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.

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