Just ended Day 2 of JRC’s Tikkun New Orleans journey – I think our entire group would agree that it’s already been an intense and powerful experience for all concerned. We arrived in NOLA yesterday morning and spent the day visiting various institutions, meeting with leaders who have been on the front line of the post-Katrina efforts. This included a Les Hirsch, President and CEO of Touro Infirmary – a major NOLA hospital that successfully evacuated hundreds of patients after the hurricane. (Amazingly, Mr. Hirsch took over the job at the hospital only one week before Katrina hit.) We also visited Tulane University and were hosted for dinner at the venerable Touro Synagogue. All along the way, we heard from community leaders who had compelling and often inspiring stories to tell about they navigated through the crisis and were helping to spearhead the ongoing relief efforts in their hometown.
During the afternoon, we also had the sad opportunity to tour the more devastated areas of the city, including the Lower Ninth Ward, which was completely decimated after the levees broke. Touring this area, it was difficult to fathom that these neighborhoods were actual, living, breathing communities just two years ago. Just miles and miles of overgrowth, dotted with foundation slabs, concrete stairs leading to nowhere, and utterly destroyed homes. I took the above picture yesterday – I believe the graffiti says it all.
Today was a working day – courtesy of the wonderful, devoted folks at the Louisiana United Methodist Disaster Recovery Ministry. We split into two groups and set to work gutting two homes in the Gentilly neighborhood in the Seventh Ward. This once solidly middle class neighborhood was hard hit by Katrina and whole sections of this part of town are still largely abandoned. We donned our Tyvek suits, strapped on fask masks, grabbed implements of demolition, and set to work gutting the homes. (See the pix below). Lots of sledgehammering of moldy, rotting dry wall and hauling debris out to dumpsters. The intent is to eventually strip these homes down to the wood studs to prepare them for eventual rehab.
During the course of the day, we had the opportunity to speak with residents of the neighborhood and hear their stories. One of the things you learn quickly in post-Katrina New Orleans is that everyone has a story to tell. We’re discovering that a big part of our job here is simply to listen and bear witness. In this day and age of 24 hour news cycles, short media attention spans and crises du jour, we too often allow ourselves to move on to the next big story. But for the citizens of New Orleans, the story isn’t over by a longshot.
In listening to these stories, we have experienced a myriad of emotions: frustration, anger, sadness, wonder – but in the end, the most notable reaction for us has been inspiration. It is impossible to spend any time at all with the citizens of New Orleans and not be moved by their fierce and passionate devotion to their home community. Though this city has been abandoned by any number of government institutions – and though the ongoing volunteer relief effort is an inspiring story in its own right – it’s clear to me that the true heroes of New Orleans are those who have decided to stay and fight for the future of their city.
There’s much more to say, obviously. In the meantime (to quote Paul Simon) tomorrow’s gonnna be another working day and I’m trying to get some rest…