On our first day in New Orleans we visited the Louisiana State Museum located in the historic French Quarter. The two exhibits that resonated with me the most were “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” and “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana.” The first provided me with a lot of the history of Louisiana and its experiences with hurricanes in the past. The subdued lighting, wind, and news reports playing in the background helped give a sense of the chaos that was occurring during the storm. It was interesting to learn about the science behind the hurricane, but also the human errors that made it worse. Levees were not constructed correctly, rescue operations were inefficient, and there was miscommunication among city officials and the media.
I also gained some insight into how citizens banded together to support one another in the face of such destruction. I liked that the underlying theme of the exhibit was the idea of resiliency. Despite the havoc Katrina wrought, people coped with humor or by making signs with phrases like “we are coming back.” The museum had a display of some really powerful artifacts including banners and a garage door with an x that firefighters would use to mark that they had checked the house. There were also seats from the Superdome where many sought shelter, and Fats Domino’s piano from his flooded Ninth Ward home. One of the most moving displays was a video montage of residents describing the physical and emotional devastation the storm brought and how this affected them personally. It ended on a positive note, however, by describing the cultural traditions that have continued to be symbols of positivity and hope for the city. Many of the citizens commented upon the history, the food, and the diverse group of people that make the city so special.
It was interesting to juxtapose this somber exhibition with the more festive one on Mardi Gras. The museum displayed some really elaborate costumes, ball gowns, and crown jewels from the various carnivals. This exhibit was really informative for me because before this trip I had a misconstrued idea of what the festival entailed. While I always associated it with drinking and partying, the festival is actually very family oriented and definitely not as crazy as it is portrayed in the media. Ornate floats and marching bands are showcased in parades, and families gather to barbecue while children sit in ladders with built in seats to watch the festivities.
Overall, the museum provided me with an in depth environmental explanation of Katrina, the human failures that occurred, and how the city began the recovery process. I liked that the exhibit mixed in some positive aspects as well. For example, it displayed costumes made from blue tarps used to cover roof damage after the storm. The resilience and celebratory nature of the culture were also reflected in the Mardi Gras exhibit which gave a taste of the history and traditions that make it so unique.
Samantha Greenspun, a Gettysburg alum, was able to meet up with the group to lead a tour around New Orleans. Sam, who graduated from Gettysburg College in 2005, came to New Orleans to work with a nonprofit organization that works with the Latino community in the area. She currently is attending Tulane to receive her PhD studying social justice in the Latino community. We first visited the new Louisiana Public Heath building that was under construction. It was massive and took up multiple city blocks. She then brought us to Charity Hospital that was closed after the hurricane, due to flooding and vandalism. The hospital shut down for financial reasons in spite of an effort to keep the hospital open as a community landmark. It is the birthplace of the lower income residents surrounding the area as well as celebrities from the city. It is also the staple of healthcare for the uninsured. It was strange to see a developing construction site across the street from the abandoned old buildings. There seemed to be a gap in the middle of the city.
She also discussed the culture of New Orleans with us. We learned about the similarities to Haitian culture, including shotgun homes and serving red beans and rice on Mondays. We also learned about the vast network of plantations that still stand today and the mausoleums that are necessary to prevent sinking remains. The importance of the neighborhood affiliation and community for many residents and their own identity made the flooding in certain areas even more devastating.
We went to the Lower Ninth Ward, which was one of the hardest hit neighborhoods within New Orleans. To discuss the effects of Katrina, we parked within the neighborhood and then walked to the top of a grassy hill. It came to many of the group as a surprise that we were standing on top of a levee. Many expected a giant cement wall, but instead it was a grassy mound. On the levee, we learned about the division within the neighborhood and the distrust between the seventh, eighth, and ninth ward and the rest of the city. We drove around the neighborhood and saw the gaps in neighborhood and many overgrown areas. We discussed some challenges associated with trying to rebuild, including failed community gardens and the Make It Right Organization. We visited a park with information about the Make it Right Organization, founded by Brad Pitt and a few of the foundations that used to exist in the area. Among the group we discussed our surprise about the similarities of poverty to Gettysburg and our own hometowns. It became clear that the issues of poverty were not created by Katrina but merely highlighted.
I have a new respect for carpenters. Honestly, I didn’t think it would be so difficult to cut a piece of wood correctly. Today at the St. Bernard Project we finished applying a second coat to all of the rooms by 11am. Since we were going to be at the house for the rest of the day we broke up into groups and either worked on base boarding or windows.
When the two people who worked for St. Bernard Project were demonstrating how to do these tasks it seemed really easy. But it turned out to be rather difficult. Measuring angles and distances was more challenging than I imagined. The worst part of it all was when you realized you made an irreparable mistake and had to start all over again—then consequently walking in shame back down the stairs with a long piece of wood that didn’t quite fit.
However, by the end of the day everyone seemed to have learned from many of their mistakes and everyone started to make real progress. In away that is a lot like the city of New Orleans. After Katrina the city of New Orleans was devastated and after nine years the city still hasn’t fully recovered. But in the last few years there has bee substantial progress and there is an increasing amount of liveliness in the city. People are learning that the lesser-known problems, like the lack of a central local hospital or the receding swamps, are often the most important issues. Working on the house was long, difficult, and tiring but in the end it was worth it.
For the last three days of the trip, our group spent our mornings and afternoons tirelessly working to rebuild a home for a man named Harold and his family who desperately needed and truly deserved it. With the generous aid of the St. Bernard Project (SBP), we painted walls as well as measured, cut, and installed decorative trim to make the once devastated house look, once again, like a place to live. In this effort we hope to return a sense of normalcy to a family that has been without it for nearly a decade. Believe it or not, Harold and his family were actually one of the lucky ones who were chosen by the SBP. Driving down the very same neighborhood it was less than a rarity to see houses similarly ravaged by Hurricane Katrina but which lacked the support from an outside party. Nine years later and there are still many homes that look just as they did after the storm, if not worse. It is truly amazing that after all that time there is still so much to be done.
While there are obvious issues concerning the sustainability of rebuilding houses that remain in such “hurricane hotspots,” the work we did felt necessary nonetheless. Until a fundamental change in both environmental and governmental policies take place to make sure such a travesty doesn’t simply take down every effort to rebuild from the previous one, there will remain skepticism about the value of organizations such as SBP. To families like Harold’s however, the work we did was absolutely essential regardless of its sustainability.
The construction work, cutting trim specifically, seemed an especially good way of providing benefit for everyone involved. It helps the host family in the most obvious way, the site managers by giving them work and a sense of giving, and us volunteers by teaching us a useful skill that many of us might not otherwise learn. Measuring and cutting base board was a task unlike any I’ve done before with tedious math and trial and error techniques that proved exhausting yet rewarding. I was trusted with power tools that gave me a real sense of responsibility and leadership. The whole thing was much more rewarding than I could have imagined especially when looking back and seeing that what I truly enjoyed doing the most was the hard work. This trip got me excited to do more like it through Gettysburg and elsewhere. At the risk of sounding cliché, I felt like a new wall in my life was being put up that I didn’t have there before.