about the slow arrival of aid to poor areas. I'm thankful that groups like Common Ground are here, bringing predominantly white, college-aged volunteers to help predominantly black neighborhoods. Hopefully we're helping to bridge the race gap in a city where greedy men, both black and white, are running the show.

December 13, 2005

Physically, today was the most difficult day of work. With a team of six people, we returned to Gregory's house and stripped sheet rock from the house frame. Then we ripped out insulation and snow-shoveled the resulting plastery mess into buckets to dump outside. Gregory's uncle passed away yesterday, so he was off with family. Without his lively stories, I struggled to stay motivated and focused in the cramped, hot biohazard suit and mask.

Last night, I made a last-minute decision to check out Papa Grows Funk at the Maple Leaf Tavern near Tulane. To say the least, they brought the funk. Russell Batiste Jr. on the keys made everyone's hips groove and heads bob. Stanton Moore (of Galactic) sat in on the drums during the second set. For a moment I forgot about Katrina, until they stopped promptly at 1:30 so we could all beat curfew home and avoid getting stopped or arrested. Staying across town and in the Ninth Ward, I got back just in time, but laid awake until four elated about what I'd just heard. Of course, this morning was the day we decided to get an early start, so I felt like a weak link at the site. When I managed to pull out the one extra nasty carpet everyone was avoiding, I think I earned some penance for my slow speed.

Around lunch, Gregory's brother James stopped by and expressed repeated gratitude for our work. He lost both his cars and most of his possessions, but structurally, his house survived. He talked a lot about feeling blessed. Before leaving, he pointed out that the Ninth Ward had always had a large homeless population. During the evacuation, the homeless were treated like everyone else and given hotel rooms in the destination cities. For those who had nothing already, Katrina brought an opportunity for a fresh start.

I leave in the morning and I'm sad to go. All day I anticipated sundown and going to sleep, but like each day before, I want to work one more. Three days was hard. My lungs are literally sore and I'm hacking up Day-Glo phlegm in vibrant new shades of yellow. My body hurts, my hair is matting, and I smell like a wet dog. But in comparison to many others here, I haven't done much. Most people here stay a week or more. Some have been here months already, while others have committed to stay years, until the work is done. These folks' very existence gives me hope for the world. This is back-breaking, tear-jerking, filthy work, and no one is receiving a dime. The Common Ground Collective has no president or board — when a project arises, be it dinner dishes or gutting a house, enough people seem to step up. This unstructured community is working at this scale — 100 people and a common purpose to unite them. Its existence is a wonderful social lesson.

I have to return to the subject of 'worthwhileness.' One friend of mine who wanted to volunteer was discouraged by her family. Her father believed the military has things well under control, and she was not needed. She didn't come. Last night at the bar I met a guy who wanted to tell me all about his experience. I told him I was "cleaning" houses, and he said he did his own and that was enough. He then went on to say he'd gotten in the day after the water receded and lost "everything on the floor — all my shoes." Even across town, people don't know or won't believe that thousands upon thousands of homes are utterly destroyed. Everything inside is black with mold. We can't even salvage their photographs. If the neighbors in their city aren't acknowledging the Ninth Ward's loss, I can't expect folks watching the news in South Carolina to realize it either. New Orleans' middle and business class would like to see the Ninth Ward "rejuvenated" and rebuilt into something they won't have to be ashamed of. The residents here acknowledge there will be bulldozers around soon. But would you give up your home without a fight? I don't believe that any developer, corporation, or outside politician can decide what is best for the Ninth Ward. However fruitless day to day, Common Ground and other volunteers are helping the people here to have a say in their own future. I'm glad I got to help.

January 19, 2006

Today I spoke with my friend Justin Hite, who has been volunteering in New Orleans since September and influenced me to go there through his passionate e-mails. Common Ground issued a nationwide call for help this week. On January 6, bulldozers moved into the Lower Ninth Ward to begin demolition. Common Ground acted quickly, obtaining a court order that temporarily stopped the destruction. The legislation now states that the city must place a notice in the print and online editions of the Times-Picayune for three days and send a letter to the last known address of the owner. The residents then have seven days to object and (temporarily) prevent the demolition of their home. Unfortunately these people are spread throughout the Southeast. Common Ground volunteers are doing what they can to contact and notify people, but evacuees are difficult to track down — something the New Orleans officials don't seem too concerned about. Volunteers are literally acting as human blockades to the bulldozers. In five days, a team of eight volunteers can gut and clean a house so that it's fully ready to be insulated, dry-walled, and inhabited, in a neighborhood where flood waters rose 15 feet. The recovery plan released last week allows for building permits only in areas that flooded less than two feet. People wishing to return home cannot acquire permission to rebuild, and instead are facing the prospect of seeing their homes totally destroyed.

New Orleans will have another hurricane. The Ninth Ward will flood again. Anyone who decides to move back there should understand this risk, just as people do when they build a home on Folly Beach or near an earthquake fault. In the meantime, it is the government's responsibility to strengthen levees that provide as much protection as possible. Shouldn't it be up to us, not the government, to decide if people should return to their homes? They have lost all their possessions except the frame of their houses. Don't they deserve our compassion, not judgment, false reason, and bulldozers? There is more information about Common Ground, including how to get involved, at their website: www.commongroundrelief.org. They are in dire need of more volunteers, as well as Sheetrock and wiring to begin the rebuilding process.


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