My taxi sped along Interstate 10 past what could have been the outskirts of any small city in America. Lights and signs and passersby all moving at their normal pace. You couldn’t really tell that anything had gone wrong with a quick look at things. As we approached the downtown, I spied the Superdome to our left just off the freeway. Other than its odd pancake shape, it looked good, clean, and it was hard to imagine that only four years ago its roof was nearly ripped off and scores of desperate lives were gathered in hoards grasping for existence, their world turned upside down by Hurricane Katrina. As we followed the ramp off the freeway and headed toward signs for the French Quarter and my hotel next to the convention center, I wondered how it would be here in New Orleans.
My 6:15 wakeup call came quickly and I dressed and grabbed a quick breakfast at the hotel’s top floor lounge next to a wall of windows. I watched tug boats push flat barges up the Mississippi while riverboats sat quiet, still docked for the night. The river stretched out into the distance for as far as I could see and I pictured all that had transpired on these waterways over the years. My sales team and I had flown into town for a business convention, but our team of five had come a day early to volunteer on a construction project with Habitat for Humanity. It seemed like doing something to help would be a better idea than just talking about the devastation or taking a tour of the damaged areas.
It was an interesting week to be in New Orleans. The Saints had just won the NFC Championship game three days before and were advancing to their first Super Bowl since they were formed in 1967. Every other store front was decked out in black and gold, and signs of “Go Saints” were everywhere. I laughed at a song on the local radio station whose chorus crooned, “When the Saints win the Super Bowl, I’m leaving town.” Two weeks earlier, the devastating earthquake had crippled the island of Haiti, only 450 miles to the southeast, creating an unusual kinship between the small island and this port city that both shared a sense of history with their French heritage. We gathered down in the lobby at 7:00 to head over toward the damaged area to lend a hand in rebuilding. Despite just over four years passing, from what we’d read and seen on TV, there were still a lot of major struggles for this once mighty city. Not being in New Orleans, it was hard to know for sure what the situation was.
We headed toward a neighborhood adjacent to the now famous Ninth Ward and experienced our own personal version of local New Orleans flavor. Our driver called out an abbreviated history of the city and the aftershocks of the storm and recovery efforts. He told us how his house had been lifted right off its slab and carried down the street. How he’d been rescued from his rooftop, and of a woman that had survived by hanging onto her chandelier for 3 days. We stopped at an intersection and he yelled out to one of his buddies on the road crew, “There’s the ugliest white man in New Orleans!” I’m sure at least some of what he told us was partially true.
As we drove along the streets, the damage was not immediately apparent. But when you looked a little closer, you could see through the dark windows and the shadows of the dirty, gutted interiors. You started to notice the houses that had the plywood over the windows. Some streets had rows upon rows of empty houses. Others were scattered – one house with cars and life and toys outside in the small yard, the next boarded up and gutted, followed by an empty lot whose only indication that a home once stood there was a flat concrete slab partially hidden among the weeds. Further down the street were the remnants of a shopping center – half demolished into rubble, half still standing empty.
Four years after Katrina, there are still a lot of problems, bitterness and anger about what transpired. We all know how millions upon millions of relief dollars were donated from around the globe and dispensed by the government, faith-based groups and aid organizations. Most reports indicate that a staggering 1,836 deaths are attributed to Katrina. The motto on the city’s website reads: Rethink, Renew, Rebuild, and proclaims that over $1.1 Billion has been allocated toward active recovery projects. The federal government has set aside $6.4 Billion to storm victims wanting to sell or rebuild their homes. But the crew foreman at Habitat told us that 150,000 homes had been destroyed, and Habitat, the biggest builder in the area, had only built 278. It’s hard to know exactly what stats to believe, but that’s a lot to still be done. Pre-Katrina New Orleans seems to have had a population of around 450,000 and today there are just north of 300,000. That’s about a third of the city gone, many probably never to return. We heard rumors that the tourism industry has to bring in workers from out of town to staff the hotels and restaurants, and that hospitals and schools don’t have enough people workers to operate properly.
When we arrived on the worksite there were two big buses with a group of 50 volunteers, many wearing Americorps sweatshirts and encircling a site where the foundation and initial floor had just recently been built. We were sent a few streets over to another site that had a home nearing completion. Our team spent the day brushing on the first coat of its exterior paint and nailing flashing and soffits to where the siding met the roof. It was exciting to take our place alongside the more than 18,000 other Habitat volunteers in 2009 alone.
The street with our Habitat house was an odd mix. The expressway of I-10 was 100 feet behind us, and to our right was an abandoned white one-story ranch that looked like it had been picked up by the currents and sat back down a few feet away. We walked over and peeked inside at the dirt and decay. The house seemed to have been pulled up out of the bayou and the mud, although strangely the two rear windows that we were looking through seemed to be new. A storm door hung on one hinge around the front and banged in the wind in an lonely testament to what had transpired no so many months ago.
In stark strange contrast, across the street stood a seemingly brand-new two-story medium sized home with a clean stucco exterior, a decorative awning over the picture window and an imposing Hummer truck parked in the driveway. To its left sat an older small brick one-story with two decorative stone lions guarding its entrance, looking tired and faded. A cast of local men paraded in and out of that house all day. One man wore a hospital scrub as a shirt and both of his arms were in slings that held his heavily bandaged hands out in front of his body. Throughout the afternoon, two men leaned against the stone lions, peering over at us on the construction site, silently sipping their beers. I wondered what they were thinking and what they’d seen in recent years. It was hard to know what emotion to have towards them–tears, pity, fear or anger as they stood there. The end of their shadows landed in the yard next door where an old, gutted, burned-out house lay still. The windows were broken and the door stood open. An ominous message was spray painted across the front of the house in red: “R.I.P Kevin,” followed by a large “X” which we were told had been a marker after the storm indicating that rescue teams had been to that dwelling. Apparently they were too late.
We had a fun day painting the house, spending time together with our team, all happy not to be sitting in front of a computer or on stuck the phone. The warm, 63-degree air felt good and the bright sunshine was a welcome change to our pale Yankee skin. Our already close knit team enjoyed the bonding experience away from the office and laughed at each other’s complaints about using port-a-potties and one’s wearing designer sunglasses for construction. We still talk about our site leader who was a “low talker” and despite his own acknowledgment that it was loud standing next to the freeway, refused to speak up when giving instructions to us! Our arms ached from moving our paint brushes back and forth for hours, and by the time 3:00 rolled around, we were all ready to head back to the hotel to spend the next three days at the conference talking to too many clients at too many restaurants followed by too many walks down Bourbon Street.
As I think back now to our week in New Orleans (NOLA, as I came to learn it was abbreviated), I remember most our day out on the work site, in the real part of city. Away from the tourists, the hotels and the conventions. I’m glad that we could do a small part to help restore the city, to provide someone with a new home and hopefully revive a bit of their hope. I’ve been trying to decide who I’m going to root for this Sunday when the Colts face the Saints in the Super Bowl. Not being in New Orleans anymore, it would be easy to cheer for Payton Manning and the favored Colts, but I have a feeling that I’ll end up rooting for the black and gold and all that it would mean for the Big Easy.
I find myself thinking back to something our driver said as he dropped us off at the work site. As he filled out the credit card form, I asked him if the fee covered his tip or just the car company charge. “That’s taking care of them,” he bemoaned in his raspy smoker’s Cajun drawl, “but nobody’s taking care of me my friend.” I gave him twenty bucks but later learned as I called for the return trip that the fees did include a gratuity for the driver. I considered the sincerity of his words and how as worked that day, and saw with our own eyes all that still needed to be done, it was hard to distinguish exactly who was really getting taken care of in New Orleans.