On an "alternative spring break," a Duke junior cleans up after Katrina and documents survivors' stories.
Bitter and stale. The smell is what I noticed first. It was inescapable. The air, saturated with chemicals, bacteria, and mold, was heavy. I felt it invade my eyes and nose, hang on my skin. I soon realized that the "pleasant" breezes that relieved me from the humid New Orleans heat were just as foul. Thick. Sour. Oppressive. I wondered what the air would look like if you could see everything suspended within it. It would be dense and dark. Sinister. Ominous. It would be terrifying.
Although images of post-Katrina New Orleans have inundated American media, nothing prepared me for the scale of the destruction. The lower and upper Ninth Wards look like the hurricane hit just days ago. Time seems to have stood still, objects resting where they were strewn almost seven months ago. It's unsettling at first. The silence is deafening, the Ninth Ward is an eerie ghost town. The devastation is overwhelming. Once you begin gutting a house, the scope becomes unimaginable. This is one house, in one part of the city. The lower Ninth Ward alone has 4,820 households, according to the Greater New Orleans Community Data center.
At 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday in March, I boarded a plane with the rest of my "Social Activism Motivations" class. Under the guidance of Charles Thompson, education and curriculum director at the Center for Documentary Studies, and Rob Amber, a professional documentarian, we were to devote ten days of our spring vacation to help with relief efforts in New Orleans. Students in several other Duke organizations also took part in what was called an "alternative spring break," including the Duke Chapel, Campus Crusade for Christ, Baptist Student Ministries, and the Wesley Foundation, along with students enrolled in an interdisciplinary course, "Natural Catastrophes: Rebuilding from Ruins," offered by the Pratt School of Engineering. Our class had a second purpose: to gather images and oral histories for documentary projects we would produce later in the semester.
In teams of two, we each were assigned a different grassroots relief organization to document. My partner, Nicole MarÌn, a junior at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and I were assigned to the Common Ground Collective, a small, volunteer-run organization dedicated to providing "short-term relief for victims of hurricane disasters in the gulf-coast region, and long-term support in rebuilding the communities affected in the New Orleans area"--a modest mission statement for what proved to be a dynamic organization.
Aside from investigating how the organization works and what sort of services it provides, the main focus of our documentary was to delve into people's motivations for giving up their time and energy to rebuild New Orleans. Specifically, MarÌn and I wanted to find out whether there were differences between the "alternative spring breakers" like us and the long-term volunteers, some of whom had been helping with Common Ground's clean-up efforts since Katrina hit in August.
We found that motivations were diverse. Not surprising, considering the makeup of Common Ground volunteers, who represented a wide range of ages, races, classes, religious preferences, and political views. We met Campus Crusaders who came for the glory of God, and we met anarchists motivated by blind rage. Seasoned social-justice workers saw the Ninth Ward as an opportunity to expose racism, classism, and government inaction and an opportunity to create positive social change.
Most spring breakers saw the opportunity as exactly what it was labeled: alternative. Instead of spending their holiday sipping mixed drinks on a Jamaican beach or watching TV at home, they chose to contribute to what they saw as a giant community-service project.
As I conducted interviews, I began to question my own motivations for coming to New Orleans. At first, I simply thought that the title of the course had appealed to my blossoming interest in activism. But, after being in New Orleans for a couple of days, and after speaking with other volunteers, I realized that I didn't take the course because of what it was called. I took it because of the opportunity to make a difference. I knew that I could have a positive impact on the injustices, the disparities, and the hardship I had seen in Time and on CNN. I wouldn't just be intellectualizing about these issues, I would be doing something about them.
The act of doing anything in New Orleans is exhausting. Physically, intellectually, emotionally. Everything is intense. Gutting houses leaves your body sore and dehydrated. It's a sweaty, messy, and clumsy affair. The Tyvek suit that is supposed to shield you from all the toxins in a New Orleans structure is flimsy. I would often catch mine on a nail or piece of splintered wood, tearing the material. But I almost welcomed the rip; it offered relief from the stifling body heat caught inside the suit. The respirator and goggles that I wore to protect myself from the toxic black mold spores and asbestos dust were just as cumbersome. My breathing was restricted and strained, making my already reeling head feel light.
But the physical difficulties paled in comparison with the emotional trials of being in New Orleans. What made my experience so profound were the people and the connections I forged with them. When I first started asking people to share their stories, I was completely unprepared for what their answers would do to me. A fifty-four-year-old gay man told me he had organized the first gay-liberation movement at Kent State University, had come to New Orleans because of a deep desire to help others. After learning that he had forty dollars to his name, I expressed concern for his uncertain future. He said to trust the good in others, and showed me the importance of optimism and courage. "I'm not afraid," he said. "What is there to be afraid of?"
On the last day, before we began our trek back to Duke, our class stopped to see Mama D, a strong woman who cares for and organizes a small group of individuals militantly dedicated to the well-being of their neighborhood in the
Seventh Ward. I sat on a stump on her driveway, beside a circle of cinder blocks surrounding smoking embers. Across from me was a man wearing a knit Rasta hat. He started telling his story.
When the flood waters came, they were so high and so fast that he had to take refuge on his roof. For five days, his house shook and swayed with the currents. The violent motion made him sick. He wanted to swim to something more stable, but the currents were so strong, he didn't think he could make it anywhere alive. He also feared alligators, which had been swept into his neighborhood from the wetlands by the storm surge. He said his life was like the Wildlife Channel.
He told us how his home, which had been in his family since the time of his great, great grandmother, had been destroyed, including everything inside it. Pictures, videos, heirlooms: memories. His voice trembled, oscillating between rage and deep sadness. He had wanted to share those images with his little girls. He had wanted to teach them about their family, make them proud of the history and heritage they now represent. But those memories were covered in black mold, or had been stolen by the flood waters. He began to cry. He made it so hard to leave. He makes me want to return.
Hard Work in the Big Easy
June 1, 2006