Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The Night I Fell in Love with New Orleans


Last week's post about working for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance reminded me of one of the most dramatic times of my life.  I was managing the volunteer camp in New Orleans in August of 2008 when a hurricane formed in the Gulf of Mexico that forecasters said might be a powerful as Katrina.  It touched more than a few tender nerves in New Orleans and the mayor issued an mandatory evacuation order.  Mandatory. 

Except that it wasn't so simple for the PDA.  We were the volunteer construction workers' equivalent of a MASH hospital.  Built to be temporary and portable, I couldn't just get in my car and leave.  I had to take stuff with me.  Those two weeks of my life were probably the most dramatic and although I was part of a dozen plus team I was essentially alone. I wrote to keep myself company, to reassure myself that I was OK the way a small child sings in the dark.

On Thursday, August 28 I woke up to a flurry of emails on my BlackBerry.  Friends told me to check the weather.  I checked the weather channel, then the local weather, then CNN.  Then I went to a few websites.  They all showed a computer model looking like Katrina's twin headed straight toward us.  The following day would be the third anniverrsary of Katrina, the most destructive hurricane in US history.  And that night our camp would be hosting a huge party for the homeowners PDA had helped.

I got an email from my boss.  She told me to stock up on all the gasoline I could get my hands on then pack my bags and sit night.  Storms come and go this time of year.  The storm was named Fay and in retrospect, she did indeed die out.  But she would be followed by Gustav and then Ike.  What Gustav failed  to deliver,  Ike did and then some.

The boss told me to pack up the camp and open the Evacuation Kit. This perked me up.  I had been eyeing the Evacuation Kit for a long time. It was sealed which is reason enough to want to see what was inside and I just knew it would be full of food.  I was disappointed to find things like a hand-cranked weather radio, a first aid kit and some duct tape.

Our camp in New Orleans was less of a worry than the other six camps along the coast.  We were in an old church complex made of two brick buildings.  The other camps were strictly tents set up in a field.  Those were the most vulnerable.  Another crucial difference was that all of the camps were empty.  July and August, being the hottest months of the year left the camps mostly empty.  (Our prime months were spring when the college kids came. That was when we got the most work done.)

I didn't have to worry with taking care of volunteers.  As far as the building was concerned,  I didn't have to do much more than turn off the utilities,  tie down the portapotties and bring in the trash cans.  But that didn't mean I could leave everything in camp.  In my case, evacuation meant bringing all the electronics and files with me. I might leave the hammers but I still have to take the copier, fax and laptop and a file cabinet with data. I could leave the refrigerators but I had to empty all three of them and the two chest freezers.   

I found myself at the grocery store getting peanut butter and bread since I knew lunches on the road would be 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 janitor 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. 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. We left with 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.

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 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. The partnership with Project Homecoming was the best example of how disaster relief 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 we kept the party on a "go" status and 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!” under the stained glass cross in the dining room. 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 Trem√© 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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