After Hurricane Sandy, I spent November weekends with my Dad throwing away furniture, knocking out walls and ripping up flooring. My grandfather’s home was gutted by December. The neighborhood looked broken. Like someone came in, threw shit around and left us to pick up the mess.
Tearing down the walls that held some of my fondest memories and watching junk pile up on the curb, it was easier to be sad than angry. I wanted somewhere to throw blame, but no person or place existed. In those days I found solace in community, that everyone on my grandfather’s block was in the same position, working and willing to give support and advice on what steps to take next.
Last week I flew to New Orleans with a group from New Paltz to volunteer with Lowernine.org, an organization dedicated to rebuilding the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, one of the neighborhoods hit hardest by Hurricane Katrina.
When our cab crossed the Claiborne Bridge into the Lower Ninth Ward, we almost entered a different city. I’d guess half the homes were still spray painted with search and rescue X-Codes, body counts, marked “Toxic Flood Waters” and dated September 2005. I’d have been naïve to think that my volunteer experience would just be painting and gardening. But I couldn’t have anticipated how devastated this community remains. No one can unless they’ve seen it first hand.
I had so many questions. When we arrived at the Lowernine house, a commune for ourselves and 15 other volunteers, I bombarded the only authority figure with questions: “How many people are still here?” “Do homes have to be raised?” “How could it still be this bad?” It looked like Katrina happened yesterday. It felt urgent. In hindsight I feel silly. Just another ignorant college kid, staying for a week, in a place where some have been for years and I was demanding responses to questions that couldn’t easily be answered.
I had the pleasure of working with some dedicated people. Most inspiring was our worksite leader, a carpenter named Darren. He’s lived in the area his entire life, and worked since Katrina’s aftermath to rebuild his neighborhood. And it really is his neighborhood. He knew everyone, everywhere we went. He came to work with the same intensity every day. But I was most astonished by his patience — teaching a group who collectively knew nothing about woodworking or how to build a house. And then doing it every week for the last seven years.
I feel guilty for only staying a week — for having such an incredible experience and having the luxury to take it home with me while Darren keeps working.
But I’ve brought back a lot of hope, despite bleak circumstance.
Optimistic that the Ninth Ward isn’t immutable, even if it has been abandoned by 70 percent of its former population, forgotten by the government — left without a single police precinct, firehouse or hospital, and still surrounded by three bodies of water. But you can’t hinge hope to those facts — because that kind of evidence doesn’t make a difference. People like Darren, and organizations like Lowernine who commit themselves to community remind me to not waste time on doubts, and reaffirmed my faith in people over any other kind of tangible proof.