The saga continues as new zoning laws just released on Thursday have made some of the completed work of Hands On and other organizations obsolete. Some homeowners are now required to raise their houses in order to meet city code and thus qualify for flood insurance. This is information that should have been released months ago, before people ever returned to rebuild their homes. We are already fighting an uphill battle, and it frustrates me to no end that we're making it harder on these people than it needs to be. I am hoping that this setback inspires more cooperation and communication among homeowners, volunteers, and local, state, and national gonvernment; hoping being the operative word.
I know I've said this at least five times throughout the week, but I really can't even begin to describe the situation on the Gulf Coast. I have had the opportunity to volunteer in many different struggling parts of our country and also in a third world county, and I can honestly say that I have never witnessed need as great as it is in New Orleans right now. I'm not saying this to pat myself on the back, but simply to put this situation in perspective.
One of the biggest challenges of gutting a house that was flooded and left untouched for six months is removing the refrigerator. This is where you put down whatever you're snacking on and prepare yourself to be grossed out. The fridge had been lifted by the flood water and settled with the doors face down on the floor. The usual protocol for removing such a potentially vomit-inducing item requires lots and lots of duct tape. However, it was not possible to tape the door shut from this position, so someone would have to life it carefully and hold it at an angle while another person hurried to tape it. In theory, this strategy would be an effective solution to such a dilemma. However, this person lifting the fridge failed to acknowledge the existence of an entirely separate freezer door. The top half of the until swung open about six inches before it was immediately slammed shut, but in the process, a very small amount of the most vile smelling toxic black sludge you could ever imagine seeped out onto the floor. Now, we wear some pretty heavy duty respirators, but even they are no match for a freezer full of liquefied meat and organic matter. This, along with a small Freon leak (you know...the highly radioactive chemical?), was recipe for a much-needed break to allow the house to air out. Oh, the joys of disaster relief.
Aside from the usual difficulty involved in the physical labor of this type of work, this particular day we had the added emotional stress of working alongside the owners. It was such a bittersweet experience. Okay, it was much more bitter than it was sweet, but still the emotions were mixed. Originally, I was excited to meet the people I was helping. I thought it would be great to look them in the eye and tell them that I'm here to serve them and help them put their lives back together. On the other hand, it was very difficult to be the person who was recklessly dumping all of their possessions and destroying the walls of a house they had lived in for sixty years. A friend of their family who came to help told us later in the day that Charlie felt very strongly about being there when we came so as not to feel violated by strangers who came and cleared out all of his belongings. I can't imagine what is was like for him to work alongside of us, but I know that it was a sad day for everyone at that site.
Once we finally had access to the bedrooms, Rita appraoched one or our team members to ask if she had found a ring. She was missing her mother's wedding rings and was hoping we'd find them in that room. We emptied every drawer and shook out every piece of debris before combing the filthy floors on our hands and knees. Just as we were about to give up, Charlie found one of the rings inside of a case that was tossed amidst the refuse. Rita was overjoyed. We felt briefly inspired to continue looking for the other one, but after we exhausted every option it was time to let it go. It was disappointing and extremely frustrating that we couldn't find the one small thing that she wanted to keep, but it was really like looking for a needle in a haystack. There was no guarantee that it had even remained in the house after the flooding. I started thinking about what I would have wanted to salvage if this had been my house, but the thought was unnessarily masochistic, so I changed the channel in my head before ever coming up with an answer.
I'm not sure if you got a sense of this from reading these updates, but this experience has really affected me. Simply observing the physical state of the city is enough to traumatize anyone, but it was the people of New Orleans who were so genuine in their accounts of what happened during those dreadful days in August and how their lives have been affected that really got to me. I left with an entirely different feeling than I have ever had from working with Habitat for Humanity. There's a sense of hope and prosperity that comes with new construction that gives me a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day. Unfortunately, I never felt that way in New Orlenas because no matter how much we accomplished, we still only finished a small part of the process to clean up one house amidst a sea of others in the same condition. When Charlie and Rita do finally settle back into their home, they will have no neighbors, no parks, and nowhere to buy groceries. If they're lucky, their streets will fill continuously with trash and foul odors as their neighbors return to the same type of mess. The pain and struggle do not end with new walls and furniture. Their life will never be the same again, and there is nothing anyone can do about that. This is the feeling of hopelessness that permeates the air of the gulf coast and realizing this has made me feel somewhat insignificant in the scheme of things.
As a final thought, I realize that the tone of these updates is generally pretty disheartening, and I apologize for the grave nature of the subject. I know that these stray from the typical writing you find in my updates, but I don't feel right making silly jokes and comments because there really isn't anything humorous about the situation. My intention in writing these updates is to create a lens through which other people can experience the war that is waging right here at home. My hope is that I will inspire you to take action and become part of the solution.
I'm pretty sure I will be retiring from "Greetings" for the rest of April. If you would like to hear more about my trip or would like info on volunteering or just feel like saying hi, please feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I am so glad I could share this journey with you, and I sincerely hope to hear from you.
Much love and great strength,