After reading trig palin’s post: My New Orleans, it was four years ago...... today, I thought I would give my account of Katrina 2005.
One year later, in October 2006, with a group of 11 people from my church - Christ Church on Quaker Hill - in Pawling, NY; I had the privilege of traveling to St. Bernard Parish outside New Orleans to aid in the relief efforts following Hurricane Katrina. We would be working with Habitat for Humanity, an organization known for building, not tearing down. Habitat had arrived just weeks after Katrina in October 2005 and set-up in the W. Smith Elementary School to stage their relief efforts and called it Camp Hope. Working with the U.S. government, AmeriCorps, organization; Habitat’s first mission was to help families gut their homes of all debris, so the homes could be inspected for safety and structure soundness.
The facilities at the school were barren at best. Habitat had stripped the entire school down to the cement slab and metal stubs. Imagine walking into your first grade school and walking through the halls with no walls. And imagine going to your classroom with no walls… this is how the interior was; just support and load bearing walls. Some of the windows were there and others broken out. This was Camp Hope…. our home for the weeks we were there.
AmeriCorps was the agency that was in charge of feeding us, providing a cot to sleep on and a very rustic make-shift bathroom, so we could shower. All of the supplies were donated by various corporations – food, water & equipment. While all the work was done by volunteers from around the world as far away as New Zealand & Iceland and in between; some were cooks, some were drivers, some were organizers.
St. Bernard Parish about 20 miles outside of New Orleans was an area that survived Katrina, but when the levees were breached in the Ninth Ward area… a huge surge effect cause levees throughout the canal system to overflow.
St. Bernard was a community of about 79,000 people made up of neighborhoods with mostly ‘ranch style’ single family homes. The way the immediate destruction was explained to me – the water level was up to the ridge of the roof line of every home in Saint Bernard; with the contaminated water standing for over six weeks before receding out of the area.
The method Habitat used to clean up (or gut, as we called it) was teams of 10 to 12 people going out to homes in the area of St. Bernard Parish neighborhood by neighborhood. A bright yellow school bus would pick up the teams – we were Black 6 - and take us out to our assigned home. There we would gut the house completely down to cement slab & wooden studs.
Here let me tell you a little about Black 6… we were 11 friends from our church who wanted to go down and help in the relief effort. The youngest was 26 and the oldest was 80 – 7 women and 4 men, plus Mike from Habitat & Phil from AmeriCorps. That put our average age at 68½!
I remember that first day getting on the bus with excitement and anxiety - not really knowing what lay ahead. I was shocked by the destruction everywhere you looked. Shopping centers and whole neighbors, churches and gas stations – all empty; much like the old west ghost towns. Our first house was 3605 Dauterive Drive. Every possession that that family had worked for and cared about was now debris, which I moved to a front yard to be carried to a landfill. As I moved through the debris, you could smell the foul stench of rot.
The mission of the team was to make 5 piles in the front yard – one for junk (carpet, drywall), one for metal (any garage doors, appliances, curtain rods), one for old furniture (sofas, chairs, beds, china cabinets), one for toxic materials (paint, bleach, cleaning products) and the last one was possible keepsakes. A course the ‘keepsake’ pile was the smallest, but we were able to salvage a family picture, bible, china cup, a doll… but not much was worth saving. From start to finish, it would usually take us two days to completely gut the house.
After the water receded, the different government agencies when into all the homes, business, schools, churches… all structures to look for any possible dead… human or animal. Here is how they marked a structure after they had inspected it.
Looking at the mark (X) – the top of the X – date inspected, left side of X – any hazardous material, right side of X – mics notes (dead animals) and the bottom of the X – any deaths in house. Luckily where I was working no deaths, but in our travels I did see one mark with 9 deaths. That was down in the Ninth Ward were the breach started.
The craziest thing that happened on the first day and every week day after… the mailman can down the street delivering the mail. No one had lived in this area since Katrina, but Mr. Philpot (the mailman) delivered any mail addressed to that given home. “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” - even after a catastrophic storm of total destruction. Unbelievable!
Oh, another thing happened – the temperature even in October was 90 degrees plus and the interior heat while wearing the required dress of long pants, long sleeve shirts, hard-hat, musk, gloves and heavy steel toed boots was over 100 degrees – during a break someone say they heard an ice cream truck… you know the music/bells they make… we all said you must be crazy… but we looked anyway and there driving down Dauterive Drive was an ice cream truck. Let me tell you, that ice cream never tasted better!
This is definitely an experience I will never forget and I hope that a catastrophic disaster like this never occurs again.
Be sure to read marytkelly's Humbled By A Katrina Victim. She tells of an incredible encounter while she was volunteering with The Red Cross in her hometown.
Also, read: Hurricane Katrina: After the Flood (pictures and memories) by mjwycha - awesome photographs!