Sunday, March 12, 2006

Our Visit to the Other Sites (Part VIII)

Today is a treat, if you can call it that. One of my fellows profs., Mike, is coming to pick me up and take me on a tour of the other sites. I am going with my brother-in-barracks, Father Bob. I joked with one of my fellow profs at home, Brother Basil, about going on the trip with his Brothers. I told him he better warn them about me. He apparently didn't because Father Bob hung out with me. I expect if he knew about me, he'd be praying. In fact, now that he does know me, he may be doing just that!

St. Bonaventure had close to 300 alumni, faculty, friends, and students at five different sites (I think five, although it could have been six). Those are pretty impressive numbers. We had wanted to see other sites to see what else the hurricane did. Father Bob and I were familiar with St. Bernards Parish and its devastation but wanted perspective.

Immediately, Mike mentioned that St. Bernards Parish and the 9th Ward were worse than he expected and certainly worse than their location in New Orleans. Their biggest concern was of security. People didn't wander at night. Our biggest concern was the flood aftermath. The mold and other toxins that were contained in flood waters for 2 weeks and likely seeped into everything.

It was also nice to get out knowing we would eat something other than beans and rice. I loved beans and rice. Loved - past tense. If I see beans and rice I will toss them at the chef. Really. And we ate a burger and fried at Dairy Queen and I got a cone. Yummy!

Our first stop was Bay St. Louis, MS. I had no idea what to expect. Let me say this, their facilities were the Hilton compared to our camp. The damage was also much less intense. But I have to constantly remind myself that the damage is six months after the fact. St. Bernards Parish has barely been touched, while MS has repaired much. Much, but not all.

Houses were being gutted but were not in nearly the shape our homes were in. And I am thankful of that for all the residents having to suffer. Thankful that their cleanup job is relatively easy, although they would likely not feel that way. And this town was historic. Its charm was so cozy and quaint.

We then headed to the shore. People had told us that most of the damage occured to homes on the shore. And the homes on the shore are as you would expect. Million dollar plus homes directly on the beach. Homes that had front stairs to nothing. The home itself was completely gone. Vanished as if someone just took it brick by brick or piece by piece. Stairs to nowhere, I kept saying.

We saw one particular home that made us pull over. A woman was working on her home with some student volunteers from Atlanta. She talked to us and during the conversation a couple friends pulled up. The spirit of the victims is contagious. It is inspiring. The couple told of grabbing valuables that were within reach - pictures off the mantle, underwear (not the good ones, the ones that were more holy than righteous, as she said), her slip (she is a good Southern girl who wears a slip under dresses), jewelry (mostly costume) and whatever else she could think of. In fact, she put her jewelry in a safe deposit box. When she was looking for her slip, she couldn't find it, but managed to find it in the safe deposit box. Hey, valuables are valuables and it's all relative. Her husband had a heart attached as a result of the storm and then suffered 4 bouts of pneumonia. He was on oxygen as we spoke. Mike retrieved another oxygen tank from the trunk as we talked and she joked that he's the only one allowed to take a bottle to church.

It is this spirit that I envy. I am not sure I would have my sense of humor in this case. I hope that I would maintain my humor, but who can say? The human spirit is a funny thing. You don't really find out who you are or what you are about until tragedy strikes. And even then....

Another resident was showing off her two new knees. She had knee replacement surgery before the storm and was proud of her two new knees. These people were obviously wealthy and were living in FEMA trailers. They were also disgusted with FEMA and government. Ironic since everyone we had spoken with expressed concern that the wealthy were benifiting while the poor had to suffer and wait for FEMA. Turns out FEMA does not discriminate its incompetence. There is plenty for everyone of all classes and races!

All we spoke with were concerned about their communities more than themselves. All expressed that their communities were their lifeblood. Condo developers had long coveted the shore. Now they had a chance with increased taxes and the increased likelihood that people wouldn't rebuild. What a shame in this historic town. We can only imagine what the houses and the shoreline must have looked like pre-Katrina. To be replaced by condos because government is more concerned with money than ethics. I'm not surprised but it disturbs me no matter how often I hear about it.

The most horrific story we heard was of the couple's son. He decided to brave the storm. As I recall, the wall of water came off the gulf (20 feet high) and wiped out houses. Just wiped them out. That wasn't just a 20 foot wall of water, it was a 20 foot wall of water and debris. His house was lifted from the foundation and carried him while it filled with water. He swam to the ceiling by following the light on his smoke detector. Then he tried to find his way to the roof. He made it out of the storm by jumping from debris to debris to safety much as I would expect someone jumped from rock to rock in a stream to cross, or ice piece to ice piece to cross a near frozen river/stream/ocean/other body of water. He is alive by the grace of God, they said. And they are so thankful that we are there to help them. They have had no support from anyone but volunteers.

In past days I had been thinking that I wasn't making a difference. I had helped to gut two homes. To two families, that is the world. To the survivors on the coast, the idea that we are there helping is the world. We didn't help them directly, but we are helping their community. That means everything to them. Words cannot express how humbled I was. And how grateful I was I decided to take this trip. It has been life-altering.

Stella and Paul LaViolette (we initially stopped and talked to Stella) have a website. He is a retired oceanographer which makes him really cool to me. He writes books and she writes cookbooks. They write not to make money but to "stay out of trouble." He is writing a book about the experience of Katrina. Firsthand account. Their website is here. Check it out and support them.

We also heard stories about prisoners in cells. Many died because the guards couldn't get to them. Also, there was trouble keeping prisoners. Those with minor infractions were let go while those with major felonies were held - or at least guards tried to hold them. But records are lost so many are let go because of that.

Driving to other sites we saw metal billboards on the highway (I didn't get pictures because we were driving) were bent in half. The top half containing the advertisement was bent in half at the pole.

Many in New Orleans also believe that the barge ran into the levee which damaged it and caused the flooding. So many theories abound it's hard to keep track. Suffice to say it was a disaster.

But Biloxi was different. Biloxi was odd. Casinos used to have to be contained on barges. Now they can be housed on land. You will see devastated areas right next to a brand new casino. Several of them. And you can also see the barges that were cast up on land. One barge, in fact, landed on a small hotel killing 5 people. Imagine sitting in your hotel room weathering the storm and having a barge land on you. And these barges are enormous!

It was an interesting trip because the devastation was so different. We see flood damage and much destruction. They see nothing. Houses and buildings were completely wiped out. Devastating no matter how you look at it, but different.

The day we were making our pilgrimage to other sites, G.W. Bush was visiting New Orleans. I said, did someone tell him there was a hurricane and he thought he would check it out? Or was he hoping to get drunk in the French Quarter. I have never been a fan of G.W. but this had exacerbated my disdain for his administration and him. It would be impossible to experience the spirit of these people and see the destruction and not be moved to some sort of action and right now that action is I want to beat the president with a brick or let a barge land on his Texas Ranch.

At this point, many students see me as one of them - I think. At least that's what they let me believe. We talk about anything and say anything. I wouldn't even think of reprimanding them in this situation. I want to hear their thoughts and have them express their opinions. One student, who argued on the van ride down that mass media may have been to blame for much of the hype and then realized his error when he remembered I teach in the J/MC school and quickly backtracked, had much to say. He thought the federal government was getting too much heat. He thought more responsibility fell to the local and state governments. I told him I agree that local and state need to take responsibility (Ray Nagin is likely to not get reelected according to my informal poll of residents, by the way) but that government at all levels needs to take some responsibility. Levees fall under the federal jurisdiction, I believe. At least in terms of monetary support. I could be mistaken. I often am. But it shouldn't be a matter of placing blame. That won't solve the problem. Communities and people working together is going to solve this and help.

I enjoyed conversations with students. I think to give up your spring break for this undertaking is more than admirable. The students will forever have my gratitude and admiration. Kudos to St. Bonaventure. And kudos to the leaders particularly Jim Mahar (finance professor and head hurricane relief dude). His leadership was exemplary. This is an incredible testament to the Bonaventure community.

Driving to New Orleans we stopped at a rest area and ran into alumni making the trip themselves. It was inspiring. I am so proud to be a member of this community!

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