While I was in New Orleans I decided to give as much time as I could to a volunteer project that had been recommended to me by a friend of mine.
I did this because I felt it would be a better way to experience the real New Orleans, and learn a lot about it from all the different people I’d be working with. I felt I would learn a hell of a lot more about New Orleans this way than if I had of booked in to a hotel or hostel and boozed it up in the French Quarter every night scrounging for gigs and entertainment. I did do a lot of this however. Not so much the boozing, but I spent a lot of time in the French Quarter and I did investigate as much music possibilities as I could.
But in working for the St Bernard Project I learnt a lot about how N.O. had changed since Cyclone Katrina, the emotions of the locals, the history of the place, and how people live in the real N.O., and its suburbs and neighbourhoods, not just the tourist strip.
For those of you that do not know, some 6 years ago New Orleans was devastated by massive storm. Even after all this time, the scars are very painfully visible. Prior to the storm, New Orleans was a vibrant bustling city. In the St Bernard Parish, down past the 9th Ward, where I lived and worked and where the SBP is located, the population was 67,000 before the storm. It is now at around 20,000. N.O. still bustles, I should mention. It’s still vibrant. But there’s a lot more space, in population and commerce.
Many parts of New Orleans do indeed look deserted. Right behind the SBP office is a huge supermarket/shopping mall. It’s boarded up and abandoned. There just isn’t the people to shop there. All through the 9th Ward and the Parish are concrete blocks where houses once stood but were swept away. In the more central areas sometimes whole neighbourhoods have been abandoned, leaving behind empty house after empty house, with only a few in between with families in them. For me it was kind of fascinating and exciting. But for the locals it must be a painful and stark reminder of what once was.
As an Australian, the most shocking thing for me was how little the government has done for the people of New Orleans. It is as though the Bush Administration simply turned its back, and subsequent governments simply washed their hands. (That means YOU Obama,) Last Summer Australia had some of the worst floods in history. It is inconceivable to imagine the government doing nothing at all in my country.
It was just as inconceivable for the New Orleans residents prior to the storm, too. But now there is a palpable lack of trust and confidence.
Take for instance the story of the guy that donated his workshop to the SBP, that they now use for their office.
He was a fire-fighter by trade that ran a tool shop in an industrial part of the St Bernard Parish. Dyed-in-the-wool flag waving patriot. He was stuck on his roof for 4 days before he was rescued. As a previous government emergency service worker he had absolute faith that the United States government would rescue him. But it was in fact Canadian Mounties that finally came and rescued him, taking him to another roof with other survivors that had to wait even longer to be taken to safety. It destroyed his faith in the government.
Add to that the behaviour and training of the National Guard who were just young kids, given very high powered rifles, and whipped up by their superiors into a frenzy of paranoia. They violently enforced a curfew on the residents after the storm at a time when recovery work and rebuilding was critical.
It drove a huge wedge between the people of Louisiana and their government. And there are many, many more stories of the callous handling and lack of effectiveness displayed by the government.
There were many more horror stories as well. The infamous Super-dome chaos for one. I will spare you the details, as they are readily available on the internet if you want to know more. There were also stories you won’t find on the internet, such as the young recovery worker who reached breaking point when he discovered the body of a drowned 6 year old girl in a back yard. They couldn’t find her family. Maybe they had survived, maybe not. Nobody could tell.
The internet also can’t tell you what it’s like to work alongside these people, and where their hearts and attitudes are today. New Orleans has seen many disasters in its time, and has been wiped out before by fires and other storms. Certainly the force of Katrina was unprecedented, but the hearts of the New Orleans people are incredibly strong. They’re proud of their town, their culture and their community. New Orleans may well change, but that’s all it will do. Just change. It will not be destroyed. And change is just a part of life. New Orleans’ life has been very long.
The people of New Orleans have always been economically challenged compared to their northern sibling states. Some people here are some of the poorest in America. And Katrina took away what little they had left. Insurance companies scammed out of paying up, and left people whose families had lived in the same house and neighbourhood for generations, with absolutely nothing but the clothes on their back. Even after the waters subsided, the clean up was obviously going to take money. Money to clean the mud, to repair walls, windows, and so much more. Many families simply left, and have yet to return. As I mentioned, many houses stand empty and abandoned, filled with ghosts and shadows.
The Saint Bernard Project is a volunteer project that helps to rebuild and repair houses whose residents could not afford to. When I volunteered I did a lot of painting, a lot of wall preparation, some insulation and other various construction jobs. I worked with people from right across America who had come down to simply pitch in. Some had experience, some did not. It didn’t matter. We gave our labour, and that’s what the SBP needed.
There’s actually a lot of these projects in New Orleans being run by Americans who are filling the vacuum left by the Government’s inaction. All of them are non-profit or volunteer programs. Each have a different angle.
Many of these Americans came to work in New Orleans and ended up staying permanently. As they say, people love New Orleans, and New Orleans loves ’em right back!
I really valued my time at SBP, and I will definitely be back to give them more of my labour someday. It’s probably the best thing you can do if you’re staying in N.O. for any length of time. You’ll learn a lot about the people, and if you stay aware of what’s going on around you, a lot about the Louisiana climate, flora and fauna. And you may pick a skill or two you didn’t have before. I recommend it thoroughly.
For further information, check out these links: