My college career was book ended by two terrible events in our nation’s history. The hijackings of 9/11 took place during my first week of freshman year, killing thousands of innocent people in a senseless act of terror. Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf during my road trip home from college, causing an astonishing amount of damage and taking almost 2,000 lives.
Like many Americans I witnessed both events unfold on TV, in the paper and on the radio. I felt sympathy, confusion, anger and exasperation. As a freshman I watched the aftermath of 9/11 from a distance and wanted to help, but didn’t know how. But with Katrina, I as able to actively contribute and work first-hand in the recovery efforts. That is because as fate would have it, I started my service term with AmeriCorps*NCCC about a week after the storm made landfall. Although I only spent a few months in the gulf coast during late 2005 and early 2006, the experience, memories and lessons I learned will stay with me forever.
When I first arrived in the gulf that fall many places around New Orleans were without running water, trash collection, or any open businesses for weeks or months. My team 12-person team worked alongside the National Guard, FEMA and various local organizations. We stayed in temporary compounds known as tent cities, sleeping on cots in huge tents and using port-a-potties for weeks at a time.
It was very humbling to be surrounded by mile after mile of utter destruction. It was sobering to stand on a slab of concrete where an entire house had recently been washed away. I will never forget the respect I gained for the ocean after seeing an iron beam folded in-half against a telephone pole like a twist-tie. The debris, stench, and silence were a haunting reminder of the storm surge’s violence. Simply put, huge portions of the gulf looked like a war zone.
I’ll never forget the feel of the thick, humid Louisiana air or the smell of the rotting trash and vegetation. I remember the weight of the mud and seaweed I shoveled out of someone’s kitchen. Under plastic hard-hats we would clear yards, our sweat saturating our cotton tee shirts. Behind steamed-up facemasks and respirators we removed moldy drywall from bedrooms and living rooms; the floodwater stain on the walls was often over our heads. We took care to preserve anything we could salvage, from family photos and heirlooms to household goods. The residents thanked us by giving us hugs, preparing us lunch or with kind words and eyes full of tears.
In the spring of 2006 my team and I worked at the “Made With Love Cafe” in St. Bernard Parish. We served thousands of free meals for returning residence and relief workers each day alongside a very eclectic collective of volunteers. Under a series of tents that more closely resembled circus big top than a kitchen, we helped prepare, cook and serve a variety of food from dawn until nightfall.
I’ll always remember listening to jazz on WWOZ while we cleaned dishes as the sun rose over the horizon. We would scrub pots and pans in a ceramic bathtub for hours, working at the collection of makeshift sinks that comprised the “dish pit”. I remember when an afternoon thunderstorm unleashed a torrential downpour from above, with wind gusts threatening to blow down the huge dome-shaped dining tent.
I remember hippies yelling “AmeriCorps, F&@#-YEAH!!” like the song from Team America World Police. There was drum circles, a bike collective, a herbal remedies tent and a myriad of characters like Benja, Bright Eyes, and Chance (with his trademark tricycle). It was a surreal experience and proved to be one of our most memorable projects of our service term.
This was before ubiquitous smartphones, so for entertainment we relied on each other, books, ipods and writing letters – yes, actual paper letters! We would take time off to goof around and let off steam. We played frisbee on the lawns near camp, drank beer at a beach bonfire and enjoyed the music and strong drinks along Bourbon Street. We would spend weekends in the French Quarter eating beignets in Jackson Square, singing along at Jean Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop and dancing down the sidewalk on Frenchmen Street.
Despite all the destruction and pain the storm caused, Katrina opened my eyes to a lot of beauty that I’ll never forget. The sun setting over the slowly flowing Mississippi; the smiles on the faces of volunteers from all over the country; the gratefulness of those we helped. My story is similar to the thousands of other AmeriCorps members, and I feel lucky enough to work alongside them as part of these recovery efforts.
I’ve been back to the New Orleans area many times since 2005 for work, vacation and to volunteer. I can honestly say that it is one of the most interesting, diverse and invigorating places I have ever been. Growing up in the suburbs of Boston, I had never been to the Gulf before my AmeriCorps term, but that year I fell in love with the people, music and food of creole, cajun, and New Orleans culture.
You can’t always control what happens to you in life, but you can control how you react and move forward. Americans really came together in those early months after the storm and AmeriCorps mobilized to help out in many important ways. As time goes by and the Gulf moves forward I know that I will never forget the storm or it’s aftermath. August 29, 2005 It was a very dark day for America, but I take solace in knowing that no matter what challenges lay ahead, we can continue to make things better, together.
AmeriCorps*NCCC, Western Region Corps Member
Class XII, Green 5
I highly recommend reading 1 Dead In The Attic by Chris Rose for more on life after the storm.
Better yet, go visit New Orleans and chat with a local. Trust me, they’ll have something to say.