“The fabled phoenix is a crimson, gold, and purple bird with sweeping tail and jeweled eyes. It lives in a distant garden of flowers and crystal springs. When its wings become heavy with age, the bird builds a nest of spices, herbs and resin in the top of a date palm. The heat of the sun ignites the twigs, and the phoenix stands in the flames with outspread wings. The bird burns to ashes. In cool starlight, a young phoenix forms in the remains of its parent.”
I spent the week of Thanksgiving 2005 volunteering with Mission from Minnesota doing reclamation and relief work in New Orleans. Our home base was in the First Street United Methodist Church in St. Charles Parish.
The story of what is happening in New Orleans is one of death, destruction, hope and heroism, a paradoxical situation that is hard to take in when you are in the midst of it. It was three months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. There will be years of work for New Orleans and surrounding cities to recover from this disaster – and yet, only three months after the hurricane, we have all but forgotten. From my safe, warm house in Minnesota, there was no way to comprehend what was happening to my neighbors in the South, partly because of the selective reporting of the media and partly because there is no way to understand without being there. It is like a phoenix, rising from ashes that were toxic and dirty before Katrina hit.
As I write this I have been home from my experience in New Orleans just over a week and I am trying to understand what is happening there in relationship to what is happening in my life and in the world. As we were driving home, a woman in a gas station in Mississippi said, " You have to see it to understand." I agree with her. For me it is an experience that has touched me on all levels and I am sure it will continue to reveal itself to me over time.
Metaphor of the flood
Physically, every muscle in my body ached from the demand of physical labor as we worked 12-hour days, for five days, to accomplish what we had gone to do. I had never worked so hard and felt so happy, because I was doing something for others that really mattered. The day I arrived my ankles began to swell and I felt as though my body was absorbing the metaphor of the flood. By the end of the week, my ankles and legs were so swelled that I was in severe pain; my ankles were no longer visible and it hurt to walk.
Emotionally, I felt like I was holding two paradoxical feelings at once: happiness to be able to use my time to serve others and sadness at their plight. Mentally, it is hard to put your mind around what has happened, what has been allowed to go on for years and what is happening now. A trip such as this one greatly changes one’s perspective. Spiritually, I could see a higher purpose rising out of the devastation. The earth is not only cleansing itself, but it is also revealing a neglected segment of our population. It is as though the earth could no longer stand to hide what was going on, so she called to the wind and water to expose the secret.
I got a quick taste of what people were experiencing in the nine days I was there. It was much colder than we expected. I only had three pair of jeans and two long-sleeved turtlenecks to wear for nine days. Not only did I wear the clothes during the day, but I also had to sleep in them. Vanity went out the window. I stopped worrying about make-up or my hair. We only had two showers for 26 people, so we went for several days without showers. The first two nights, I stayed in the sanctuary of the church with several other people, because there was nowhere else to sleep. It was very comforting sleeping at the altar, knowing that a loving presence greater than all of us was present.
The last three nights, I slept on the kitchen floor of an empty apartment. The floor was cold. A lot of cockroaches ran around. One night I got up to go to the bathroom, and as I was coming back a roach ran out of my sleeping bag. On the day we left, I looked at all of my dirty clothes and thought, "I wonder what is my cleanest dirty clothes," because I wanted to be kind of clean for the ride home.
People in New Orleans have been living in conditions like this for three months, with only a few clothes. Many more people are living in the streets, because they lost everything and have nowhere to go.
Integrate my experience
The snapshot in time that follows can only begin to convey what it is like in New Orleans right now, three months after Katrina. This is my initial attempt to make sense of it. I have struggled to find words to convey what I experienced. I have been home nine days, and each night I dream I am still there working on another project with my group. Is it possible that I might be doing night travel on the astral plane to continue my work, or is it another way to integrate my experience? It is hard to know.
A moment in time: He excitedly told me about how beautiful his apartment was and couldn’t wait for me to see it, forgetting that most of what he owned might not have survived the hurricane. It is three months after Katrina devastated New Orleans and it is his first time back. He came in the caravan from Minnesota where he had evacuated, to volunteer and also see if he could salvage any of his belongs. Home had been in the St. Bernard development, considered the most violent housing project in New Orleans and high on the list of violence in this country.
We arrived at the complex of brick apartment buildings in St. Bernard that had now become a ghost town. A police car followed us in. He had to show the police identification to prove that he was here for valid reasons, and we had to show our Mission from Minnesota ID cards to relieve his suspicion. We suited up in protective Tyvek suits, eye goggles, plastic booties and respirators, looking like Ghost Busters once we were dressed. We went to the back entrance of the building and he pushed the air conditioner inside the window and peered in. All we could hear was the low, questioning hum coming from his throat as he shook his head. We would hear this hum from time to time as we walked through the rubble that used to be his home.
I came in through the door he opened and was shocked at what I saw. Black mold and greenish grey grime covered all the surfaces. Furniture had been tossed about like a shaken dollhouse, onto a floor now black with slime. This scene was juxtaposed upon a clear mental image of what used to be a cozy home, as burgundy lace curtains moved in the breeze and what was left of a floral border danced around the ceiling. I was heartbroken, and I wanted to cry for this man who had lost everything. Life would now be even more of a struggle than it had been before the storm. Miraculously, we found his high school diploma and Nurses Aide Certificate sandwiched between soggy papers, untouched by the water. Here was a ray of hope that he could begin again in his new home in Minnesota.
He had also talked about wanting to retrieve his record collection and a large print of the skyline of New York before 9/11. When he entered his apartment through a broken window and unlocked the door for us, he already had the New York print in hand. The glass had broken, but surprisingly the print was not damaged. It must have floated to the top of the water, because it had a foam backing, and floated back down when the water receded. We retrieved his record collection, but had to throw all of the album jackets away. The rest of his belongings were not salvageable.
We all have judgments of what a person must be like to live in the projects amid poverty and violence, but those images are not always accurate. This 200-year-old complex of buildings was home to many people. This gentle man of faith, standing beside us in his destroyed home, did not fit the stereotype. During the first day of our trip, he described the violence and what it was like to live in this neighborhood. I asked him what kept him from taking the path of violence he was describing. He said it was his faith in God. I witnessed that strong faith in most of the hundreds of people I encountered during the week I was there. The day we were going to his house to see what was left, he reached into his pocket and handed me a violet-colored plastic rosary. He told me some of these had been given to him in a shelter on his way out of New Orleans. He said it was blessed. You could tell it had been hand made. He had one around his neck and he had given one to his son. Now he was giving one to me. I could tell how much it meant to him. Because he believed it would protect me, I wore it for the rest of the trip and felt honored that he had given it to me.
As he drove us around the city of New Orleans, we saw various levels of destruction. He told us stories about his perspective and experiences in each of the places. Most neighborhoods looked like a war zone. Piles of trash lined the curbs, and in some places the smell of death still hung in the air so strong that we had to roll up the windows in the car. New, expensive houses in rich neighborhoods next to old houses in poor neighborhoods were made equal by the devastation of the storm. Everything lay in ruin.
Screaming for their lives
What struck me the most was his story the day Katrina hit. It was a story I heard many times in different variations. As the water rose in the housing development, he put his 15-year-old son, who couldn’t swim, on his back and took them to safety in the upper floor of one of the building. He said he could hear women and children screaming for their lives. He was able to save a couple of children before he had to stop, because the water was too high. People died around him. Twenty to 30 people huddled together in 100-degree heat for three days without food or water before boats rescued them and took them to a freeway overpass, where they stayed for five more days without food or water.
This is not an isolated story. One woman who came to the distribution center for food and supplies told me that she had been nine-months pregnant when Katrina hit. She tied a rope around her protruding belly and tied each of her three young children to the rope and swam to the Super Dome, where they stayed for five days. She worried about going into labor as the pressure of the water pushed against her as she swam. Her baby was born about 10 days later. She said her experience at the Super Dome was the worst thing she ever experienced in her life. She came to the distribution center to get diapers and food for her baby.
This is our nation’s poor, who have been neglected for a long time.
I believe Katrina was the earth’s way of not only cleansing but also revealing what was hidden. The sad thing is that New Orleans is not the only city in our country with poverty hidden in its midst. It is everywhere but goes unnoticed. I know this from 20 years of experience working with people who live in poverty. Prejudice and discrimination play a role in keeping poverty in place. I hope something good comes out of this catastrophic event.
The group I was with – 24 people working 12-hour days – made a tiny dent in the debris that was there, but I know we had an impact. People who have been forgotten discovered that people do care – and that is a beginning step in repairing the damage and rekindling hope.