All I can remember is what I was seeing eight months ago on television – people desperate for help. I thought about what those people, if they still were residing in the area, would think about a group college student helpers from a state many people have a hard time locating. We arrived Sunday afternoon at Louis Armstrong international Airport and were easy targets without Louisiana accents walking in an airport that looked like it had seen better days. We then began our trek to Houma, about 40 miles outside of New Orleans.
I saw many damaged places that never will reopen. We got out of our air conditioned rented vans and looked around our new home, the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance camp. We met Bruce, our camp dad from New Jersey.
The corrugated cardboard houses, which we called “pods,” were furnished with sturdy cots, one outlet and a little light.
That night the Alternative Spring Breakers went to a Cajun dance, a swamp pop and saw lots of dancing and crawfish. They made us try their southern delicacy. I passed, but watched my friends devour the ‘crawdads’ with smiles.
All the older gentlemen tried to dance with every last one of the girls in ASB. I was the last. The music was a bit intimidating considering the French and all. I learned songs like ‘Big Butt Women’ and ‘She Left Me.’
Tears threatened as the band continually thanked us for being there and helping them. After dancing, we were wiped out. We ate dinner and got some rest. I tried to put my sleeping bag on the cot in a comfortable way then gave up because my tired side got the best of me.
On Monday, we all sat in a wedding type tent eating breakfast, some writing, others mentally preparing. After making our pb and j’s we were on our way.
We met Gordon, who worked with TRAC, an organization that was helping rebuild houses damaged in Houma by the storms. He gave us a tour of our work sites and we started working. When I saw Ellen Westbrook’s home I really didn’t think there was a lot of damage until Gordon explained that there was four feet of water in her house and the floor needed to be stripped.
“I don’t know how were going to get it up,” he said.
The huge pile of rubble also gave me a clue that something happened in this house. I looked at Beth, and asked her if she wanted to strip the floor with me. Beth, as always gave her cool nonchalant “yeah” and we got down to work.
The floor was an experience. I now knew what Gordon was talking about. It was a smelly linoleum floor to begin with, but I had no idea that there were four to five layers to it. This was rough work especially with a paint scraper, sturdy gloves, and a dust mask. I must have looked like a site to see.
In an awkward way, not having met ‘Miss Ellen’ — the Miss is one thing they add here — I felt like I was peeling over and scraping generations of her life away. I thought of the scrapes and bruises that my floor had from a lot of foot traffic over the years. Then I thought of the water coming in this house covering the floor and began to dig to find the foundation to start a new walkway to the future.
After lunch, we got back to work and I then got to meet Ellen. She was an elderly, African American woman, who looked like she had a story to tell. She immediately introduced herself and looked to see our progress. She kept say “Y’all’s such a blessen to me, ya’ll’s my angels.”
I was moved by her.
She told us how her daughter got her out of the flooded house and how this storm was her fourth flood. That floor had seen bad days. After meeting the families we went back to our camp to rest up for tomorrow.
On Tuesday it was more scraping, scraping, scraping. This floor was a challenge, but after meeting Ellen I felt up to finishing it. Midmorning we were invited to meet a family placed at the top of an assistance list.
True, Ellen’s and her neighbor’s houses were greatly damaged, but we wanted to see more.
My heart sank. Several children were running around and a case worker was trying to fight for the owner, her trailer and the children. After witnessing an argument, we played with the kids and got to know the family. This family was one of the poorest families I had ever seen in the U.S. Their trailer was severely damaged in the storm and they were crammed in a FEMA trailer. I didn’t know what to think or feel and I just tried to spend time with the children, who enjoyed our attention.
This family needed so many daily necessities that I take for granted. Even as we drove home I couldn’t stop thinking about what I had just seen. I was getting mentally exhausted because I couldn’t stop think of that family.
On Wednesday, after working hard, Ellen began to cry as she continued to thank her angels. She squeezed my hand as she led us in prayer to thank God for us. I really felt the gratitude people had for us. While getting groceries Tuesday, some people insisted they buy them for us out of gratitude. I really felt good about what we were doing and a little less like an outsider.
Thursday we worked hard and finished scraping the floor and began to lay tile. I had no idea how to, but a tear fell as I put the first new tile down. I wanted to finish that floor with a passion. Later Thursday we had a birthday party for one of the kids from the family. While most of ASB volunteers babysat the kids, the rest went to Wal-Mart with Maria, one of the mothers, to buy some much needed things. No one had ever done such a thing for her. She and her mother thanked all of us with tears after cooking a traditional Mexican meal for us. I never knew that such daily things could bring tears and how much what we did meant.
By Friday, we hadn’t finished Ellen’s floor, but we were close. We also almost finished her wood paneling. The other house we were working on was nearly finished as well. We gave each family $750. I hope Ellen used her money for a new frig, because we had to discard her old one. That night we took the families out to eat and had a good time.
On Saturday, after a swamp tour filled with reptile petting and some slithery ones that I was terrified of, we headed to New Orleans. The city seemed to be recovering. A late night ghost tour gave us insight into the most haunted city in the country.
On Sunday, we took a tour of a damaged area. The devastation was unreal. I was surprised that six months later, I still saw the same damage everyone did on TV. It was something I will never forget.
Walking along the streets of the French market, I got a feel of what the city once was.
People were everywhere and generally happy. The happiness may have been for other reasons.
Monday we went to the ninth ward. The eeriness that I felt there was incredible. It was a ghost town. Every house was damaged if not destroyed beyond belief. Still damaged levees that skirted the ward showed no hope of a bright future. The goose bumps along with an empty feeling I felt there, are with me now as I write this.
I will never forget this trip. Louisiana is the second poorest state in our country and we saw the effect the storms had on the people there. I felt emptiness, sadness, and a little of the pain that I saw in the faces of the families we worked with, but I also saw the appreciation. Now I know that hope in their eyes exists and will help them build the memories back that we scraped and threw away in large piles of rubbish.