January 22, 2006, 1800 hours. From what I’ve heard there are four camps like Camp Algiers spread throughout New Orleans. Ours is a military installation that is currently housing roughly 975 people. 75% are military, mostly National Guard, but some Army, while the other 25% are volunteers from various churches and like organizations around the country. There are also a few paid laborers staying here, but apparently they typically migrate more towards the FEMA runned camps a few miles away. The camp is set up in five tents that span the size of a pro football field. There are about 200 cots per tent. His and hers showers are available, as well as 10-15 port-a-potties outside each tent. There’s a chow hall, a laundry tent and a recreation tent (where I watched my beloved Broncos get smashed by the Steelers today). It is a camp full of hope and promise, filled with lives that have purpose here and believe they can provide a source of inspiration with their hearts and hands. We started the day in typical military fashion. The bugle announcing the dining room was open around 5:30 this morning and plenty of movement in the tents so no one missed their window to get they’re grub on.
After breakfast I, and the 5 guys I traveled with from Colorado, loaded in to a van to make way from camp to the church that we would be working with to help rebuild. We made our way over the toll bridge, crossed the Mississippi river and ventured towards the heart of the city. To our right was the Superdome, once a proud host of many Superbowl games and a place of celebration, it appeared as nothing more than a hollow cave that now hosted the demons of horrific stories that littered our television screens for days during the aftermath of Katrina. As we drove through and over the highways where thousands had been stranded attempting to race for safety, my stomach got queezy from the thoughts of so many lost, scared, and confused. Upon entering this portion of the city you could still see tons of debris made up of grocery bags, survival supplies like tape and boxes, and even a pair of shoes, left as a haunting reminder of so many left behind during this tragedy. It was slightly confusing to aclammate ourselves to the traffic rules of the inner city. The traffic lights still hung lifeless above the streets of the city, replaced by makeshift stop signs on every corner. While most of the locals seem to know what was going on, it took us a minute to realize we were in such a situation. Partly because we saw the lights above and just assumed eventually they would come on, partly because we were distracted by the chaotic scene unfolding in front of us at every turn. We passed the city and county building and the courthouse, and although it was Sunday, the boarded windows and piles of trash lacing the sidewalks gave little hope that this city was coming back to life. Business after business had planks of wood for windows, signs shouting “We will be backâ€? were dangling, likely untouched since the winds and waters of Katrina blew through and ripped away their promise of continued consumerism. With each block we passed the water line had left permanent imprints, anywhere from 6 to 10 feet up on buildings and houses, that had clearly drowned the spirit of this once thriving city. It’s not as if hope doesn’t exist, the reality is that it was flooded and washed away. We pulled in to a curbside parking space, down the street from the church. As we got out, we were greeted by mountains of personal history piled high on the streets. Histories that had been removed from tipping houses and flooded apartments. Pianos in pieces, shredded clothes, stuffed animals and rotted furniture. I peeked in to a few windows to see the depths of the destruction and though most of the houses appeared empty and void of life, there were a couple that showed signs of rejuvenation, where owners still cling to the hope of rebuilding. I happened upon a house on the corner, next to the church, where a woman, mid-forties, sweat dripping from her brow, dressed in paint-covered pants and a shirt adorned with drywall plaster was peeking through the bars on her windows that had obviously been removed by Katrina. I waved to her and a smile and energetic wave was returned. I stopped and asked her name and how she was doing. She replied with a labored sigh, “Priscilla, and I’m tired.â€? Priscilla’s house was one of only a handful that showed signs of life amidst blocks of destruction. It was a rental property prior to the hurricane that now made it an unappealing shell of habitation. I asked her if she would mind if I came in and looked at her house and she seemed happy to have the company. I walked through her kitchen and made my way to the main dining room. She immediately brought my attention to some reinstalled drywall that she said she paid a company to complete. She went on that they came in and did a quick half-ass job and left her to finish, taking her compensation for their labor to likely venture on to other unsuspecting victims willing to pay anyone for assistance. My fellow travelers gathered in the room and we began listening to her revisit the horrible day Katrina ravaged her home. Priscilla had a 30-something daughter that suffered from bi-polar disorder. They were separated when Priscilla attempted to go back to the house and get her daughter’s medication, while her daughter ventured on towards the Superdome within 5 miles of their home. Details of Priscilla’s story were scattered and I can’t recall how she said she survived as her story was more about how her daughter had survived. Apparently she made her way towards the Superdome with a young child and picked up another young adult and that person’s two older, mentally-retarded parents. Her bi-polar going in and out of balance, she continued on towards the Superdome leading the way for those seemingly less able than herself, despite the personal trauma of not having her medication to relieve her. Priscilla was safe at a friend’s house and went 3-4 days without knowing where her daughter was or if she had survived the ordeal. Finally, a message was left on Priscilla’s sister’s answering machine that her daughter had survived and relayed her courageous story. You could see the tears welling up in Priscilla’s eyes as she told us, but refused for it to overtake her as she explained it does almost every day since Katrina. Before we left I took a picture of the single sign of hope that stood out, in the corner of her house. The water line that reminds her daily of the flood that gutted the life she had inside her house is visible just above the top of a red straw-seat chair. A place to hang her hat has emerged and it’s whiteness breathes life in to the walls in front of which it rests. As I left and thanked her for sharing her story, I grabbed her hand and felt the hope that had been renewed in her labored spirit. This is why I came to New Orleans. And the journey had only begun. Previous: Day One.