If you have read my book you saw a whole chapter on “The Perfect Camp.” It’s all about the magical time I spent with Colleen O’Toole as co-managers of the Volunteer Village in New Orleans.
Colleen is a chick after my own heart and we had a lot of fun working together. She has been on her own special journey of non-profit service organizations and recently came full-circle and is back at our old camp in New Orleans. When PDA asked her to come back for another few months she invited me to visit.
Funny how quickly my priorities lined up. I immediately started planning which of my favorite restaurants I wanted to visit.
I got there Thursday just in time for Neighbor Night. That one had always been my favorite night in camp. I missed the meal but got in on the introductions. This is the night when the volunteers invite the homeowners they’ve been working for to share a meal and fellowship. I will never forget two years ago the guy who told me that if I ever needed anything I could ask him for help. Then he gave me his address—slowly so I could understand and remember it. And I knew it wasn’t an empty promise. I was startled at how little the camp had changed in the two years I had been gone. It was like I had never left the place. It felt like putting on a comfortable old sweater. I found I could navigate the camp in the dark, I remembered it so well. Colleen was even staying in my old trailer. I put my air mattress down in the little empty space by the bathroom and felt right at home. Saturday morning when she saw me exit the trailer and head across the parking lot with a cup of coffee in my hand she was startled by the sense of deju vu it gave her.
One of the things I'd like to do today if you will permit me is show pictures of the camp. Pardon me if this is boring. The next couple of pictures are for St Andrews Presbyterian Church in Kilmarnock, Virginia. They designed and built a shower trailer for the camp. I want to show them how their work is holding up.
The showers are in mint condition:
The special technique Paul Ryan used to curve the wall where it meets the floor has eliminated any problem with mold.
We did the yardwork Saturday morning with me on the John Deere, Sarah (the new co-manager) behind the push mower and Colleen on the weed-whacker. Then we planted a vegetable garden in containers outside the kitchen door. Sarah Bierschwale and Colleen O'Toole
Then all three of us went to Mona’s—my favorite mid-Eastern restaurant.
Mardi Gras beads still hung from the trees like Christmas tree ornaments.
After a little shopping on Magazine Street Colleen took me on a tour of what’s new in the recovery work.
There has been a lot of progress. But much remains to do. In four months we’ll reach five years since the storm. How do you completely rebuild a major city that is also one of the oldest in America? Slowly. Slowly, but surely. There are plenty of houses that remain untouched. Two doors from the PDA camp on Read Blvd in East New Orleans the house gets mowed maybe once a year. The owners are elderly and staying either with family or in a nursing home. The neighbors call the city periodically but get little response. Last week they found a snake in the yard. There are other houses that stay mowed but are clearly empty since the power line to the house has been cut and wires dangle down the pole. I’m not sure how they decide who gets mowed and who doesn’t. The East New Orleans neighborhood where the PDA camp is located looks tidy for the most part.
It’s still in better shape than some houses. Those houses have not only thick weeds and vines—I’ve seen whole trees sprout up in the unkempt yards. And then there are the yellow vines. Two years ago I got a picture of a house that was engulfed by vines. It remains both the most beautiful and at the same time the most horrific thing I’ve seen in the town. The blanket of yellow flowers looks like a soft blanket has been gently lain over the whole house. But you can’t get that degree of thick vines without total neglect. I saw even more of these houses from the freeway but never had a chance to photograph them.
Having said all that, I also saw great progress.
The Make It Right Nine project headed mostly by Brad Pitt has built a whole neighborhood of sustainable and solar powered homes. Each house is unique and many look very modern with great angles.
I thought the angles made the houses look very futuristic but suspect it was so the solar panels got maximum sun. However, there were some touches that I’d swear were just for drama. Great swooping metal curves along the roof lines of a few houses whose purpose escaped me.
Some of the other neighborhoods were simply freshly rebuilt small houses and tidy yards. Everything looked very clean and new. Even the sky cooperated for these photos.
Then, just as Colleen was marveling “This is a real neighborhood now” I spotted the best example of recovery I could hope for: a group of about 15 people were playing volleyball in a yard. I took a great video but I'm having trouble downloading it.
After my Grand Tour I went off in search of my real reason to travel eight hours: Zapp's Potato chips. Louisiana is about the only place you can find them. Some speciality shops in Dallas carry them but you have to know where to shop. In New Orleans I could find them at just about any grocery store. And they have a new line of Sweet Potato chips.
Next week I'll tell you about my visit to Pearlington. So many adventures and so few words!