Over the Memorial Day weekend, myself and four other Richmond Hill residents took time off from busy schedules to remember not only the sacrifice of those who have paid the ultimate price to keep America free, but those who are in dire need here at home. We were part of a 33 member team that took a twelve hour bus ride into the still hurricane Katrina ravaged inner city of New Orleans.
Each went on the trip, sponsored by the missions department of Savannah Christian Church, to provide material aide and spiritual hope to residents of a city where many individuals and families are still living with sub-standard housing and feel a deep sense of loneliness that has arisen from the scarcity of help from their own governments; state or national.
These low country residents found a largely ignored group of people that has, since the city's French Quarter and NFL’s Saints began operating again, been largely forgotten by the national media; thus, leading many in America to believe that the area is on the fast track to recovery.
Unfortunately, this could not be farther from the truth, and within these peoples' stories are the lessons we in the low country should be hearing in order to better understand what to expect from the outside world when ‘our’ homes, businesses, and schools are ravaged by the hurricane that decides not to slide up the coastline.
The biggest misperception about the rebuilding of the area lies in how the national news media portrays the city to Americans. On our return trip, my wife summed up the discrepancy this way,
"Driving through the 9th Ward in New Orleans, it still looks like the pictures from any war torn area in Europe," she said, "with streets washed away, homes falling in on themselves, as well as businesses and churches and buildings that have yet to be gutted so that rebuilding can begin."
We also found that massive work still needs to be done in New Orleans to restore not only businesses, but neighborhoods and individual families as well. One of the members of our support team had been to the area just days after the hurricane.
Richmond Hill resident Linda Vaccaro, who has been on numerous recovery teams to the area dating back to within the first week after the storm, was able to put the overall progress into perspective, "…the first trip was difficult in that water from the storm surge had yet to recede and was still ten to twelve miles inland covering I-10. Travel was tough and basic needs like gasoline were scarce. The progress over the past two years has been as gradual as the flood waters receding. At least now there are a few businesses reopening in the different neighborhoods." Each neighborhood is beginning to see signs of recovery, but getting them back to normal is still a few years away. Personally, this past week, I calculated that only twenty percent of the businesses have reopened in east New Orleans in the last eighteen months.
Our team found that the most devastation from the lingering rebuilding process was in human terms. Amy Kollman, on her first recovery trip to the area, found that the people who had returned to their homes during the last two years have many needs, yet their stories speak of their commitment that we should all admire. She says,
"Through the stories of tragedy, loss, despair, and grotesque living conditions these peoples' selflessness could teach us many lessons in how to handle tragedy with dignity. The one story that stood out was of an illegal immigrant she met who was sharing living quarters with three other people in a home where the roof had caved in and they had no running water.
This "illegal," she found, had spent the days after the storm passed in a boat provided by the National Guard going from house to house rescuing stranded residents. This was in direct opposition to the story of an American born man who had spent the days before there was any police control looting businesses and homes. "Not exactly the picture of immigrants put out by the national press and politicians," said Mrs. Kollman. His courage and steadfast belief in the good of the human heart were inspiring.
The resiliency of those who have chosen to return to the area was best seen while we canvassed the neighborhoods of East New Orleans for Building Better Communities to help them advertise their free summer kids’ camp that was being set up so that parents would have a safe place for their kids while at work. There were dozens of mobile trailers still sitting in the front yards of those who had committed to return and rebuild their lives. One particular man, whom I met, had retired just prior to the flooding from serving those with needs at the local Veterans Administration Hospital. He, like many residents, is still dealing with problems associated with the stress associated with the rebuilding process. "This man is still trying to get his home gutted so he can begin the rebuilding process, has lived through the loss of both his and his wife’s parents, and yet had the courage to tell us how he got up everyday, thanked God, and looked forward to the goal of getting his family back into their home," noted team member Betty Mocnik.
His closing words to us really summed up the need for the people of New Orleans to know that the rest of us have not forgotten them, "…we haven’t had anyone come through this neighborhood offering assistance since last December, until today. It certainly helps ease the pain to know that other people care enough to get up off their couches and come here to help." From her trip, Richmond Hill High School senior Heather Vaccarro expressed these sentiments, "Seeing the devastation to the buildings and individual lives of the people of New Orleans makes me wonder what would happen to our area if a category five hurricane hit us? Would we be able to handle the same level of devastation with the spirit of and bravery as these people?"
Therein lies the lesson for low country residents to take from the people struggling two years later in New Orleans. Would we have the wherewithal to keep up the good fight to rebuild our way of life without long term help from caring neighbors across the nation; or local, state, or federal governments?
For me, traveling to New Orleans proved a genesis for a great appreciation of those who have chosen to be on the firing line, everyday, aiding those in need. Groups like ‘The Salvation Army of New Orleans’ and ‘Building Better Communities’ do great humanitarian work providing not only the worldly materials which their constituents so desperately need, but the spiritual support required to build up their hearts for the long fight. I ask that the people of the low country find it important to continue to support those in need in New Orleans with their donations of time, money, love, and prayers. As a resident and educator in the Richmond Hill community, I personally believe our duty lies in living to a higher standard and that we should put our biblical faith to work for the good of others. As Horace Mann, the father of American education truthfully noted, each of us should, "Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity."
If you would like to help those still suffering in New Orleans, two of the more trustworthy service providers are listed below:
The Salvation Army of New Orleans, P.O. Box 13808, New Orleans, La., 70185
Building Better Communities
P.O. Box 1503, Metarie, La., 70004
Kollman is girls' soccer coach at Richmond Hill High School.