New Orleans, Four Years Later

Part I: Homebuilding

Across the country today lots of us likely contemplated the first day of autumn with snuggly visions of crunchy leaves and pumpkin carving. Here in New Orleans, it’s just another day in the push to keep moving forward. Katrina ravaged this city four years ago and took with her hugs, laughs, peace, assurance, fortitude, and all semblance of sanctuary.

I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived here last night. Of course I knew that New Orleans was still rebuilding, but I thought that at least half of the city had been restored. I was so terribly wrong. In almost every foreseeable eyeshot, damage looms. Neighborhoods teem with boarded-up windows and spray painted X’s listing dates of condemnation. Hundreds of streets are peppered with cement block ghosts of the homes that used to stand there. It’s so overwhelming that I secretly wondered if it ever will truly recover. Perhaps the only way to save this achingly bereft city known for its cultural spice and grandeur is to repair one house, and one family, at a time.  

This morning I joined a daylong volunteer effort with St. Bernard Project in the St. Bernard Parish. All 27,000 homes in this area (several miles east of downtown) were underwater for more than a month after Katrina. St. Bernard Project has rebuilt 235 of them. Amanda Spillman, one of the project’s overseers, said residents in the community stood atop their roofs for seven days before being rescued. “People are still really struggling to figure out their identity,” she said. St. Bernard Project has managed 17,000 volunteers and employs roughly 50 full-time home rebuilders (most of them fresh out of college) through Americorps. Apparently New Orleans residents have suffered a bit of what Amanda deemed “Katrina fatigue” and concerned citizens from other states have stepped in to provide enormous support. “Volunteers leave a lot more than they give,” she added while wiping back tears. Looking around from street to street and lot to lot in St. Bernard Parish, it’s hard to feel like everything will get finished in our lifetime. And that’s just in one focused area. Countless towns in this vicinity were robbed of their normalcy.  

The home we worked on today is owned by a husband and wife who considered themselves a “typical American family” until their house was trapped in 14 feet of water and they had to evacuate to Houston. Unlike a lot of evacuees who stayed in Houston (or Dallas or Atlanta), they came back. They knew it wouldn’t be easy or comforting, but this is their home. They currently live in a FEMA trailer, where their third child was born. After spending the day mudding, taping, and installing drywall in their home, each volunteer signed a guestbook which they’ll receive during their welcome home party in a couple of months. I have never met this family but learned that they believe in working hard and raising a loving family. I pictured them crossing — and thus reclaiming — their threshold. The mere thought humbles me to the core.

People kept telling me that I wouldn’t understand what was going on in New Orleans until I experienced it for myself. I’m so grateful for the chance to be here and am continually impressed by the unsolicited kindness of others. I suppose more than anything, I’m reminded that home is more than where you hang your hat. It’s where you rest your hope.

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