I went to New Orleans because my daughter Jill has a house in the city and teaches third grade at Langston Hughes Charter School. Her students had spent the previous two years in Houston, exiled by the ravages of Hurricane Katrina. Now Jill is doing her part to bring the city back from that devastating storm. It was a good time to visit with her.
I went to New Orleans because it was Mardi Gras. I’d never experienced this party of all parties, and the festivities exceeded all expectations. Dozens of parades wove their way through the city during the celebration. The three parades we saw were magnificent, with marching bands, horseback riders and scores of massive, two-tiered floats manned by costumed revelers tossing beads and trinkets at the throngs who lined the routes. It is a family tradition, with children, parents and grandparents eagerly awaiting the parades. The Big Easy celebrates in a big way.
Unfortunately, reality seeped into the circus as the final parade passed by. There was a shooting and seven people were wounded in a grim reminder that New Orleans still has a long road ahead. Current news reported corruption and disharmony in the local FEMA office. On a positive note, the last National Guardsmen were reassigned out of New Orleans, and it was noted a million people descended on the city for Mardi Gras, the most since Katrina.
I went to New Orleans to help in the rebuilding effort. More than 13,000 homes were destroyed by Katrina, and only a fraction have been repaired. I was part of a Methodist mission to Slidell, a town of 35,000 on the shore of Lake Pontchatrain, 30 miles north of New Orleans. Our group of 35 New England volunteers were part of the Southeast Louisiana Disaster Relief Recovery Effort. Our team of nine was assigned to sheetrock a house damaged by four feet of water when Katrina’s winds whipped the waves of the lake more than three miles inland.
I went to New Orleans because Donna and Jamie Leon volunteered last year. They inspired me to join the effort; now my goal is to spread the word.
I am not an expert in sheetrock, but in the course of a week I gained a few skills and felt my contributions were appreciated. Regardless of one’s abilities, the need for volunteers continues.
We completed our assignment, which was to get the house ready for the next team. Week after week groups descend on Slidell; today the houses are 85 per cent rebuilt. The mantra is, “One team picks up where the last team ends up.” Each group brings the rebuilding effort a little further along. After our house is sheetrocked, the walls must be sanded, primed and painted. Floors, electrical and plumbing hook-ups and appliances will be installed. Occupancy is still another two months off.
Skip and Mary Ann Danforth of West Chatham (e-mail email@example.com) head up the New England contingent of the United Methodist effort. They plan to return to New Orleans in November, this time to begin work in the infamous ninth ward, where less than 20 per cent of the work has been done. Skip encourages volunteers to “come down and make a difference.”
How long will the effort continue? As long as volunteers come, there is work to be done.
I went to New Orleans because I wanted to help. On our last day I met the homeowner whose house we worked on. Maria has five grown children, two of whom will live with her. She is on oxygen and moves slowly. For three and a half years she has not been able to return home. She shed tears of joy as she toured the work we had done. Meeting her was the highlight of my week.
She wants to move home as soon as possible. And there are many more homeowners waiting for their houses to be rebuilt.
For more information on the relief effort, visit laumcstormrelief.com.
Tom Dresser is an Oak Bluffs writer and frequent contributor to the Gazette.