Editor’s Note: 5280 Production Manager Brian Roundtree is using a week of his vacation to help with rebuilding efforts in New Orleans. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina hit Brian especially close to home. “Back in May of 2005 our house burned down and dozens of people came through to help us get back on our feet. My trip to New Orleans has become my way of paying it forward.” We’ll be posting Brian’s reports throughout the week. January 21, 2006, 2300 hours. Finding Camp Algiers was not half as easy as it could have been. We navigated through a series of streets that took us first-hand through some of the remaining piles of debris, garbage, etc. that remain unmoved in any number of parishes. We weren’t sure if we were traveling through Katrina ravaged neighborhoods or ghettos that happened to get slapped by Katrina and may not have looked much better now than they did prior to the hurricane. Upon reaching Algiers we heard we were lucky to have made it through those neighborhoods as they were definitely ghettos that existed long before Katrina’s arrival. Most of these places did not look inhabitable by my current definition of inhabitable, but I’ve been homeless as a teenager, and realized that these apartment buildings and ransacked homes were better than nothing. It occurred to me that when you’ve grown up in the ghetto and lived in deep poverty most of your life, as a great deal of New Orleanians in this area have, than the fact that Katrina left anything behind is at least as much as they had before Katrina hit and the storm hasn’t seemed to halt the perseverance that is sustained in ghettos nationwide.
We were diverted to a FEMA camp by various bad directions from locals. The common phrase was “It’s real easy, just go this way and that and take a left and you’ll be there.â€? It seemed the more we got directions, the more lost we got in “the hoodâ€?. The FEMA camp we arrived at was not the correct camp we were to be staying. Thank goodness. Not that we were expecting the Hilton, but the high school turned FEMA base was nothing more than an oversized shack, complete with shattered windows, minimal electricity and very distraught looking FEMA workers. It was heavily armed and the exchange we had with the FEMA security when we arrived was, at best, bizarre and at worst, downright frightening. We were asked for security i.d. and upon not having any, due to our being in the wrong location, were told to stay in a fenced area where the guards could keep an eye on us. So we sat and waited for the director to interview/interrogate us. “Good, but a political nightmareâ€? was how one retired Army Veteran put it when asked, while we waited, how progress was going in the local parish. He almost sounded like a Bush apologist so I didn’t press the subject of FEMA’s nationally publicized inefficiency. The camp “directorâ€? finally emerged from a building close-by. He was having a nervous conversation with someone on his cellphone, looked at our group and finished his conversation with, “Don’t worry about meeting me, it looks like I’m skipping dinner tonight and have a lot to do here.â€? I felt bad for an instant and got over it real quick. The director proceeded to introduce himself to us as he told me to get out of the chair I was comfortably stretching out in after my 24-hour road trip. He pulled a cigarette from his pocket and then began talking to us as if we knew why we were there. He only got the following sentence out when I realized we had made it to the wrong camp. “We’re all here for the same reason: to make money.â€? Well, we’re volunteers, we had no intention of making money. It was odd hearing that coming from FEMA, because I’m pretty sure they’re not making any money either, as their a tax-funded government emergency management organization. It was clear after hours of navigating the city of New Orleans and being directed to multiple dead ends we had landed in FEMA’s base of contracted laborers, clearly getting paid to help with the clean-up. So, I jumped up, said “we have the wrong camp siteâ€? and urged my crew to quickly get in the van and get us moving on to find our destination before these clowns running what appeared to be the American version of Papillion decided not to let us go on our way. We continued past devastating neighborhood after devastating neighborhood and finally landed across the street from the Naval base just off the Mississippi river. Camp Algiers was our final destination for the first leg of this journey. It was night when we reached camp and I haven’t seen a lot, but I’m going to bed tonight in shock as to the few blocks of destruction I’ve witnessed. Tomorrow will be my first view during daylight and I can only imagine. But it is playoff Sunday and we’re going to find a place to watch the Broncos beat Pittsburg.