Sunday, March 12, 2006

Hurricane Devastation - Disbelief (Part I)

The first time I recall seeing anything out of the ordinary was Mississippi/Alabama. Trees were uprooted and cracked in half like little toothpicks. Trees were also bare to the tops. The ground was as brown and dried as Buffalo in July. But it was mildly warm and it wasn't July.

It reminded me of a trip through Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990's a year or so after the forest fires decimated the area. The trees bore the same scars but MS/AL didn't have burns. One of our student passengers in the van mentioned the movie Independence Day. It was quite a contrast from anywhere else we had driven.

And then we arrived in New Orleans. I was going to leave several blank lines here for effect - the effect being complete silence. I was driving the van at this point and my primary job as a member of our esteemed faculty is to make sure everyone remained safe on my tour as driver. But I couldn't help but look around. Luckily...poor choice of words...few cars were on the road.

I had been fortunate enough to have visited New Orleans a few times in my storied past - once as a Bona student and once as a graduate student for a conference. I recall partaking of a hurricane each time. One is all it takes.

How chilling that statement. One is all it took to destroy a city.

We did have a discussion as we read billboards on our drive in. A vodka (I believe it was vodka - it was a distillery, at any rate) had a billboard with the Mardi Gras masks with the slogan 'We're Back.' A second read 'Welcome back.' Other billboards sold the usuals but others showed support 'We're here to help, We're here to stay,' read a potato chip billboard. Was it good? Or was it taunting and in poor taste as we looked around and saw houses in pieces. These colorful, flashy, shiny, new billboards amid the wreckage. (When I first typed this I wrote Ralph and realized it was Ray and had to change it. That's how memorable the guy is to me.) Ray Nagin even got in the mix with a wonderful shot of himself lording over the city he is promising to rebuild in his re-election campaign. That was also a pretty billboard.

We drove down Jackson to St. Charles. I remembered the street car. I didn't see it today, but many of these houses were as I remember. The distinct architecture. The cool streets. Many had signs of their Mardi Gras revelry on the front porches. Decorations in purple, gold and green. Three houses looked great, then one was missing a porch or part of a roof or siding.

We left some of our van crew in this area. Hands On is a highly organized operation. We left behind bunk beds, internet access, accessible showers, lighted loos, and so on.

To get to St. Bernards Parish - our location - we had to drive through the worst of the damage in New Orleans. I apologized to my van mates over and over because I couldn't help but drive slowly. It would be impossible to drive through this area without staring. Traffic lights are replaced with stop signs (one of which I drove through because I wasn't expecting it) because there is no electricity. Strip malls are gutted or filled with debris. Houses are entirely trashed or filled with debris or are shells of themselves. I think we saw only a handful of FEMA trailers. That disturbed me.

We did pass Mardi Gras floats stored in some kind of a stockyard. But how out of place - colorful floats stuck in such stark surroundings. Beautiful floats with amazing colors sitting alone just across the street from a house that looked as though it was stepped on by a giant. Alone.

We notice odd things - the shells of our favorite fast food places. We see a McDonalds with the original 1950's style arches and building. We collectively decide that it must be saved - it's historic after all.

Our hosts - Common Ground/HOPE - are working out of a church. We must rely on generators. Our bathrooms are in a separate building with no electricity and no doors or walls. Well, the doors and walls are actually bedsheets strung up to afford us some privacy. I must rely on a candle or flashlight to go. And I always have to go in the middle of the night. And I didn't bring my flashlight because I must be a dumbass. So I rely on my cell phone to get me out and back safely or relatively so. Fun.

I am tired despite having stopped the van to sleep but I am aging - I'm older than the undergrads. I haven't seen the other side of midnight and enjoyed it in years.

Changing rooms don't really close but luckily I can get in and out of my clothes quickly so I don't run too much risk of potential students seeing me naked. That would likely scar most of them.

Pot luck dinner - yummy! And that is one of the last times I will say that on our trip. The night we arrive, many of those in the community who have been helped by volunteers before us arrive with official New Orleans cuisine to share. We are thrilled! This is a wonderful way for them to thank us. We find out later that residents often do this because they don't have much else to spare and sharing a meal is something they do well and often. They would love to give us money or something else. But when a hurricane and subsequent flooding takes everything you own, you do what you can.

We are all sleeping in a large church hall. All of us on cots - one large collective. I don't know how well I am going to enjoy that, but hey, I've done worse - I think....

As I am setting up my cot, I notice drywall (they call it sheet rock down in these parts - perhaps they do at home also, but I know it as drywall) missing up to about 15 feet in our church hall. Our hippie hosts later tell us that the church hall suffered flood damage, as did the rest of the Parish. They stripped the walls to just above the floodline. Just above the floodline. Think about that much water in your home. Jesus.

I go to sleep despite the fact that 60+ students are carousing. I think they are excited from the bus ride and anxious to get started. I don't quite know what to expect. And I am not quite sure I can even do anything. The task seems so daunting. We are here for one week. What difference can we possibly make?

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