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Report from New Orleans: Day Six

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January 26, 2006, 2012 hours. I’m sitting in the recreation tent (that bears the red and white stripes of a circus big top) with a score of individuals that have been working in various parts of the city. They’ve either been deconstructing or rebuilding from Orleans Parish to Jefferson Parish to Downtown to East Orleans and the 9th Ward and everywhere in between. Most of them are winding down for the evening. Some are engaged in card games, reminiscing about the friends and family they left behind to play an active role in the efforts here. Others are staring at the television, reading the newspaper or fighting to keep their eyes open after a long day mired in whatever wreckage they uncovered between the runny, off-yellow eggs they had for breakfast and the fatty, brown gravy covered prime rib for dinner. The dull shades of dark-colored fabrics on the couches are a reflection of the somber moods that rest deep within their cushions. Some folks are talking local politics while other cats swap varied tales passed on by survivors. I was fortunate to talk to a woman this morning that had escaped New Orleans the day before Katrina landed on the shores of the Gulf Coast. Her name was Ruth Wilson. She was a 75-year-old woman who jumped in her car after the 2nd warning from city officials to evacuate and managed to make her way to her son’s house in Houston. Upon returning to her home a couple months later she found that her block had been submerged by a mere 2 feet of water from the nearby Lake Pontchartrain. Her house was on a concrete foundation roughly 3 feet high and everything inside her house was spared from the wrath of the hurricane. Ruth had ventured out of her home for the morning and caught my attention while we were setting up to install a wall and floors inside a shotgun house located across the street. She stood on her porch, overlooking the construction up and down her block (an unusual site to see more than one crew on a given block as there were some roofers working on the house next to our project and some construction workers just down the street removing a car that had been crushed by a tree). She had a beautiful smile and a proud stance as she leaned against the Victorian handrails that lined her clutter-free terrace.

I walked across the street and introduced myself. I inquired of her story and was delighted to respond that hers was the first I had heard this week that didn’t include tears and pain brought on by the reminder of significant loss. Everything she had went untouched during the chaos and she didn’t hesitate to thank God for her blessings at least 4 or 5 times during our conversation. I asked about her neighbors and what she thought about the unusually high activity of rebuilding occurring on her block. That too was a blessing and she acknowledged that it was out of the ordinary for so many houses in one little area to be worked on simultaneously. She mentioned of her hope to have the senior citizen village, devastated just a few blocks down the street, rebuilt and operational within the next year. A few weeks prior to the hurricane she was planning her migration to assisted living and she longed to live the remaining years of her life minutes from the house she had owned since 1963. She moved in and out of the details of returning to the unscathed home, commenting on the roof being re-shingled caddy-corner to her place and the framing about to proceed in the house directly across the street. I could hear the elation in her voice and it struck me that while so many of the tales I’ve heard have been about rebuilding the house of an individual to regain the private life they once had, Ruth’s excitement was for the return of people that were important to her life outside of her home. So many of the houses that are being rebuilt are often a block or two away from one another. The system is based on a list that exists through either the city or a given organization and rebuilding efforts take place on a first come – first serve basis. So in most cases while one individual’s home may be close to occupation, it may be months before a neighbor’s name moves to the top of a list and gives an abandoned block a sense of community once again. It will be only a couple more weeks and the faces of Ruth’s community will have the opportunity to flourish again. The weekend barbeques and the evening patio conversations will return. The feelings of displacement will be replaced with a long awaited unified sense of belonging. I also witnessed some good news from Priscilla’s side of town today. Water had been restored in her home and for the first time in 5 months she will be able to take a warm bath in her upstairs tub. She was so happy that she told me she had to be outside, under the second consecutive day of sunshine, and plant some flowers in both her front and back yards. She wore a fluorescent pink jump suit and planted bright yellow pansies. In a week full of gray clouds and black mud it was refreshing to see a rainbow was emerging from underneath it all. Previous: Day One, Day Two, Day Four., Day Five

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