Editor’s note: The following commentary is the story of a Collegian reporter, and member of Christian Challenge, the Baptist Student Union, who spent his Spring Break helping rebuild in New Orleans.
NEW ORLEANS – A clumsy van carried us through a ruinous neighborhood where the shells of abandoned houses, destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, stared vacantly into the street. Not the ideal setting for a Spring Break.
Inside, nearly a dozen of us – students from CSU – were covered with the sweat and grime of a hard day working in the South.
The mood was light. We joked and laughed. Despite the tough labor, we relished being out of class.
Then, something caused our driver to slow to a stop. Our voices died down as, one by one, all of our eyes fell on what was just outside a window. Eerie silence filled the van.
A white sheet had been drawn out across a fence. On it, spray painted in chilling desperation: “We have nowhere else to go!”
After months of fundraising and planning, students from Christian Challenge, the Baptist Student Union of CSU, gave up their Spring Break to help those in need. Eleven students, one campus minister, and one campus minister’s son made the two-day trip to New Orleans.
I had been on a similar trip last year, and though I shared the desire to help those in need, the thing I had been looking forward to the most was finally being 21 on Bourbon Street, already restored to its former glory.
But in our few short days on the Mississippi Delta, my heart would be changed.
We stayed at the World Trade Center, a business building which had allotted three of its floors to Operation NOAH Rebuild (New Orleans Area Housing).
The program’s goal is to rebuild 1,000 houses and 210 churches by August 2008, an official said.
NOAH gave our group lists of each home’s immediate needs. Most needed rusted nails yanked out, molded drywall knocked down or warped floors pulled up.
But the lists could not prepare us for what we found as we drove out of the downtown area and into the neighborhoods Katrina hit hardest.
What we found was a surreal world of destruction.
Houses that had once been people’s homes were now only walls with broken windows and collapsed ceilings. Holes in the roofs revealed where people had escaped the rising waters. Many had to wait on their roofs for days before finally being rescued.
Destroyed mattresses, sofas and kitchen tables were tossed to the curbs along with clothes, toys and family portraits.
Everything smelled like dust and mold.
A few people walked among the rubble, but many whole neighborhoods were deserted. Children, deprived of their former play areas, now sat listlessly in front of FEMA trailers parked in the front yards of the few families who have chosen to return to their homes.
“That was eerie,” said Jenika Howe, a sophomore history major. “It really hit home that the people we were talking to were the ones you hear about on the news. To hear the people talk about their neighbors who they knew so well and were now gone was sobering.”
Large Xs had been spray painted on the front of most of the houses. Quadrants of each X held four different numbers.
One signified the National Guard unit that inspected the house. Another was the date of inspection. The third was the number of survivors found there.
The last was the number of bodies.
Tom Canfield, a wiry Vietnam veteran with a shock of white hair and a clean beard, surveyed the remnants of his neighborhood with a sigh.
“As recently as six or seven weeks ago, they’re still finding bodies,” he said. “I can see the ghosts of people I’ve known still walking these streets.”
Tom, his mother, Latrice, and his girlfriend, Judy, have lived in a FEMA trailer in front of Latrice’s dilapidated house for more than a year. All three have lived in New Orleans all their lives.
“I love New Orleans,” Canfield said. “New Orleans is like a woman: once it gets in your blood it stays in your blood.”
Jazz, the city’s heartbeat, filled Tom’s trailer as he recalled Aug. 29, 2005, – the day the storm hit.
Tom was watching TV at a Hooters in Baton Rouge. The news showed a shot of his neighborhood underwater.
His house was gone.
The music lover who used to work at a radio station filled two garbage cans with ruined CDs when he was finally able to come back.
Since the storm, the abandoned streets have become infested with crime. Canfield says he is now always back in “‘Nam mode” – living in his hometown has become akin to surviving in a war zone. The city has the highest murder rate in the nation, according to a Tulane University study. Mayor Ray Nagin called on the National Guard and state police to stay through the end of the summer to help the thin-spread police department keep order.
Students from Christian Challenge pulled nails left from drywall gutting and removed molded linoleum from the floor of Latrice Canfield’s home.
We weren’t the only ones who have helped the Canfields. The car Tom Canfield drives was donated by the local Edgewater Baptist Church.
“It has restored my faith in humanity,” Canfield said. “It’s been the worst of times because of the neglect we’ve received, but it’s been the best of times because of the humanity of the groups that come here.”
Despite the help of volunteers, not all is well. And Canfield is determined to prove it.
Stacks of orderly arranged papers sat on his sofa and kitchen table.
Since the storm, Canfield has kept files about how the aftermath of Katrina has been handled. Dated forms and newspaper clippings reveal in meticulous detail the neglect suffered by the hurricane’s victims.
“You can’t rebuild what you’ve lost with what (the government) has given you,” Canfield said. “And now the contractors are exploiting. . We’ve been short-shifted.”
Canfield said that the federal, state and local governments all share the blame.
“It was the most massive man-made disaster and now it’s nationally the worst taken care of,” Canfield said. “Fifteen-hundred people died. . People in New Orleans are still sitting here a year after the fact and it’s a bureaucratic mess.
“I feel like our government has let us down,” he said. “I keep asking myself, ‘Where are our champions?'”
Streets of the French Quarter
At night, we would stroll the Mississippi River Walk from the World Trade Center to the French Quarter to experience Caf/ Du Monde and some of the nightlife.
On the River Walk, some steps lead down to the water’s edge. A group of homeless guys were drinking there.
“You got to pay the toll!” one of them yelled out. His fellows laughed.
Our leader, BSU/CC Director Wade Pacheco, being his usual friendly self started talking to one of them. Following his example, I resolved to ignore my hesitation and did the same. The guy I talked to was named Charlie, and he was only 24.
Charlie said he and his friends Steve and the Mohawked “Skunk” were “modern day hobos.”
He said he travels across the country on freight trains and comes to New Orleans every year.
Shortly after the storm hit, Charlie took up residence in an abandoned home in the 9th Ward, the district worst hit by the storm.
“One day, I saw a f—ing yuppy giving tours of the destruction,” he said. He got off his bike and started yelling at the guide and his tourists. “I may be a drunkard, but I have a sense of human decency,” he said.
As Charlie and I talked about jazz and volunteer work, I couldn’t believe I had been hesitant to talk to him. He was a lot like me.
Then, out of nowhere, he said, “You guys are Christians, right?”
“Yeah,” I answered, wondering what would come next.
“Jesus was a f—ing cool guy,” Charlie said. “I’m not a Christian, but I like people who believe in stuff and actually live it. You guys helping everyone out down here – you guys are cool.”
I asked Charlie if there was anything he needed.
“Well that’s a real question,” he said. “We could always use some food.”
The next night, my friend Michele Bratschun, a senior natural resources major, and I searched for a restaurant that was still open. Finally, we found one and were able to bring a 12-piece chicken dinner to Charlie and eight of his friends at the steps by the river.
The way they reacted, you’d think we had cured cancer.
“It’s so awesome what you’ve done for these people,” one said, fiercely shaking my hand. “Thank you. Man, really. Thank you.”
They told me that some people sometimes give them booze, but no one ever gives them food.
“Preachers come in their nice suits and tell how we need to change our ways,” Charlie said. “But they never just feed us. It’s awesome you live what you believe.”
There by the Mississippi, talking to our friends who smelled of grime and beer while they ate the food we had brought them, I felt like I was sitting with Jesus.
The Bible says He spent his time with those society had tossed aside, simply loving them. It occurred to me that Charlie was right.
Finally, I was living what I believed.
Random acts of appreciation
We were pulling a molded ceiling out of a house, wearing masks to protect from “Katrina Cough” – what they call it when the mold gets into your lungs – when a man came to the door speaking Spanish.
Michele, who speaks a little Spanish, tried conversing with him for a while before Wade finally asked the man if he spoke English.
“Oh, yeah!” the man said, smiling. He had mistakenly thought we all spoke Spanish.
He told us his name was Charles E. Garrison, pastor of New Genesis Bible Church in New Orleans, and that he was going around committing “random acts of appreciation.”
“The people of New Orleans can never say thanks enough to the many Christian groups that have come down to help rebuild our lives,” Garrison told us.
With captivating passion, Garrison encouraged us to live pure and holy lives. He then recited three original poems to show us his appreciation.
“Many people look at New Orleans as the big city, but my poems describe it as a little girl put on display,” Garrison said. “Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street – saints of God have no part of those activities. The real New Orleans has no part of those activities.”
The pastor-poet also gave us autographed copies of his poems, which he sells in the French Quarter to help finance his ministry. After the storm, Garrison opened his home to people in need.
Before he left, he thanked us once more for helping rebuild the broken lives of his neighbors.
“That may be why Katrina came,” he said. “So that you can come down here.”
Faith in the flotsam
Our last day, we helped a man named Warren Bolds clean up his overgrown yard so he could bulldoze his house and sell his property.
“What is there to come back to?” he asked.
Warren told us that after Katrina, the government had given $100 billion to help the victims. He and his daughter stood in line for 13 hours to get their share, but people not from New Orleans had also heard about the money and had come looking for handouts. When Warren and his daughter finally got to the front of the line, they were told the money was gone.
“They’re prosecuting those people now,” he told us. “But what good does that do me?”
Warren had his own lawn and garden business before the flooding destroyed his entire inventory. What insurance money he was able to get he put toward his daughter’s tuition at Emory University.
“I don’t know if you are believers,” Warren said, taking out his Bible.
“But this is my daily bread,” he said. “This is what gets me through.”
Before we left Warren, we stood with him in a circle and prayed for him and his daughter.
“The things you have – appreciate them,” Warren told us. “And the friends and neighbors you have – build relationships with them. Because you never know.”
Staff writer James Holt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.