In the 10 years since Katrina came ashore in Louisiana and flooded most of the city of New Orleans, I’ve never been able to listen very long to proposed fixes for the city.
They all seemed to be versions of the same idea, to stop spending so much to rebuild a coastal city that lies largely below sea level. It’s good money after bad.
“I’ve been there,” I would usually say quietly. “I can’t agree.”
The idea to skip rebuilding parts of the city was not just the small talk of Minnesotans I met; policy wonks had similar ideas. These were people described recently by the writer Malcolm Gladwell as the fixers.
Katrina was a cataclysm, killing approximately 1,400 people. To the fixers, it was also an opportunity.
They saw a chance to empty neighborhoods that were hard to protect from the water and more often than not had a lot of crime. And now was the time to overhaul the notoriously ineffective public school system.
It is easy to see myself as one of the fixers, because as a business consultant, I had no shortage of ideas of how things could be done so much better. It’s what I do now, too, only in a thousand words in the Star Tribune rather than in a PowerPoint presentation.
I lost interest in talking about fixes after a few hours in New Orleans. It didn’t seem possible to explain, face-to-face with a homeowner desperate to come back home, why the neighborhood shouldn’t be rebuilt.
There’s another group of people who after Katrina understood that. Gladwell described them as the healers. And they were willing to write a small check to a relief agency to help. They were willing to come to the city to paint, install new flooring or hang drywall.
That’s who I became, and I got there only because I hadn’t fully understood what I was getting into. As a volunteer with my church in St. Paul about a year after the storm, I started looking into options for the church’s teenagers and their annual summer mission trip.
The disaster assistance coordinator for the United Church of Christ, the first faith-based organization I tried, thought I had to be kidding. Much of New Orleans was still a raw disaster area, he said. The work that needed to be done just wasn’t safe for teens as young as ninth-graders and what they would see in the neighborhoods would upset even the most mature teens.
Assuming this to be an exaggeration, the next e-mail was to the Presbyterians. It turned out they would take the help, so in June 2007 about three dozen of us turned up in New Orleans. We put on blue T-shirts that said “out of chaos, hope” and what we usually found was more chaos.
By the second day, we were organized, with most of us sent to work on a house in a neighborhood called St. Roch. The others would be working at a different house much farther east. That’s when we were introduced to New Orleans East.
No one in our group had even heard of it. It’s not part of the New Orleans that tourists know.
New Orleans East was built mostly in the 1960s when the swamps were drained, and the suburban-looking neighborhood stretched for miles along an estuary called Lake Pontchartrain. And nearly two years after Katrina, it was still mostly empty. Maybe only one in 10 houses seemed occupied.
The commercial strip of Read Boulevard was all boarded up and overgrown with weeds. We saw a Chase bank, Macy’s, Walgreens, Wal-Mart and the Grand Theatres multiplex all closed. We passed Abramson High School, also closed. Our high school kids stared out the van windows as we rolled by, speechless.
When policy wonks talked after Katrina about shrinking the footprint of the city, letting neighborhoods go back to being swampland, it was places like New Orleans East they were talking about.
It’s not a difficult argument to make. Stand on Hayne Boulevard along Lake Pontchartrain, and to your left is the massive dike that holds back the lake. Look right and you see rows of neat little houses that lie maybe 10 feet below the lake level — not when the lake is engorged from a hurricane storm surge but on a clear June day.
Every drop of rain or spilled beer has to be pumped out. Who could have thought building there was a good idea in the first place?
Ten years ago this weekend, the water in New Orleans East often reached the roof line. The failures of policy, the failures of engineering and the failures of common sense that led to the disaster weren’t what we thought about once we got there. We cared only about helping a family move back home.
In June 2008, our group was asked to return. We started with a tour of sites where we worked the year before. That’s when we learned what a difference an unskilled volunteer can make.
When we all piled out of the vans in front of the New Orleans East house where we hung drywall for just one day in 2007, homeowners Rudy and Carol invited us in.
It was Father’s Day, with Rudy’s grandkids there along with other relatives. With so many people now crowding into a small house, a tour was really just what could be seen from where you found a place to stand.
Rudy and Carol and their kids said thank you so many times that anyone listening could have thought we rebuilt the place from foundation up. After catching up, Rudy suggested a prayer, and we all joined hands in the living room.
What followed was a simple prayer of thanksgiving. We were all thankful this family got to celebrate Father’s Day in their own house and in their own neighborhood.
And for the volunteers from St. Paul, we were thankful for the opportunity to bring just a little bit of the healing that was so sorely needed, on Briarwood Drive and throughout the city of New Orleans.