New Orleans destruction astonishing

Reid Stratton

I went to New Orleans for spring break with about 40 other Lawrentians on a trip organized by Alison Miller. We went to volunteer at Emergency Communities, an organization that has a kitchen and distribution center set up in St. Bernard Parish.
We’re not talking about your typical kitchen. This one is under a tent, and the dining room is in a huge semi-temporary dome. The whole operation is set up in the parking lot of an off-track betting facility.
The kitchen serves three meals a day, and usually dishes out some 2,000 plates of food every day. They also coordinate several projects in the area, from gutting houses to cleaning the riverfront.
While we were at the kitchen there were about 250 volunteers, including ourselves, though there are typically only about 50 volunteers at any given time. The influx came from groups like ours: college students who went to New Orleans over their spring break.
Everyone sleeps in tents in a field behind the kitchen. Because there were so many people there during our stay we had to expand our shanty village into “the back forty,” which comes furnished with a beer keg tied to trees, to be ridden like a bucking bronco.
St. Bernard Parish is technically not in New Orleans, but instead just a few minutes to the southeast of the city. This area was covered in water for days following Katrina and the breaching of the levees. Among the water that inundated the city was oil that leaked out from a local oil refinery, and countless other chemicals that came from households and industrial buildings alike. Seven months after the hurricane the area is still considered to be highly toxic.
Our group was actually introduced to New Orleans by way of Waveland, MS, a town right on the Gulf Coast that caught the eye of Katrina. We stopped by the waterfront for lunch before we ever got to New Orleans, and were introduced to far more damage than I had ever considered possible.
As we drove through town and down to the coast one could see the effects of the hurricane get more and more severe. Collapsed buildings, gnarled trees and FEMA trailers greeted us, but as we got closer to the water the buildings became fewer and fewer. This is because many of the houses were completely obliterated, with nothing but the foundation left to show there were ever houses there at all. The closest thing to a house you’ll find on the coast is a house that is missing its first floor, taken by a wall of water into the ocean.
Driving through the New Orleans area proved a similar experience. Coming in on the freeway I saw a sea of blue tarps tacked down to the damaged roofs of many homes. Other homes were flattened, missing walls, or roofs. All the homes had a large X spray-painted on them, along with a few numbers and letters. These signified the date that these homes had been inspected, the initials of the company doing the inspection, and how many bodies were found in the house.
Working at the kitchen was fun at times, but it was still work. Duties included serving meals, preparing and cooking the food, washing dishes, helping to distribute donated goods, and generally keeping things clean. At times, however, these kinds of everyday tasks, removed from the damaged and confused city around us, made it easy to forget what it was all about: the residents.
Indeed, it was clear very quickly how much this kitchen means to the residents who eat there. The most important part of the trip to me was eating with residents and hearing their stories. All I had to do was sit next to someone and ask, “How are you doing today?” or “How long have you lived in the parish?” and I would get their life story.
Perhaps the most heartbreaking story was told by a man and his mother my first full day at Emergency Communities. This man was in his kitchen when a nearby levee burst open and a wall of water smashed into the front of his house. He was pinned against the wall of his kitchen as the water rushed in, but struggled his way into his attic. The water continued to rise and he climbed onto the roof, but the water continued to rise. A police helicopter flew by but refused to pick him up. He decided to swim to the local school, which was not covered in water, but it was locked. He then turned to swim to the nearby sugar factory, which was also partially above water.
This man had to struggle against the current to get to the factory and quickly became tired. Before he drowned, however, a stranger in a boat picked him up and took him to the factory. Others also came to the factory over the next day or so. Eventually police came, but didn’t rescue anyone. Instead they brought some food and gave guns to this man and some other people. The police instructed him to shoot and kill anyone who tried to harm anyone or take their rations.
There was indeed a confrontation after a few days. A group of men from another neighborhood came to take this group’s food. The factory group offered to give some food, but these men insisted on all of it. Guns were raised, but no one was shot. After 10 days the people in this factory were finally rescued.
Even now it is difficult for me to imagine how a situation could arise like that in a major city of America.
As for the current state of New Orleans, all I can say is that it’s worse than you think. I went down to New Orleans expecting to see what I’ve been reading about: a city that is rebuilding. It’s not true though. New Orleans isn’t rebuilding because New Orleans has barely begun to clean up. Every street you drive by has huge piles of garbage in the streets because most areas don’t have any money for waste removal. A tiny percentage of the residents of St. Bernard Parish have even returned to their homes to clean them up, which in itself is a huge process.
Because every home was soaked in toxic water for days and left to sit for months, black mold has taken over the city. This has caused respiratory problems in practically every resident, and great care must be taken by those gutting houses.
I had the chance to work in a house for a couple of days, and found that to be the most rewarding work I did while in New Orleans. The first step is to remove all the belongings of the residents. The couches and large pieces of furniture are carried out, but much of the belongings are simply shoveled up and tossed in a wheelbarrow. I found myself shoveling up piles of clothes, photo albums, and stuffed animals – the remnants of a past life.
After that you’ve got to take out the washing machine, the bathtub, the fridge and so on. The fridge we got rid of was on its side, and after picking it up to carry it out it began leaking water. Seven-month-old Katrina water that has been sitting with decomposing food – it was the most foul thing I can ever remember smelling. I thought I was going to vomit in my mask.
After that the rest is easy: tear down the drywall, the ceiling, the insulation, the floorboards, the light fixtures, and anything else that might have mold in it. Last, the entire house is sprayed with bleach. After all that, you can begin the long process of rebuilding your house. This process must be undergone in every house that was flooded.
And so, while our group left its small impression on St. Bernard Parish, the city needs so much more help. I urge each of you to find some small way to help the residents of New Orleans. While the government is trying to assist these residents, Emergency Communities has shown that individuals can do so much more to aid the Katrina relief effort than any bureaucracy can.
Learn more about Emergency Communities at