New Orleans, April 3-8, 2007
We worked with the National Relief Network (http://www.nrn.org/), which works only with student groups (high school & college). They had 2000 students work for them in 2006, and in the first six months of 2007, already have that many who’ve come or are set to come. They are not religious and so are able to happily accommodate interfaith groups, which was useful for us (the CEO, Scott, told us about a Jewish/Muslim group who had come and bonded over their work, even playing football together at the end of their trip in a game to determine “who takes Jerusalem” – the Muslims won). They’ve worked with colleges from NYU to Berkeley, and focus on California and the East Coast (esp. NY and Boston). They work solely in federally declared disaster areas in the United States. They are a wonderful resource for youth groups!!
They aspire to be the new Red Cross or Salvation Army. Every member of their staff (including Scott, who was with us) works at least 2 weeks in the field per year.
St. Bernard parish (county), where we worked, went completely underwater for 13 days during the storm. It’s on a peninsula at the end of the city, so most rescue crews didn’t make it that far (they stopped, necessarily, at the 9th ward) – in fact, the first help that got to them was the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The surge was 33 feet and cleared their 30 ft levee. They had 30 ft of water standing over 42 square miles for 13 days. That does a lot of damage. There were 67,000 residents prior to the storm; less than half have returned (only 6,000 had flood insurance). They lost every building, including 27,000 homes, and every business in the parish.
The local oil refinery is supposed to dump their oil tanks when the waters rise. Not wanting to lose the profit on the oil, they didn’t do it during Katrina. And so the tanks became buoyant and spilled one million gallons of oil into St. Bernard, the largest residential oil spill in history. Did you hear about it? I didn’t. But I saw the residue on everything. There was oil 4 feet high and water 30 feet above that – you can still see the lines on the buildings.
The devastation stretches from New Orleans to Mobile, Alabama, which is a distance of 180 miles. Think about what is 180 miles away from you. Think about it all being gone. And next time you wonder why they haven’t gotten around to rebuilding, consider that the only contractor with usable tools who’s not busy on his own house could be 200 miles away!
The homes were smushed – they looked like they’d been stepped on. This county had never had a flood (so many were told they didn’t need to carry flood insurance!). When they were hit, it was with the worst natural disaster in US history. For perspective: in Florida, there were four hurricanes in 2004, causing $25 billion total in damage. Katrina alone, as of 2 months after the storm (not final numbers), was at $65 billion.
The man called in to rebuild St. Bernard, who took a huge paycut to do it, was the Colonel who had rebuilt Fallouja, Iraq, and had evacuated the embassy where “Black Hawk Down” happened. He said St. Bernard was the most difficult challenge of his life.
The houses and buildings have X’s on them (see photo above). The date at top is when they were searched. The left letters are the national guard unit which searched it. The number at bottom is human bodies found dead, and the number at right is animals found dead or alive. Some houses have WO on them, for work order # - it means the house is set for demolition. Lots had these.
There were many people who had to leave their elderly relatives down in the house to drown, when they couldn’t get them up to the roof. People’s mothers, grandmothers, screaming at them to get to safety and leave them behind. Imagine the guilt. Divers had to recover their bodies. The CEO cried telling us this story.
People need to tell their stories to pass off some of their burden. We were enormously blessed to meet homeowners at all of our sites (usually that happens only about 10% of the time). We were able to hear their stories, and show them what we had salvaged. One couple was so fun – they ran out to buy us crawdads!
The food was less than awesome, but you can’t expect much when you’re eating whatever’s donated. We lived on pb&j (corn-syrup kind), though our kind leaders went out and got us chips (Ruffles, specifically) which most of us had decided was the food of the gods by the end of the week. There was nary a veggie to be found, and our group bought its own fruit. I’ve been quite sick this week with terrific stomach pains. I don’t think my body was thrilled with the switch from mostly whole organic foods to what I ate last week. We were all pretty jealous of the kosher folks, who at least got to eat decent-looking cold cuts and cheese! (I realized also that I didn’t have dairy the whole week, except shelf-stable milk, which I’m pretty sure doesn’t count).
I was actually pretty miserable during the working. I tried to keep up a brave face, but it was hard and hot and really sweaty (the combo of a face mask & goggles means you basically fog up your glasses nonstop and can’t see), and more than that I got nasty blisters from wearing too-big borrowed work boots and my carpal tunnel flared by the 3rd day. In fact, I had to go buy new braces and wear them since I got home, because it still hurts. And I got a really hard-core beet-red sunburn on my arms and neck – it was hot to the touch, even hot just holding your hand an inch off my skin, for 4 days! And now it’s peeling, which is just yucky. I feel like such a kid with peeling arms.
I spent a lot of time with the homeowners, trying to do whatever little bits of pastoral care I could, and I also had a great conversation with Scott of NRN, talking about his calling and vision. I found God giving me words to say. And I felt like those conversations afforded me opportunity to use my gifts, while my physical shortcomings were not hindering.
We opened Claudia and Kevin’s garage, which hadn’t been opened since the storm. It had all the stuff they’d stored when they got married. We found their wedding album, report cards, jewelry, coin collections (mostly stuck together – it’s amazing what water does to coins), dolls, even bills (in pristine condition). We found an original Easy Bake oven in the ceiling, which they said must have been left by the house’s previous owner. It was lovely to salvage what we could. So much was destroyed, though. And moldy and yucky. Some still had water in it. We covered the front lawn with refuse just from the garage, a pile that was taller than me stretching the width of the lawn.
It was incredible when we finished the first two houses: from a dirt & weed driveway to concrete, from a backyard of 3 ft weeds to a patio. We tore down their back covered patio (walls, ceiling, the whole thing!). To see their relief and joy was so cool. The job was simply too big for them to do alone. But 30 people got it done. (now multiply them by 27,000 homes in that parish alone…)
I couldn’t help thinking how much they needed help, and how unwilling most Americans are to help. We’ll happily trot off to Africa or send our money there, and we have this horror buried in our backyard. It’s shameful.
We gutted a third house and also got to drywall a bit, which was really nice to be building something. People would stop while driving by the worksites, and just roll down the windows and thank us. The folks at the supply distribution tent (where I worked one day) were enormously grateful. In fact, the only person who was stressed to the point of acting badly was that pastor. Everyone else I encountered was at least polite, and most were genuinely delighted to see us. I would say it would be a wonderful experience for anyone, but especially youth groups.
I tried a footwashing ritual with them on Maundy Thursday, prior to our seder. The participation was OK, although I was surprised that most didn’t do it (I guess I’m used to church, where you don’t get a choice!). I realized later I hadn’t prayed over it, so perhaps that’s why I was dissatisfied. Those who did it, who were mostly religious (Jewish and Christian), really loved it. I don’t think any of them had done it before.
I did have wonderful conversations with the students, many times about theology and religion. They ask such great questions. Many I can’t answer, but I explore it together with them. One student said he’d learned more from me in that week than from some professors in a whole semester. What a great compliment. Another said he wanted to take me for comparative religion (a religion major, in fact). One student told me about her prayer life and how she feels these shocks of electricity whenever anyone prays around her. She sort of described the beginnings of mystical experience. I encouraged her to nurture her connection to God. I told her how much God loves her – and she was so touched by it.
It’s funny, the first night I wrote this: “The pastor is a character but he obviously has a big heart. He prayed for us and not in Jesus’ name, which probably was serendipitous.” The next night was our seder and I got up and talked about his love for his people and how much I admired him. Sigh. I wish that hadn’t been ruined.
But he gave us a good speech at the meeting we attended of his. He talked about Ruth, and used it to explain their situation. Some of the people, like Naomi, were devastated. Their world was turned upside down and they didn’t know what to do or where to go. Some, like Orpah, saw this as a chance to restart their lives somewhere else. But Ruth said to Naomi: “You are my mother-in-law, his death doesn’t change that.” She took her people and her God, and lodged with her. She put Naomi’s needs above her own. And he said he hoped to do that. Not that Orpah was bad for looking out for herself, but Ruth is the model for Christians, because she looked beyond herself. She had to glean in the field – just like the people there are gleaning right now, living on handouts. But when Ruth brought home the news of Boaz, it gave Naomi new life – she came alive to make the preparations. She had a reason to go on. If we, like Ruth, help another first before our own needs, we will help them come alive again with hope, and then they can help another.
Some people I remember and to pray for: Sharon Brock, who lives in Texas right now but needs her mother’s house fixed. Ellie, a little person, who asked me to pray for her spine where she might need surgery. Her grandkids, Bubba and Kaitlyn, were adorable. I laid hands on her and prayed – that was new for me! Mary, who told me about students who came from Oakland from the time of the hurricanes and stayed for months, sleeping in tents and serving 3 hot meals a day to the residents. They took her back to California for their graduation. The art teacher painted her his interpretation of Katrina, which she is incredibly proud to have. The craftsmen in St. Barnabas, who usually would be called to rebuild anything in the city (it’s where they all live), but who have lost all their tools, their livelihood. The woman who broke her arm falling in her trailer. Tammy, who moved out of her moldy trailer and back into her gutted house. The man who showed up at the tent, just released from the hospital, and needed a ride home and was having heart palpitations. The woman who fell down in the tent while carrying her stuff. All the people (most everyone) living in FEMA trailers that are rotting, molding, breaking, and tripping them. The people who spent 3 days on a roof or next to a dead body, who are traumatized (one man’s mother died in the boat while he was rescuing people. The high school wouldn’t take her body, so he drove around rescuing people – with her in the boat – until they would).
I was surprised at how diverse the population was. There was a large Muslim community. I met people from Vietnam, Pakistan, Palestine, Central and South America, and other parts of Asia. The detergent went first in the tent – before the water. One person griped, “You never have enough for everybody” (this was after 226 people had come through, one hour into the tent being open!). We had 560 people that day.
One more story, then I gotta get to homework. I met a woman in the tent who’d spent 4 hours on the roof of her house when the waters came. She & her family were up there, but her medications (for her heart and more) were down in the house. A boat picked them up and took them to the high school. Then they were taken to the highway and told to wait for buses which would pick them up.
They sat on the highway three days. No shelter (and it was hot). No food or water. This woman, 74 years old, sat on the side of the road, sick, without medications, for three days.
Finally the buses came, and took them to Texas to stay at the Astrodome. But an EMT saw this woman, and wouldn’t let her go to the stadium. He grabbed her and her family and took them to his house. There they rested while he got her her medications. He fed them and bought them clothes. They stayed with him two weeks, then went home.
We think oh, what a hero! What a good Samaritan! You know what? He was just being humane. Oh that God would grant us all the strength and willpower to do the same.
I preached about my trip this morning. I really made a lot of people mad at the government, which probably is justified. I also struggled to share the hope and good news of the gospel in the midst of the terrible reality I knew I had to share. My husband didn’t think I blended the two very well. I’ll let you see for yourself and post the sermon below.