Heather was the Village Manager at Pearlington after I left, and during the evacuation from Gustav. (This is one of the interesting shorthands of our "club": we speak in terms of hurricane names.) Heather is one of those folks who stayed behind after their Katrina work--she got involved with the Lagniappe Presbyterian Church, moved to Bay St Louis, went to grad school in Mississippi and now works as a librarian for the Hancock County Library system in Bay St Louis and Waveland. She took the day off to spend with us.
Our intention was to spend our morning working on a house but when we got to the house, there was no work to be had. The crew only needed us to get out of their way so they could finish up.
So we took a little tour of the Ninth Ward. And we ran into so many upbeat and positive people I started to suspect someone was paying people to walk around saying nice things about New Orleans.
We saw a lot of new houses. That was to be expected. We saw some old houses, houses that have sat untouched from ten years ago. Overgrown lots with signs declaring fees would be assessed for violations of city codes. We saw houses with the familar FEMA circles. The circles made a diary of that month because each mark contained the date the house was entered. Every house in New Orleans had been entered and checked after Katrina.
But there were fewer FEMA circles that I had expected to see. Yes, it is ten years later. But some of these houses are tangled up in title legalities that would exhaust the Supreme Court. There were more freshly painted older houses than I had expected.
We went to the Brad Pitt "Make It Right Nine" neighborhood. I had visited this neighborhood before and there were even more brand new houses now. Solar roofed, energy efficient, sustainable housing built to last and each one unique. We stopped at one of the outdoor "museums" they've put up around town, which is basically just big information boards telling stories of levees or the ecology around town.
This poster with its "You are here." mark shows a multi-thousand ton barge (the long red rectangle) that wasn't tied up correctly and broke through the London St canal. The levee never had a chance. Levees broke for different reasons. There was no one single cause of the horror.
A man came by showing a couple of people around. He told us there had been some bad materials used in the Make It Right houses. He called it "Chinese sheetrock." (We would hear of the Chinese sheetrock several times more that week.) He said it was toxic and corrosive and molded. And he said the Brad Pitt foundation came in and replaced it in all their homes. I guess "Make It Right" really did mean that. Made me feel good.
Then we drove to another neighborhood and found a construction crew putting in a fenced in greenhouse for an outfit that planned to grow lettuce for restaurants. They were running the water lines and putting down the dirt while we watched and talked. It seemed like everywhere we looked somebody was doing something new and innovative.
Then to cap the tourist experience, we stopped at the Gumbo Shop for the best gumbo I've ever had in my life. And bread pudding. Yes. Thank you, Jesus.
Around mid-afternoon, we went to a Catholic church to help set up for a big dinner Project Homecoming was putting on. After Katrina, Presbyterian Disaster Assistance made an initial commitment to stay for seven years. We worked in tandem with Project Homecoming for a while and when we pulled out they took over what we had been doing. It is loosely connected to the church but has more freedom as a 501c(3). We like to say that the Presbyterians may not be the first on the scene after a disaster but we are the last to leave.
Out of all the K10 celebration plans no one had put any thought into a city-wide volunteer appreciation dinner until only a month before. They had gone from 100 RSVPs to 300 overnight and it was "All Hands On Deck" time. They may not have needed us to help with a house but they did need us to help set up for the dinner.
I had never set tables for 300 people before and let me say: it makes you dizzy. Going clockwise around the table, setting for ten places: fork,fork,fork,fork,fork,fork,fork,fork,fork,fork. Next table, again clockwise: fork, fork, fork, fork...etc. Do that 30 times. Clockwise each time, (because that's the way I am). Then napkins. And spoons.
Then when folks arrived, Heather and John and I ended up being the drinks servers since there were three of us and three kinds of drinks: water, tea and lemonade. It was the closest I've ever been to tending bar. And kind of fun for an extrovert like me. I got to meet everybody who was there. All 300 of them.
My lemonade was more popular than Heather's tea. Just sayin'
OK. NOW: Here's the key to the whole Katrina recovery thing: If you are to understand anything out of this mess. If you are to take anything home from the last ten years--is this: (Write this part down. Go get a pen. I'll wait. Are you ready?)
The heroes of Katrina were the faith-based organizations. We had nothing to gain. We acted purely out of good will and people trusted us. We acted out of love. We gave from the heart. We gave because our God loved us first and asks us to love others in return.
And it didn't matter what faith you came from when you acted. When I looked around the room that night I saw Catholic priests in robes, I saw a female Episcopalian priest in her collar, I saw Muslim men in their prayer caps. The evening was opened with a good old southern gospel choir.
It didn't matter how you prayed or what name you call the Creator of the Universe. We are all children of the same God and the people in that room knew it. We knew who to pray to when there wasn't enough money or enough time or enough energy or patience. We had come together for a meal to remember that. We had come to say Thank You.