When the Saints Go Marching In

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by Rebecca Cosgrove

Rebecca at St. Bernard's Parish, June 2006


WHEN HURRICANE KATRINA
spiraled towards New Orleans five years ago, I had never been to the city, knew very little about it, and had no pressing desire to go there. But as I watched the disaster unfold, I was urged to get in my car, go there, and help in some way.

I fell in love immediately, when she was at her worst, and then again over time, as I experienced her best – her vibrant people, her poignant stories, her stoic acceptance, her heartrending soul.

Over the past four years I have visited six times, each time spending a week working with various rebuilding organizations in the city. With every visit, I have left a piece of my heart behind.

by Rebecca Cosgrove



Rebecca at St. Bernard's Parish, June 2006

WHEN HURRICANE KATRINA spiraled towards New Orleans five years ago, I had never been to the city, knew very little about it, and had no pressing desire to go there. But as I watched the disaster unfold, I was urged to get in my car, go there, and help in some way. My father did exactly that – jumped in his truck and headed south as a Red Cross Disaster Relief Volunteer. As the days passed into weeks of mounting crisis, I remained gripped by the story, and as the following months revealed continuing suffering and need, my desire to volunteer intensified.   My resolve to get involved was solidified after hearing my father’s harrowing stories and seeing the grief on his face when he returned from multiple trips to the city.

I first set foot in New Orleans nine months after the storm.  I fell in love immediately, when she was at her worst, and then again over time, as I experienced her best – her vibrant people, her poignant stories, her stoic acceptance, her heartrending soul. Over the past four years I have visited six times, each time spending a week working with various rebuilding organizations in the city. With every visit, I have left a piece of my heart behind.

The first piece was left in “da’ Parish”, the affectionate name for St. Bernard Parish, a working class community which borders the city of New Orleans to the southeast. The parish was one of the hardest hit areas during and after the storm; levees were toppled and storm waters rose quickly and violently. For two weeks, da’ Parish was under roughly 17 feet of water, sustaining significant structural damage to 100% of its residential and commercial buildings. In June of 2006, I spent a week gutting houses there with my husband and my father.

In this war zone of a neighborhood, we were overwhelmed by what we saw, and deeply ashamed. The Lower 9th Ward, June 2006The depth and scope of the devastation was unfathomable, cutting across all boundaries of race, age and economic status. It seemed to us that this region in crisis was being neglected by those who were officially responsible for leading the recovery.   

As the national spotlight continues to fade on New Orleans, the need for attention and assistance does not. Continued focus and involvement is vital to the future of this city.

Our work during that first trip was grueling and heartbreaking. The houses we worked had been mostly untouched since the flooding had submerged them ten months prior. We entered rooms piled high with four to five feet of decay and debris, the entire contents of a household – furniture, appliances, clothes, food. It was our job to gut the house and leave it bare down to the bare studs. As we shoveled and clawed through ruined possessions, there was an intimate and delicate nature to the work. These were the homes of unmet strangers, and we hauled their once cherished possessions away in wheelbarrows. We encountered rats, roaches, porn and guns, trophies, wedding dresses, photo albums, and beads, beads, beads – this was, after all, Mardi Gras territory.

While at times the task seemed utterly futile given the scope of the destruction, we worked with an intense and driving purpose. Regardless of whether or not an individual family would be able to return, these houses needed to be rebuilt or torn down. More often than not, the homeowners were left without the financial resources or the emotional fortitude to do the clean-up themselves, and they viewed the influx of eager volunteers from around the country, and around the world, as a blessing.

It was inspirational to work alongside a diverse group of people, all with sincere hearts and genuine concern, doing some of the hardest work imaginable simply because it needed to be done. We were all motivated by a shared desire to help ease the profound burden of our fellow Americans and perhaps to try, in our own small way, to right a wrong.

The physical and emotional intensity of that first trip made it one of the most powerful and galvanizingHabitat for Humanity at Musician's Village, April 2007 experiences of my life. The literal blood, sweat and tears that we shed served as a defining moment in my life and cemented my commitment. I have returned to the city once or twice every year since then to continue the work of rebuilding, bringing along good friends and making new ones every time.

The people I’ve met in New Orleans have truly captured my heart. I am moved by the tenacity of the city and humbled by the enduring courage and graciousness of the people, people who serve as the backbone of the American society and economy.

Cheryl, a middle-aged nurses’ aide from Broadmoor, spent four days on the roof of an elementary school waiting to be rescued, refusing to leave behind her disabled brother and a severely disabled patient who was in her care. The school was just half a block from the home that she had saved for all of her life, which was made uninhabitable by the floodwaters. After three years, she and her family moved back home.  It was an honor to put the finishing touches on her house and to help her rearrange the new furniture in her new living room.

Mr. and Mrs. Peters, an elderly working-class couple from Gentilly, provided a living, breathing example of unconditional love. Just prior to Hurricane Katrina, Mrs. Peters began to suffer from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, coming quickly to rely on her husband for all her needs. Experiencing harrowing circumstances during their evacuation, the couple now faced an uphill battle to return to the only city, the only home they had ever known. This man’s love and devotion for his wife is extraordinary. It was a privilege to help them get their lives back together.

Miss Barbara, Mr. Kenneth, Brian and Rebecca.  Gentilly neighborhood, May 2009

Albert is one of the true unsung heroes of Katrina and her aftermath. Working on the Hollygrove home where he grew up and raised his own children gave me the opportunity to meet a man who risked his own life, using his fishing boat to rescue dozens of people from his neighborhood in the chaotic days and weeks of the disaster. An incredibly talented artist and musician, Albert has endured great pain and suffering in the years following Katrina. The strength and character he has shown in the ongoing battle to get his life back are admirable. I am proud to call him a friend.

As we meet the five year anniversary of the storm and its catastrophic aftermath, New Orleans still continues to work towards recovery.  While I’ve started to see appreciable signs of progress, there are still entire neighborhoods in the city that remain wiped out. During my most recent trip back to the St. Bernard Parish area in May, I learned that 1,000 displaced families still live in FEMA trailers in that parish alone. Substantive leadership at any level of government is lacking. Non-profit and faith-based organizations have been the most instrumental in leading rebuilding efforts, some in very innovative and grassroots ways. The focus of these groups is to get homeowners back in their homes in the most economical and expeditious way possible. Their models are largely reliant on volunteer labor and charitable donations.  

There has been a steady stream of volunteers from all over the world, hundreds of thousands of people like me who have discovered the immeasurable rewards of helping to rebuild this great American city. However, as the national spotlight continues to fade on the problem, the need for attention and assistance does not.  Continued focus and involvement is vital to the future of this city.

Working alongside people like Albert and Cheryl has left an indelible mark on my heart. Each has taught me lessons of courage, endurance, patience, forgiveness, love and grace. They are people whose character and spirit embody the soul of New Orleans. They are why it is so important that the rebuilding and revitalization of this city continues.  There is more at stake than the richness of the culture and the economic importance of the region – even five years later there are still homes and lives at stake.

To make a donation to the St. Bernard Project, a grassroots organization Rebecca has worked closely with in New Orleans, visit their website here.

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