Reflecting on Katrina as Colorado recovers

I came home Sunday night to find my home dry, despite it’s close proximity to Boulder Creek.  Completely dry.  Exactly how I left it, right down to the lights I had left on and the towels I had laid out to dry on the floor since I didn’t have enough quarters for the dryer.

To say I was astonished is an understatement.  Even though our apartment manager had mentioned in several e-mails that there were no reports of flooding in any units I simply could not believe it until I saw it with my own eyes.  Judging by the mud and debris on the street and the sidewalks if the floodwaters had been about a foot higher they would have eeked their way under my front door.

Even my basil plant still sat happily on the front porch in its plastic bucket.

The previous Friday as I sat in my friend’s living room watching the far-flung destruction that reached not only Boulder by Jamestown, Estes Park, Greeley, Longmont, Fort Collins, and Aurora, I was overwhelmed.  I kept thinking, “How do we recover from this?  Where do you start?  I guess it’ll be like eating an elephant, just one bite at a time.”

And I paged back through my e-mails to a lengthy one I had written seven years earlier after visiting post-Katrina New Orleans.  It filled me with hope as I remembered another community that had struggled but come through after a flood:

***written April 2, 2006***

This last week nine of us from Colorado worked in New Orleans to gut ruined houses for remodeling.  We stayed on cots in an old rec center gymnasium in Gretna (just across the Mississippi) with eighty other people from across the country.  There was fun, hard work, and lots to be learned.  Had to write down some of my thoughts as I was digesting everything after a two day drive back to Boulder.  It’s kinda long, but I wanted to write stuff down before I forgot…

The smell.  As we drove into New Orleans about 9:00 at night, the first thing noticeable was a faint scent of garbage, human waste, and rot.  We were in the city seven months to the day from when Hurricane Katrina came ashore, and it was clear that life in the Big Easy was anything but, and the city was still recovering.

The darkness made me think of the slums.  Our compound had a strict 8:00 curfew, and as we exited the interstate that first evening we understood why.  There was little electricity, and few buildings to make it worthwhile.  In most places, you were lucky to see one operational building for every block.  Street lights were a rarity the further we traveled from the highways; rather, there were stop signs on nearly every corner.

The buildings made me think of a war zone.  Sides of houses were sliced off revealing their naked inner rooms.  Rain roofs over gas stations lay collapsed on cars and pumps.  Looking down from the elevated highway, you could see churches and homes with blue tarp roofs imprinted “FEMA” in white letters.  Looking up, you could see plywood covering skyscraper windows.

The trash made me think of third world countries.  The gutters were littered with garbage.  Fences were twisted and knocked down.  Ruined cars and boats lay in rows underneath the highways – smashed, stripped, and rusty, some with “tow me” painted on the side.  Electricity line poles were propped up by struts to keep the wires off the ground.  Downed trees had been removed from the roads, but not from where they crushed businesses and homes.  I guess really, in the grand scheme, how important is removing a tree from the Napa Auto Parts store when thousands of people are still homeless?

Yellowing water lines on the sides of houses, as low as eighteen inches and as high as five feet.

Police officers and firemen that had only had ten days total off of work since Katrina.

Traffic and aggressive drivers like I have never seen.  Guess you have to be when you have stop signs and out-of-state cars filled with relief works who don’t know where they’re going!

Some things were funny, like the radio station we found whose motto had become “more encouraging and helpful than FEMA.”  Or the KFC that was like a snapshot in time with a marquee still advertising a free cake with your bucket of chicken, though a large piece of tin roofing lay against the front window.  I laughed out loud as I saw a telephone pole leaning at a 45 degree angle, a yellow sign tacked to it advertising trash removal.  Signs hanging on businesses declaring “We’re here for you… almost!” as they rebuild.

But we weren’t there for the city.  We were there for the people.  And they were incredible.

There was spunky Betty Sue.  We met Betty Sue on the first day as we stripped her mother’s house for remodeling.  She and her wheelchair-bound mother, El Nora, had been rescued from the floodwaters by a boat and had only been back in New Orleans for a month.  When Betty Sue came out to meet us as we drove up, she ran around shaking our hands and giving us hugs.  We asked if she wanted to pray with us before we started; before we could open our mouths to thank God for protecting Betty Sue, she began praying for all of us!  She was hesitant to let us remove some walls when we started, but when we presented the house to her at the end of two days – just studs, wiring, pipes, and outside walls ready for scrubbing and bleaching – with tears in her eyes she breathed, “It’s so beautiful.”

There was Russell, whose rickety house we worked on.  Russell had been a mailman, but due to the drastic population cut there wasn’t as much need for mailmen and he lost his job.  He had a six year old daughter and a fourteen year old son, and was coaching track at the high school.  His grandmother had also been living with them, but the stress and shock of Katrina had been too much; she died a week before we arrived.  His little home had lots of love in it such as  a newly remodeled bathroom and some elegant crown molding – both of which we were able to save.  As we stood in the street talking with Russell, he spoke of how God had provided for his family, and the need for unity within the city.  Though he coached track, he hated the thought of community division in the competitions.  He inspired us with his vision of what New Orleans could become, and how it could be rebuilt.  We told him to run for office!

There were Buddy and Debbie, Russell’s neighbors.  They were trapped in their attic during Katrina and thanked God that they were finally rescued by helicopter being covered by CNN.  Now they were working eagerly to restore their home.  Buddy told us of receiving a small puncture wound during their work, and spending time in the hospital with the ensuing infection due to the pollutants from the flood.  They graciously offered us their recently completed bathroom to use during our work.  They had applied for a FEMA trailer which stood white and shiny in their driveway, unused because FEMA forgot to give them keys to unlock it.  An American flag flew from their front porch – upside-down.

There was Rita, El Nora’s neighbor.  She watched us humming around the house like so many bees buzzing around honey.  During a water break, I went to talk to her as she sat in the shade on her porch.  Rita was young seventy-five and suffered from severe asthma.  Though New Orleans was not an ideal climate for such an affliction, she met her husband when she came to the local asthma hospital and had stayed for forty-seven years.  Now, with her husband dead three years, she was living in Atlanta with her son, unable to return to New Orleans because of the molds thick in the air.  She was only in town for the day to receive a delivery while she was trying to have her home fixed up for renters.  Rita spoke lovingly of the flowers she used to grow and the foods she would cook with produce fresh from her vegetable garden in the back.  She and I prayed before I returned to work, thanking God for His love and good ways.  Then she gave me a huge hug, and wouldn’t let me go.

There was El Nora, who was delighted to allow us use of her FEMA trailer bathroom in exchange for some much needed conversation and love.  El Nora was a cheery eighty-seven and had lived in her house for fifty years.  She loved white and green, and wanted to have all of the rooms painted white when the house was ready.  “It makes it look so clean,” she said.  She asked Erica and me what we studied in college and told us that she was “going to pray for a nice man” for each of us.  El Nora’s wheelchair could barely move around the small trailer, but she smiled so sweetly, sporting a nearly toothless grin, full of thanks for our help and hope for the future.

And there was Regina.  As we left Russell’s house on the final day, a bulldozer, steam shovel, and dump truck came down the street picking up garbage.  After some negotiation, we were able to convince them to take the pile of moldy drywall, lumber, and insulation we had created as well.  As we loaded tools into our cars at the end of the street, we talked with Regina who was holding a stop sign to direct traffic.  She had lived in New Orleans all her life and had to be rescued from her roof in a helicopter.  She told us how scared she was during the flood, thinking the world may be coming to an end, but that she had hope in Jesus.  As we took off our work boots, ready to leave them and their mold and dust behind in the garbage piles of New Orleans, she stopped us and asked if she could keep our boots – she knew workers who could use good, steel-toed boots.  Even our garbage was going to help someone…

Not all of our time was spent talking to the people.  There was also plenty of hard work.  We loaded up a hatchback with a wheelbarrow and all the crowbars, shovels, hammers, and brooms we could handle.  We didn’t know what type of work would lie in store for us – removing furniture, shoveling out mud, or knocking down walls.

Ever-present was the mold!  I think I’ve seen just about every kind of mold that exists!  Green mold.  White mold.  Yellow mold.  Brown mold.  Fuzzy mold.  Grainy mold.  Mold that grew in concentric circles on the walls.  And that dreaded deadly black mold.  The first order of business in our orientation was protective gear.  For four days we dressed in white head-to-toe Tyvek suits, gloves, goggles, and respirators.  We weren’t sure if we looked more like astronauts, Michelin men, or guys from the E.T. movie.  All we knew was that our suits were personal saunas and our respirators caused torturous pain to the bridges of our noses.  Small things to suffer for protection from that crazy mold!

El Nora’s house was a beautiful turn-of-the-century plaster and lathe two-story house.  (The top was a separate residence, but also owned by El Nora.)  We quickly learned that plaster and lathe is really easy to smash down, and kinda fun too!  We had to be more careful of flying missiles of cement-like plaster and splintered boards with rusty nails.  I was queen of the closets in that house, taking out the pantry, the incredibly stubborn linen closet, and the shadowy cubby beneath the stairs.  The structure was in amazingly good shape though, built with a lot of tough hardwoods.

While El Nora’s plaster and lathe home had visible but minimal mold, Russell’s drywall dwelling was another story completely.  Mold of all colors, shapes, and sizes crawled six feet up the walls as the sheet rock retained moisture after the flood.  As Phil took his first few swings with a crowbar at Russell’s drywall, an entire 4×8 sheet came crumbling off the wall to his feet.  We all stared in a bit of disbelief; if only the rest of the house had come apart that easily.  (Well, actually it’s probably good that it didn’t!)  The home was probably from the 40s or 50s, originally boards that had been eventually been covered with drywall.  The more we worked on the house, the more we wondered what on earth could be holding the house up!  The original, front part of the house was narrow (about 15 feet wide) and long with partitions but no supports in the middle.  The outer studs were so moldy, it must have been the hand of God keeping that roof up.  The floor was rotted and had some hold in it too.  I destroyed another, even more stubborn linen closet in that house.

We pulled nails.  Lots of nails.  Lots of rusty nails.  And you haven’t pulled nails until you’ve pulled drywall nails so rusty that the head folds in half when you try to claw it out.  Or finishing nails so deep in the wood that you do a pull-up on your hammer!

There was reality.  On the third day, we stopped work early to shower and go to the ninth ward and French Quarter.  The ninth ward was desolate.  Houses had been moved off their foundations and pushed together.  Others were just piles of rotting wood.  One had another house upside-down in its backyard.  One was leaning over the road, ready to go almost any time.  Almost no trees.  Huge potholes in the roads.  No people.  Occasionally, there was a house that looked okay and worth saving; it had a pile of stripped materials out front to be hauled away, and a few hands working desperately to save it.  Honestly, their attempts seemed futile.

There was escape, or possibly denial.  That word may be harsh, but it went through my mind as we strolled through the French Quarter.  After visiting and working the in the neighborhoods, the area lay rather too peacefully, with Jackson Square well landscaped, clean streets, and happy sight-seers.  I ate fresh mahi-mahi at the Palace Cafe overlooking residual Mardi Gras beads hung on lampposts and scattered in gutters.  As we stood looking out over the Mississippi River, it was hard to believe the struggles only a few blocks away.  Music blared, neon signs flashed, and drunken revelers swarmed around Bourbon Street, quite oblivious to anything called Katrina.  In the afternoon, as we stopped in a small art gallery and marveled at the beauty within, I thought about what New Orleans must have been like before and what it would be in the future.

It wasn’t all hard times and work.  There was fun and play, too.  There was random shouting of nerdy jokes through respirators.  We laughed as tiny five-foot Erica met her match in an unbalanced wheelbarrow that made her trip and fall down the ramp.  Occasionally you would hear a loud crash followed by a cheer as a tough chunk of bathroom tiles came down.  We held a top-of-our-lungs, way-out-of-key, Disney sing-along in the bathroom.  We trampled each other in line to get seconds on chicken-ala-king night at the compound (so delicious!).  We cheered during the school baseball games held on the field next to our gymnasium.  There was friendly bickering over THE TOOL that we found in our tool box that seemed to be perfect for every job that each of us was doing.  (“The Gods Must Be Crazy,” anyone?)  Our caravan of three cars had walkie-talkies and we kept changing call signs – green bean, grasshopper, bubbles, blackened chicken, red five, and seafoam submarine were a few.  And there was excitement as the generator running the air-conditioning in the gym caught fire and we had to call the fire department!

Ultimately, there was the verse that said it all.  As we drove through the neighborhood to Russell’s house, a sheet of plywood was tacked over a window with Psalm 126 crudely lettered in paint:

When the LORD brought back the captives to Zion,
we were like men who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow in tears
will reap with songs of joy.
He who goes out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with him.

We went to New Orleans expecting devastation, grief, and depression.  And we found it in the city, but not in the people.  We found people full of joy and hope.  People that continued to praise God for His goodness and love.  People full of smiles, hugs, and laughs.  People that blessed us far more than we could have ever hoped to bless them.

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