Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Night I Fell in Love with New Orleans

I couldn’t let the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina pass without my own take on it.

I wasn’t there during the storm but I was there on the third anniversary when another hurricane was bearing down on us. This one was projected to be as strong as Katrina and the levees still weren’t finished. I had a front-row seat to their reaction to yet another hurricane. And I found these people are like no other I’ve ever seen. I figure what I saw that night was the soul of New Orleans.

I was managing the volunteer village that housed volunteers coming to work on the rebuilding in New Orleans. That week was going to be easy duty for me. We didn’t have volunteers due for another couple of weeks and the camp was empty. My only function was to keep the grass mowed and the place looking occupied. Our partner agency, Project Homecoming, had asked to use our building for a party to mark the third anniversary of Katrina. And, even then, they would do all the work for the party. My weekend looked looking fairly relaxing.

But on the morning of the party, I turned on the TV in the lounge and saw the weather report on CNN. I went out and got the newspaper off the lawn. Then checked all the local TV stations. Then clicked back to CNN, then the Weather Channel. Then I got a phone call from my friend, Dallas. A hurricane was headed straight for us. She told me to go to Weather Underground on the Internet, but it was no different from what I had seen on TV. They all showed a computer model looking like Katrina’s twin headed straight for us and I remembered it was August 29, the day we were supposed to be hosting a party.

I got a call from our logistics manager. He told me to pack up for an evacuation. He would come later that evening to strap down the new shower trailer and get the camp’s second truck. Then I would follow him in my own car to Gulfport to the PDA camp there. This is where the entire staff would gather and possibly go north to a church in Meridian, Mississippi, our pre-determined evacuation site. It made me feel good to know that there was a plan for us and all we had to do was follow the plan. We had a huge and detailed manual with one whole section on just this event. I didn’t need to think. All I had to do was read the manual and do what it said.

I started packing up the office files and anything electronic, including the car chargers for them all. I started going down the checklist. When it came time to pack my personal things, I didn’t think of taking much. Most of my things were easily replaced; a good chance to buy new clothes. But it was a very sobering feeling to look at my possessions with new eyes and think I might never see some of them again.

Then I got an e-mail on my BlackBerry from the volunteer village coordinator, my boss. She told me to stock up on all the gasoline I could get my hands on, pack my bag, then get out the Evacuation Kit and check it. I had never been given permission to as much as touch the gigantic gray plastic tub before. The Evacuation Kits were almost sacred and everyone knew not to touch it until we were told to. It contained hand sanitizer, a fire extinguisher, rope and tarp, paper plates, a first aid kit and a week’s worth of MREs. I went and gassed up the car and truck. Our shed already had about 10 five-gallon cans of gasoline courtesy the previous village manager who loved to stay prepared. I found myself at the grocery store getting peanut butter and bread since I knew lunches would be on the road and sporadic at best. I came to the ice cream section and knew I wanted my favorite comfort food that night. The only decision became what flavor of ice cream is best for a hurricane evacuation. Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia, of course. One pint. One spoon. I had never evacuated from a hurricane before but I didn’t see any reason to let it ruin my appetite.

The first time I went to New Orleans was in the spring of 2005, about five months before Katrina. When Beaven worked at WFAA television station in Dallas, their parent company owned the television station in New Orleans. He went there a couple of times to visit the WWL-TV station. I had never been to New Orleans and asked him if we could go sometime. But his answer was always, “Oh, you don’t want to go there. It’s dangerous and dirty and the crime is so bad the porter carries a gun with him when he takes the trash out.” But I’m never one to give up. I started planning a trip there with our daughter, who thought it was a neat idea. I can’t remember if I told her about the guy who carries a gun with him to take out the trash.

Once Beaven found out what we were planning he decided to come with us. I’m still not sure if he just didn’t want to miss out on the fun or if he thought he needed to protect us. We had a great time. Yes, it was dirty and had a slightly dangerous feeling to it. Kind of like Disneyland with an edge. I never felt like I needed to have a gun with me but we did have the traditional Sunday morning experience of walking down Bourbon Street and smelling vomit on the sidewalks.

About the most interesting thing we did was light a candle for the Pope in St. Louis Cathedral. The weekend we were in town was the weekend the pope lay dying in Vatican City. I figured the cathedral would be packed but it wasn’t. Even that was a kind of a let-down. We had pretty much a “been there, done that” feeling, and I went home satisfied that I would probably never visit the city of New Orleans again.

And now, through God’s special sense of humor, I was living there.

I was packing the refrigerators for the evacuation when Terry came by. Terry was a homeless guy who visited the camp once or twice a week.

By the time I had to evacuate the camp for Hurricane Gustav I guess I’d seen Terry three or four times. He didn’t come every day but when he did come he was obviously hungry. He didn’t mince words but was polite in his request for something to eat. We had become pretty comfortable with each other by then. I knew he didn’t like peanut butter but didn’t care at all whether he had mustard or mayonnaise on his ham sandwich. I knew he preferred water to fruit drinks, but what he really appreciated was having ice in his water. For the first couple of visits he told me the same story about not being able to find work. And I knew he had horror stories from being in New Orleans during Katrina. I had to wonder how much damage Katrina had done to his mind. He told me that it changed him.

One of the things on the evacuation checklist was to pack up the food. This sounds pretty easy until you understand that our camp had three refrigerators and three big freezers. I could leave the staples in the pantry but I had to pack up all the frozen food and go through the refrigerators item by item. Keep or throw? Keep or throw?

I was elbow deep in the salad dressings when Terry came by. I was throwing food away left and right. Opened packages of lunch meat, hamburger buns, breakfast muffins. Terry had hit the mother lode. As I started bagging up stuff for him we realized he wouldn’t be able to carry it all. I thought I might just leave him a stash in a box outside the camp and he could help himself. But then I stopped cold. I went limp bending into the refrigerator and stood up, “Terry, where will you go?” They were predicting a hurricane as dangerous as Katrina. He had no shelter other than the van he was living in. He told me he wasn’t leaving.

"But you have to leave", I told him. There was a mandatory evacuation. He had to go. His life was in danger. After all, that’s why I was going wasn’t it? Everyone needed to get out of New Orleans. Every time he gave me a negative answer all I could think of to say was, “You have to go.” I wondered if PDA would let him come with me but immediately knew they wouldn’t. I knew better than to even ask. Or maybe I was afraid to ask. Maybe I was afraid they would say yes. Homeless people can be complicated. But I’ve come to appreciate that Christianity, when done correctly, is just very complicated. The conversation came to a standoff, and my guilt was enormous. I gave him as much food as he could carry and he left. As he walked out the door into the coming storm, I was sure that I would never see Terry again. And, even worse, I would never know what happened to him.

I couldn’t dwell on Terry too long because I had to finish packing. Project Homecoming called to ask if the camp would still be available for their party that night. This was an agency we partnered with. It was birthed by a set of grants a Presbyterian minister wrote. It was a combined effort of PDA and the Presbytery of South Louisiana and they were a perfect fit for what we did. While we took care of the volunteers, Project Homecoming supervised the work. In all my many exposures to PDA, the partnership with Project Homecoming was the best example of how it can be done.

Julie Bynong, the Project Coordinator for the organization, was worried that nobody would show up for the party and with good reason. The city was supposed to be leaving. There would be a mandatory evacuation order the next day. There was even a city-wide ban on parties that night. Everybody was supposed to be home packing instead of partying. But Julie and her staff arrived later that day and for the next few hours our parking lot was witness to the most surreal of sights.

As I carried boxes of electronics and office equipment out the door and into my truck the Project Homecoming people brought in boxes of door prizes and helium balloons. As I carried coolers of food out the building they brought in coolers of iced drinks and salads. While I tied down the port-a-potties and moved the trashcans indoors they put up a huge banner that read, ”Recover, Rebuild, Rejoice!” All the while there was a jazz band tuning up in the parking lot. Then people started coming. Some came with a covered dish of their best casserole or dessert. Some brought their children or grandchildren. All ages and shapes and colors came. And all appeared happy and lighthearted. No one appeared concerned.

We ended up with between 40 and 50 people, all of whom had been able to move back into their homes through the work of Project Homecoming and PDA. I went outside to call Wilf and his crew for dinner. They were strapping the new shower trailer with hurricane straps.

We ate fried chicken, salads and desserts. We laughed and complimented each other on what great folks we are to be here and doing what we’re doing. Whether we were volunteers who had helped rebuild or survivors who wouldn’t quit the town, all were congratulated for the past three years of simply hanging in there. Sometimes just hanging in there is a great accomplishment. And we celebrated that.

The Tremé Neighborhood band settled in on the chancel side of the room under the stained glass cross. The band was made of about six or seven old guys in old uniforms who I could tell were veterans of many a Mardi Gras parade. On dented and tarnished horns that either survived Katrina or were gifted to replace the ones the storm took, they blew out sounds that brazenly heralded the motto for New Orleans, “Laissez les Bon Temps Roller.” Our conversations had to either wait for a quiet spell or be shouted louder to be heard.

Finally, the band started playing “Second Line,” the Mardi Gras tune that traditionally calls the parade watchers to join the band and march along with them. Everyone stood at the first note of the trumpet and gathered a napkin. The lady sitting across from me pulled her mother’s wheelchair out from under the table and joined the line. We started dancing, strolling, shrugging, dipping, parading around the room, all in rhythm to the sound. Older women showed us how to wave a white handkerchief while we danced. Like a loving grandmother convinced that a child would catch on eventually, they showed us we could use a napkin if we didn’t have a handkerchief. This was the Big Easy at play. The people whose philosophy is “Let the Good Times Roll.”

Gradually, people came to get their empty casserole pan and apologize for leaving, saying they had to go home to pack their things to evacuate. We hugged. One weathered old black man named Rodney looked me straight in the eyes and told me how much he appreciated everything we had done for him and that I was always welcome at his house if I ever needed anything. Then he gave me his address—slowly and clearly so I could remember it, and I knew his hospitality was genuine.

They trickled out into the night. That’s the night I fell in love with New Orleans.

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