Thursday, August 26, 2010

Mississippi Queen

This is part four in a series of posts leading up to the five year anniversary of hurricane Katrina on August 29th

It was a year since I had last been down there and nearly 19 months since the hurricane. We were heading down, D and I, for a site visit (another course was in the works, this time about the Mississippi river) and there was the Gulf South Service Learning conference. It was, appropriately, held in New Orleans that year.

We drove down the River Road, through Memphis, the delta, the Trace. I stood on the bluffs in Natchez, watching the sun set. We traveled along the river and the levees, sometimes completely cut off from the known world. It was beautiful and green and warm—it wasn’t that way in the Lou yet- too early in the spring. I fell even more in love with the South, the delta, the people--with Louisiana.

I was antsy, though. Itchy. I had to get back to New Orleans. I had to see what had happened since I was there last. I had to see what progress was made. I had eaten up every little bit of news that had come our way. I had watched the Spike Lee documentary—forced J to watch it with me.

“Sarah,” he said to me, after hours of viewing and me crying silent tears, “I think I get it now. I think I do. It never ends.”

When we hit NOLA, we were supposed to attend some pre-workshops for the conference. Before we had left, I had been incredibly excited about the workshops in which we had planned to participate. By the time we got down there, though… by the time we checked into the room, I had to leave. I had to see the city. I couldn’t help myself. Fortunately, D understood. She watched me head out—she was staying—knowing that I needed some time to process for myself.

The warehouse district was back up and running, and there were people on the riverwalk. Our hotel was right across the street from the Convention Center, and that was tough, but it was cleaned up, refurbished, yet not quite active again. Starbucks had opened up, only for 6 hours each day. The ladies working there told me that the company had been excellent to them—paying them when they couldn’t work; carrying their benefits for them even though they were not working 40 hour shifts yet.

The French Quarter was opening back up. CafĂ© Du Monde and the French Market were alive again. I could feel the hope bubbling up inside me. I knew it wouldn’t be this good in the Lower 9th or in St. Bernard, but hey—look at how much had been done here! Look at how things had progressed! There were tourists- real tourists! Not just college kids who were walking around the quarter disconcerted by the juxtaposition of volunteer work gutting homes and then the lure of Bourbon Street.

I made my way over to Claiborne, so that I could take the long way over to the Lower 9th, to Arabi, to the places that had been so horrible and desolate (imagine hearing nothing: no birds, no bugs, no traffic, no people) and devastated a year before. Maybe it would be better. Maybe the people had returned—begun cleaning up their houses, rebuilding their lives. Maybe the road home that we all kept hearing about was working.

As I made my way through the districts and wards on my way out of the French quarter, however, progress slowed and slowed and then stopped altogether. Finally I was in the Lower 9th—staring at the levee wall that had collapsed and the place where the barge (so often shown on the news) came over. It was quiet. There were no FEMA trailers. There were also no houses. They had been bulldozed—most without the owner’s consent.

I stood in a sea of pile-ons where houses once stood and thigh high weeds. Sometimes you could make out a porch or a sidewalk or a driveway. Several blocks over there were still a few houses standing—three or four only. I made my way over in the car—only to find out it was a film set. A film set!

I drove back to the levee—with the levee wall that looked just the same as the old levee wall. I could tell what road I was on only for the fact that some conscientious citizen had painted them on boards and posted them to the telephone poles where street signs were missing.

I sat there, and tried to call my husband on my cell. No service. Still. It was me- alone. I was alone in the desolate place—a place that had once been filled with shotgun houses painted in bright colors. A place that had been full of people, and babies and kids playing and the older generations sitting on front porches talking with neighbors in the evenings.

And I was angry- so angry! I had no right to be angry—it hadn’t happened to me. I had not been displaced, or lost my house or loved ones. But I was so very angry with the fact that nothing had been done—other than to bulldoze people’s private property to clear it for green space—that I stood there, rigid, facing the levee wall.

And then I let it all pour out of me. That wall took the brunt of my anger. My shouted words echoed in emptiness that few could ever really imagine.

During that weekend in NOLA, I did take some people from the conference to see what I had to show. Explaining where we had been, what we had done, showing how the tent city that had been before had moved to a more permanent building in the Lower 9th, but the mission was still the same. This helped.

The houses were gone in the Lower 9th. The trash, for the most part, was cleaned up in St. Bernard. You could drive on both sides of Claiborne now. Yet, it was still empty—devoid, waiting.

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