The story of Team Bourbon Street
Ultimately, this trip was the greatest experience of my life. Not only did I get to meet so many extraordinary survivors of Katrina, but I also had the opportunity to become closer with the other members of our class. Furthermore through this trip, I really learned what hospitality and generosity was and by meeting Joyce, Maryland and Roger I was exposed to these two characteristics. All of us went down to Louisiana with the idea of helping families get back on their feet. I was expecting to see many who were so devastated and distraught due to the storm, however, Joyce, Maryland and Roger changed my whole perspective. They were so kind, funny and definitely proved that while the storm was catastrophic, it in no way broke their spirit. Out of the kindness of their hearts, the family went out of the way to give back to us. They catered us to scrumptious Louisiana cuisine and just showed us the most incredible time. I was so amazed by this family giving back to us in a time of their personal trial. I also felt somewhat guilty that even though they lost so many of their possessions, they went out of their way to show us a good time. Essentially this family is one that I will never forget. They will always be in my heart and not a day goes by that I will not think of them.
Throughout this trip I was able to meet several people; each one influenced my life in a unique way. There are countless moments and interactions that will stay with me forever. One of these was shared with a homeowner, and one of my new found friends, Roger. We had just finished up working at his sister-in-law’s home and were headed over to finish up some work at his mother-in-law’s house. Riding in his truck he talked about the city, and how things were before the storm. He pointed out where houses had been completely picked up and moved to the center of the road, where cars and signs had been misplaced, and spoke of friends and family that still hadn’t been contacted.
But the most significant thing he spoke of was in reference to his town, Gentilly’s, evacuation. Gentilly, a predominantly black area is located on one side of the Mississippi river. The West Bank, a predominantly white area, is located on the other side of the river. The two are connected by a bridge that runs over the Mississippi. He explained how during the time of the hurricane, people from Gentilly tried to evacuate towards the West Bank by means of the bridge; only to their surprise they were denied entrance. There were armed individuals who would not allow them into the West Bank. On some accounts, there were even some individuals who were shot at. This story made me sick to my stomach. Already knowing the answer to my question, I couldn’t help but ask Roger “why did this happen?” He said that while he hates to say or believe it, he acknowledged it as a race issue.
As a sociology major, I have learned a lot about race and its significance and existence in our country. But somehow reading about these types of things just does not compare to how I felt hearing it first hand. My first reaction to the story was a sick feeling in my stomach, and then it turned to frustration, anger, and disappointment. Why hadn’t I heard of this story yet? Why hadn’t it gotten more publicity? The media had been showing all kinds of footage on looters and other chaos that was occurring in New Orleans after the hurricane – this seemed like an unjust situation that deserved to be recognized with the rest. After working so closely with the people of Gentilly, I found that story extremely upsetting. While there are several things that I have taken away from this trip, I know this is a story that will stay with me forever.
There are a lot of stories from this trip that I will carry with me through the rest of my life. I wish I could share them all with everyone, but for the sake of everyone's sanity I will share one story which left me really thinking about New Orleans and Katrina's effects.We were working with Joyce, probably the hardest working homeowner I had met, one morning to help her clear out her home. When we arrived we found all of her personal possessions to be destroyed by water, there was mold all the way up her walls, her roof was leaking, her ceiling and walls were destroyed, and there was still 3 inches of standing water in her front room. Joyce had survived the storm because she was able to leave at the last minute to go stay with relatives, but she was not able to take her dog with her and she has not been able to find him since the storm.
As we were outside taking drywall and insulation from her home to the FEMA trash pile (which at this point was about 20 feet wide and as tall as Joyce) an older couple drove up in their shiny silver Lincoln town car and asked Joyce for directions to the Ninth Ward. She told them that they were nowhere near the Ninth Ward. The man gave her an impatient look and proceeded to tell her that he wanted to get to the Ninth Ward because he wanted to see firsthand all the real destruction caused by the hurricane. At this point I felt like walking over to the man and telling him to open his eyes and look right in front of him to see the destruction. Instead, Joyce, wearing her white coveralls, rubber boots, rubber gloves, and surgical mask to protect her from the destruction within her own home, calmly told him that he needed to get back on the interstate to get to the Ninth Ward. The man, with a look of disgust, rolled up his window and drove away.
I'm not sure if the man ever made it to the Ninth Ward, but that day, as Joyce, me and my team continued to work to clean out her home, I realized why New Orleaneans had been flicking us off as we drove through their devastated neighborhoods in our brand new Scenic America tour bus with Virginia tags. They know that there are people who will come to the city not to help, not to donate their time or energy, but to gawk and selfishly observe the pain and suffering of so many people. It saddens me to think that these people still just don't get it, that 5 months later they just don't understand.
On my trip to New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina I learned that deep southern hospitality is indeed better than above the Mason-Dixon Line. This was represented in many instances. The first instance was when Chris’s mom invited us to eat at their house while they were still in the process of rebuilding after flood damage. They were very nice and even offered their house as a place to stay during Mardi gras. One afternoon during lunch break we went to a Po-Boy shop called Cast-Net. The people who worked in the store were very friendly. Even though they were extremely busy, they still found time to walk the food out to all 32 of us in addition to the many people already in the restaurant. The atmosphere inside the restaurant was also friendlier than the same old food chains as seen throughout the rest of the country that everyone is so acquainted to. The third act of hospitality would have to be when we gutted the three black families’ houses. They bought us fried chicken, chips, and drinks for lunch the days that we worked at their house. Later in the week they thanked us by taking the entire class out to eat where we had seafood gumbo, ribs, chicken, rice, enchiladas, salad, pound cake, strawberry short cake, ice cream, and king cake. In addition to the fine meal they provided us presents that varied from potato chips to t-shirts. Part of the family even said that they would come to our graduation for the next four years in order to thank us. Last but not least they even offered us their house for Jazz Fest and Mardi gras next year. This family tremendously showed us gratitude by their actions while other families showed us the same gratitude, but did not have the means to thank us the way that family did. Overall the hospitality of the people of New Orleans is like something I have never witnessed in any other part of the country.
This trip to New Orleans was by far the best overall experience of my college career and my life. Not only was I able to help several families restore a sense of normalcy, but I also became much closer to my classmates. I didn't know half of the people going on the trip when we first met and now I'm good friends with all of them. Working constructively and having to live with a group definitely has its ups and downs. However, we have a bond between us now that was worth working and living in close quarters. We came together to achieve a common goal and change people's lives who had been affected by the hurricane. We disproved, or I should say the people we helped disproved the stereotype that New Orleans is just a city made up of uneducated and deliquent black people. That statement is not true or fair at all. The people are wonderful, intelligent, and compassionate people and deserve to be given help to rebuild their homes and lives. And in the case of the Collins family, their generosity knows no real bound. Two out of the three days we worked at Joyce Collins' home we received fried chicken for lunch. Furthermore, the night before we left they invited us to dinner at their family restaurant and gave us gifts like t-shirts and mardi gras masks.
On a more serious note, however, I fear that the city of New Orleans has a long way to go to succeed in recovering from Hurricane Katrina. The city might not ever be the same. Yet, that does not mean we should abandon the relief effort. New Orleans is home for more than 400,000 people, and to give up on trying to rebuild their home would be inhuman. How ever long the relief might take, whether it be ten years or twenty years, it will be worth it simply to see the smile on the homeowners face after you have helped them in their struggle.
I wrote in my journal about the fact that i didn't mind paying money to travel to New Orleans. And the fact that i didn't care one bit that i wasn't getting paid to help these people. There is no price or fee on changing a person's life. There is no price on forming new friendships and a bond with classmates. Lastly, there is certainly no price on love. Love helped us find the will and strength to work hard for the families even when we didn't feel like it. That alone is what i remeber the most about my New Orleans experience long after other memories have left me.