The never ending day...

Saturday, March 13, 2010

We left for the airport around 2 am.  We couldn't check in until 4 so we all tried to take naps scattered about the airport.  Our flight left around 6 am and we landed in New York around 10 after a little turbulence.  I had no idea that we were getting hit by a huge storm. Yes, this was the same storm that made our week in New Orleans so difficult.   Our flight was was supposed to leave for Boston around 11:30 however when we got off the plane we saw that it was delayed until after 12.  This still wasn't too bad but we saw that the later flights to Boston were all canceled which should have warned us.  Looking out the windows we watched as incoming planes skidded across the runway and huge bins barreled across the ground outside.  The flight was again delayed until 5pm.  Finally after changing gates and a bit more delay our plane arrived.  While boarding I was shocked to feel the plane rocking back and forth, as if flying through turbulence filled air.  Buckling myself tightly, I waited.

Trying to get some sleep in JFK
By this time we had been up for 36 hours.  We taxied out and waited some more.  After a while the captain came on and said that legally this size plane could not take off in winds exceeding 55 mph and they were currently clocking in at 65 mph.   We waited until 8 in hopes of the wind dying down but it only got worse.  They brought us back to the gate and shortly after dropping us off they canceled the flight.  They told us they could not even get us our luggage because the winds were so severe if they tried to open the cargo bay they would compromise the structure of the plane.  Because we hadn't eaten since breakfast, Stonehill was nice enough to buy us all dinner at the airport and we all settled in at the food court.  Knowing it would be almost impossible to get us all on a flight together the next day our leaders looked for other ways of getting out of the city.  The storm had shut down the railroad system and we wouldn't all be able to fit on a public bus.  Finally around midnight we found a charter bus that was willing to come pick us.  I was in the back of the bus so I could not see out the front but those who could said they could not see more than 10 feet in front of the bus.  Around 3:30 (4:30 with daylight savings time) we made it back to Stonehill (the storm coming along with us).  After 46 hours of being awake and without my checked luggage, I made it home and fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

Last full day in New Orleans

Friday, March 12, 2010

Today was our last full day in New Orleans.  Luckily it was a beautiful day. We got out to the levee as early as possible.  Because we had covered so much land with trees previously we had to travel 5 miles along the levee before we could find fresh ground.  Unfortunately the tractor that took us out there could only travel 5 mph.  This means it took us a full hour from the time we got on the tractor until we reach the spot we were going to be working.  We planted trees until we ran out and then started our trek back until the tractor made it out to us.

Back at the campsite we had homemade jambalaya which I loved and also had a visit from a guest speaker.  The man that came to speak to us was Sgt. Marshall Pierre.  He was a security guard at Charity Hospital, located in the center of New Orleans.  When the storm hit they lost all power and were stranded.  They had hundreds of patients to care for and many needed someone to hand pump air to them.  The water quickly turned the hospital into an island.  Help was unable to reach the hospital for days and, risking his life from nearby gunfire, Pierre ventured out of the hospital to get some babies to safety.  During and after the storm he had a camera rolling and some of the footage was terrifying.  I again saw something that seemed to be a trend in those who survived the storm: complete optimism for the future and a love of life.  Meeting so many people like this really made me question the way I view the world and my influence in it.

Because we had to leave for our flight at 2am the next morning we stayed up for the night packing and enjoying our last hours in New Orleans.
Five miles of levee

Be nice mother nature

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Today, after days of the weather being against us, we were all ready to get back to work on the levee.  We did, however, have something else working against us; something called 'Southern Time'.  I knew people from the north supposedly moved and talked a lot faster than the people from the south but I never realized that our sense of time is totally different.  The first days we had gone to work we had to wait a while before getting out onto the levee but I assumed it just took some time getting things in order.  After waiting at the gates of the levee for 30 minutes we learned that the person with the key was going to be about an hour late.
Trash in the wetlands

We decided to go back out to the highway to pick up some trash but that, too, ended quickly.  Our leaders decided to take us back to the Lower 9th Ward to pick up some trash there.  It was interesting to be able to walk along the rows of destroyed, abandoned, or missing houses.  Unfortunately much of the trash we were picking up was lunch containers from construction workers.  I did find a child's backpack that I think may have been there since the storm.  While we were walking around we found a school bus parked along the side of the road.  While we initially thought that was someone's home we came to find out that it was actually a group called Everybody's Kitchen staying in New Orleans cooking meals for the needy.  There was a fully functioning kitchen inside the bus and they told us that they just travel around the country make over 300 meals a day.  This was their sixth trip (I believe) to New Orleans.  It was great to see that it is possible, even after school, to continue doing service and these people are doing some amazing work.

Swamp Tour!
After getting back on the bus and eating lunch we headed back for the levee.  Because the ground was so saturated we could not take the tractor out so we instead picked up trash along the closest parts of the levee.  It was amazing to see some of the things  that were pulled out of the water.  There were washing machines, boats, coolers, etc.  Most of these things ended up here after the storm.

After working for a couple of hours we split into two groups.  One group stayed behind to continue working while my group got back on the bus to go on a swamp tour.  This was what you picture when you think of a Louisianian swamp.  The hanging trees, snakes, and alligators were all there.  It was a pretty cool experience.

Because it took an hour to get to and from the levee while the other group took the swamp tour we visit one of the first forts built in America.  It was never actually used but it was fun to look around.

The French Quarter

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Oldest Bar in America
Anticipating another stormy day we decided to move our free day to Wednesday.  So, instead of working on the levees, we took a trip to the French Quarter.  While I was there I took a tour of the area on a mule drawn carriage and got my palm read by an only mildly sketchy street palm reader.  We spent the rest of the day walking around looking in voodoo shops and listening to the amazing music that was all around us.  It was really just a fun place to experience.  Before meeting back up with the group we found a flea market.  While looking around a man called us over to his booth and asked if he could recite us a poem.  While I don't remember what he said exactly I know it was called "Strength To Face The Day" and it was beautiful.  He said that he wasn't looking to sell us anything but just liked seeing smiles on people's faces.  Surprisingly, I believed him.  He asked us where we were from and what we were doing in New Orleans. We told him it was a service trip and he then read another poem that he wrote for all the people that came (and still come) to New Orleans to help the recovery.  It is amazing how positive so many people in New Orleans are even after everything they went through.

The French Quarter
After a few hours in the French Quarter we all met at the Imax theater to see "Hurricane On The Bayou."  This was a documentary that basically showed us the importance of the work we were doing.  Every 38 minutes Louisiana looses a football field of wet lands.  The film showed a side by side aerial view of the state in 1945 and 2005.  It was amazing how much smaller the state has become due to the loss of the wetlands.  After watching this we all felt bad about our complaints and we were all ready to do a full days work the next day.

After the movie we went to Bubba Gump's Shrimp Co.  for dinner.  I had fried shrimp which was delicious and the entire meal was very entertaining.  I even won a prize in Forrest Gump Trivia!

We somehow managed to escape any bad weather and made it back to the campground to get to bed early to rest for a long day of work.

We flew all this way to do the work convicts do back home?

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Tuesday was an interesting day for us.  During the previous day we noticed how much trash and debris still remained from the hurricane and we had asked if we could bring trash bag to help pick it up.  The forecast had a couple of huge storms predicted and not only would the tractor not be able to get us out onto the levee but there was also a chance of us getting struck by lightening.  So, instead of picking up debris from the storm, we were dropped off on the side of the highway to pick up trash lazy people threw out their windows.  It certainly was not the same as doing recovery work from the storm.  We were only out there for a little bit when the storm rolled in.  Since there was very little we could do, our leaders decided to take us on a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward.

The corner of the levee, up hill from the Lower 9th Ward
The Lower Ninth Ward is located just below the levee that holds back the Mississippi River.  This entire area is literally under the river and when the levee broke it quickly filled with water.  This is also one of the poorer communities in New Orleans and many of the people living there had no way of getting out before the storm hit. Of the 1,836 casualties throughout 7 states 1000 of them were in the Lower 9th Ward alone.  This area today is essentially a ghost town.  I, like many others, assumed that after five years the area would have been rebuilt however that is far from the truth.  There is an area of houses being built by the Make It Right foundation.  Brad Pitt is part of this organization and while it is doing some amazing work, it seems to be creating a false sense of accomplishment.  There is still so much work to be done.  Entire blocks are now just concrete slabs that were once house.  It's difficult to imagine why so many people wouldn't come back to rebuild but when you see how close the community is to the levee that failed it becomes clear.  These people could not manage to find a way out and it would be even more difficult to find a way back in when they have no where to go when they get here.

What was once a neighborhood, now overgrown
It was very difficult to imagine what this area could have looked like before the storm because so much has been overrun by plants and trash.  While there were some houses that have been rebuilt or repaired, most of the houses that are still standing are just empty shells.  Most of these houses still have the "X"s on them.  These x's were spray painted on by the search parties.  They showed the date it was searched, which group searched it, and if any bodies or toxic waste was found inside.  I started to imagine my own neighborhood in this situation and it made it all the more devastating.  What's worse is that, although this was one of the worst hit areas, it was only one of many that were completely devastated by the storm.  In the hour drive it took to get from our campsite to the levee almost all of the land we covered had been underwater.  So much has been rebuilt and repairs but there is still so much devastation.

After our look at the Lower 9th we attempted to pick up some more trash on the highway, however the weather was still against us. Because we knew we were not going to get a lot of work in today our leaders planned to have us visit a school in the area.  None of us really knew what to expect.  We visited Our Lady of the Holy Cross, another school in the Holy Cross community.  It was amazing how much this school reminded me of Stonehill.  That "Holy Cross" atmosphere was definitely there.  We met with Father Anthony, the president of the school.  He began working at the school just a week or two before the storm hit.  He shared his amazing story that sounded more like it came from a movie than a real person.  He was stuck in a church building for days, eating the host to survive.  The entire first floor of the building he was in was flooded and, after realizing help was not coming, they had to hold their breath, swim down, and break out a window to escape.  They reached the church where there was a crowd of people huddled, hoping for rescue.  When help finally arrived, many people refused to leave unless they could take their pets with them.  Fr. Anthony was able to get onto a boat and was taken to the Superdome. While on their way there two people asked those in the the boat to take their sick grandfather with them.  After pulling him into the boat and continuing on the man died.  Fr. Anthony spent two and a half days in the Superdome without food or water.  There was thousands of people there with no working bathrooms or air conditioning.  Finally, after surviving near riots in the dome, he was able to get out and make it to Texas.  After only a few weeks, however, he was back in New Orleans to help rebuild.
The "X" on the houses

Hearing his, and others, experiences was amazing.  At one point Fr. Anthony said that Hurricane Katrina was the best experience of his life.  Not because he enjoyed what happened, but it made him realize what was truly important in life.  Because we were not doing the work we had expected many of us, until this point, we slightly disappointed in our experience.  We had fundraised all this money to help the people of New Orleans and we ended up planting little trees and picking up trash on the highway?  After speaking to the people at Our Lady of the Holy Cross, however, we all gained a renewed desire to do what ever we could to help.  While we may not be helping people today, hopefully 50 years from now the trees we planted would be able to prevent devastation like this from happening again.  Most of us left the school in tears and it was definitely an experience I will never forget.

Day One Of Work

Monday, March 8, 2010

After a rough night we had to wake up bright and early.  While my mother laughed at me for calling 6 am early, as a college kid it was painful.  I ate my cereal and instant coffee and before I could wipe the sleep from my eyes we were on a bus and off to the levee. 

When I originally chose to come to New Orleans with HOPE I assumed that, like previous years, we were going to be demolishing/repairing house.  This year however the work was a little different.  Before people populated the New Orleans area the Mississippi River would flood it's banks every year, bringing silt and fertile soil to the land.  This caused acres of wetlands to develop.  These wetlands acted as a natural barrier when storms hit.  For every mile of wetlands a hurricane hit it would decrease significantly in size.  When people arrived, however, they only saw the Mississippi as a threat and built levees and canals to control it's power.  This prevented the soil from getting to the wetlands and eventually much of these important wetlands died off.  In an attempt to restore the wetlands that have been destroyed my school, in conjunction with the National Relief Network, set about planting trees along the water.  Although we were not making the direct impact we thought we were going to, hopefully 50 years from now these trees will protect New Orleans from getting hit again by such devastating storms. 

What was once wetlands... now just muddy land.
What the wetlands should look like.
Other groups had been out working in the week prior to us so we had to load 60+ people into a trailer and get driven a few miles down the levee system to begin planting.  While doing all of this we also had to be wary of alligators and snakes that lurked around the area.  Luckily it was overcast and they don't come out often in that weather.  We ended up planting so quickly on the first day that they ran out of trees to give us.  It also started to rain so with hundreds of trees planted we left a little early.  Because this stretch of levee was made out of earth they would not be able to drive the tractor out to get us if the ground was too wet so we were forced to leave a little early.

It took about an hour to drive from our work site to our campsite and by the time we made it home all we had in mind was food and showers.  After some reflection and bonding games we got to bed (after miraculously finding the heat!)

Welcome To Who Dat Nation!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Day 1 of New Orleans:

We woke up bright and early Sunday morning at Stonehill with a long day ahead of us.  I've never flown from Boston to New York but the flight was so short it felt silly.  Of course because we had such a short flight we had to make up for it somewhere.  We had a lovely four hour layover to follow.  It wasn't too bad.  I bought a book and settled in.  The flight from New York to New Orleans was a little longer but still seemed like almost nothing.  We got into New Orleans around 6 but had to drive from the airport on one far side of the city to Westwego, on the other side of the city.  We were staying at Bayou Segnette State Park.  We arrived to find that we would be working with a group from the University of Connecticut.  The girls from each group would have their own cabins and the boys would share one. 

After having dinner we explored the park in the dark in an attempt to find armadillos, alligators, or any other fascinating Louisianan creature we don't get to see at home.  We failed. By then it was pretty late so we all settled in for some much needed rest.  Although we were in the south, it was still a pretty cool night and we did not realize that the air conditioning was on in the cabin.  This led to a rough night of shivering.

Girls cabin