Hello From New Orleans, LA and the St Bernard Project!!
I am now more than half-way through my PULSE Assignment and it has been mind-boggling!! Part of my duties with the St Bernard Project (SBP) is to market the stories of the clients that come to us because they need help rebuilding their homes after a natural disaster, namely Hurricane Katrina. The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina and the following breaking of the levees is a story that I know I can’t sufficiently tell. There is more than enough blame to go around, but I am more concerned with two things: 1) the homeowners who are now left to deal with the aftermath and 2) how can America be more prepared for the next one.
Everyday I work with a hard-working, smart residents who did everything right in order to have the American dream: They saved, brought a nice home, raised their children and took pains to care and love their neighborhoods. In August 2005, for many New Orleans residents, this was all destroyed. In my work, I interview these residents so that I can effectively tell their stories to potential donors (corporate groups, individuals, university groups, etc- anyone who might be able to help my clients get home again).
As I sit with these displaced homeowners and ask the “pertinent” questions to get to the heart of their story, it has always been a difficult task for me. One of my clients, Ms Mahelia, is a gentle soul. Her home was totally destroyed in Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath, her husband died and thieves brought into what remained of the home and stole precious items given to her by her late husband- items she now can never get back. After suffering robbery of her few treasures, she was robbed of funds that were to help her rebuild her home- contractor fraud. Today, Ms Maheia volunteers at the Senior Citizen Center trying to help others when she, herself, also needs help. With no funds for rebuild, Ms Maheia has come to SBP and we are working to raise the necessary funds to get her home.
As moving as Ms. Maheia’s story is, as I write her bio and as I relate her story, there is still a bit of detachment inside because I have never experienced anything remotely like this in my life- that is until Hurricane Isaac came to New Orleans.
Eerily, Hurricane Isaac came ashore 7 years to the day that Hurricane Katrina made landfall. This is when my story begins:
I knew that the storm was coming and that it was not reported to be as strong as Hurricane Katrina. I went to the grocery store because I did not have enough water to last for 3-4 days and I also needed non-perishable food items. The store hummed with a sense of urgency and determination. I was totally amazed. New Orleans is a party, up-beat town, full of energy and happiness. New Orleanians also knows how to get serious. The aura of Hurricane Katrina hung in the air. I chatted with a local resident in the grocery line (she was impressed with my selection of non-perishable items- yes, peanut butter works every time!!) and I asked, “Can you feel it in the air?” She knew exactly of what I was referring. She said, “Yes, I feel it.” We tried to laugh a bit- that nervous laugh when you just don’t know-exactly.
The next day- one day to landfall- as I listened to my co-workers talk about leaving or staying, I thought about my clients- how many of them had no options as to whether to leave or to stay. In knowing that I could leave, I had a certain sense of security. GSK alerted me to the name of our security officer who I could call at any time if I needed help- how wonderful would it have been if my clients had had a security officer, someone to call when they needed immediate assistance. SO, one day before landfall, I was feeling pretty good: SBP was checking on all of our clients, we were preparing for the storm by securing the offices, taping windows,moving computers to our second floor. As I helped to secure my office, I thought about the clients who had no second floor, the ones who had no funds to prepare their homes. It’s amazing what you think about when you are preparing for danger. Later that same day, I made reservations on each side of the storm. We were unsure where Isaac would make landfall and in what direction it was sure to move, so I,like many of my co-workers, made reservations to the east as well as to the west of the storm. You see, I had the means to go where I needed to go- many of my clients did not.
By now, I’m feeling a little nervous because I realize that time is running out and I also realize something else- for all of my close friends, for all of my connections, for all of my means- this was going to be Doris going it alone in making the decision as to which direction I planned to “run”. “To run”- that’s what I felt like I was going to have to do. As I sat in the last SBP Preparation Meeting, I looked around at my colleagues and listened to many of them talk about their plans of going to their parents, laying low, and just making-do. My church members decided to stay put, saying that they didn’t think it was going to be “that bad”. All I could see were the pictures of the residents who did not leave for Katrina. I know myself better than I did before I started this assignment- I am a planner and will take calculated risk, but I do not believe is testing when it’s not necessary.
At 9:15 pm, the day before Hurricane Isaac landed, I packed my car and headed out. It was strange leaving the city that night- my garage lot had emptied and the wind seemed to tease the air. And yes, I was afraid. I was afraid, because I did not know what I was going to face on the highway (also, I’m ridiculously directionally challenged and I was headed at night to Alabama). Many say bravery is being afraid and doing it anyway- well, I must say I am a brave soul!!
I’ve never been to Alabama and I did not make it that night either. From New Orleans, I’m about 6 hours from Alabama and I typically, don’t like to drive more that 3-4 hours in one shot. The roads were basically clear and it was pitch black along my route. I later learned that perhaps that was a good thing because my route took me over Lake Ponchartrain, the lake that invaded New Orleans 7 years earlier and this night (although I could not see her- she was angry). So, I made it to Mississippi where I had my first reservations (of course, I had gotten lost and the hotel staff had to talk me in!!). I was exhausted, as I had been hyper-vilgilent during the drive. I don’t remember crawling into bed that night; I remember waking up at 8 a.m. to the rain and wind. Now I had to make the decision as to if I would press on to Alabama. I’m sure I can’t explain how I was simply tired- tired of running, tired of being on edge, tired of just not being sure, tired of knowing that the decisions I made could be the difference between facing the storm or meerly learning of her wrath on the news. Is this how my clients felt? I only had two days of these feelings- they had weeks of facing life and death decisions. Did they just feel tired?
What I experienced with Hurricane Isaac can in no way compare to what New Orleans residents went through with Hurricane Katrina. But I now have a deeper understanding of what my clients mean when they say, “I just want home again”. You see, I was able to rest in a safe hotel, knowing that I had food, water, electricity, a phone to call Mom and Dad, a phone to receive many of the text messages from my colleagues at GSK. I also knew I had a job to go back to, a life to easily be picked up again. I did not meet devastation when I returned to my apartment in New Orleans (my street had been mentioned on the Weather Channel because of the damage!). Yes, I lost a bit of food – I did not loose my home.
Now, when I talk with my clients and I re-tell their stories to a CEO or a socially-minded individual, in some very small part, I’m telling my story. For days after Hurricane Isaac, I think of this time and I grow just a bit more determined and appreciative. I’m appreciative because I know that I am truly blessed. I thought I always lived my life from a stance of gratitude- I’m now even more grateful for the little things- Bob from GSK who texted because he misses me, a walk with my SBP colleague’s dog Fitz, a text from my manager Scott because he wanted to know if I was alright, and so much more.
I’m more determined to tell the story of my clients. I have many more clients now because the bulk of the devastation from Isaac was in two other Parishes. As I gather information to tell the stories of these new clients, I’ll include the pictures I took myself. The places I visited- not on the internet or the newspaper- but in person. This story I own, and I will not let America forget it. The problems residents face after natural disasters are solvable and I plan to be a part of the solution.