Our first full day! I was nervous before because I didn’t know very much about the trip and was distracted with midterms and such, but ever since the team dinner on Friday night I have been overwhelmed for enthusiasm for this trip. My teammates are so unique and everyone contributes to the group in a special way.
The day started off by a couple of us getting our luggage from the Gulfport Airport. I lucked out and didn’t have to wake-up early. Those of us who stayed behind got to sleep in. There was a church service in the next room, but most of us were pretty tired and were able to sleep through most of it. I didn’t wake up until Rashidah had come back from the airport. The people that had left returned with Krispy Kreme doughnuts for breakfast (yumm…) and all our luggage, which turned out to be soaking wet from sitting in the rain all night long! Finally, at about 11 am we made it out the doors and set off on our adventure to Louisiana.
Our first stop was to visit the French Quarter in New Orleans. The FQ was so lovely! The buildings were gorgeous and the area had lots of charm and a strong sense of community. Most shops and restaurants opened up to the street and there were tons of pedestrians walking around exploring the city. We were able to see unique landmarks such as Jefferson Square, the Supreme Court (this building was an architectural masterpiece), and old French cathedrals. We also saw plenty of street performers including musicians, palm readers, and magicians. There were also men who painted themselves silver or gold and held really still like statues in the middle of the sidewalk. If you paid them, they would pose for a picture with you. I had never seen anything like this before. While we were in the FQ, we enjoyed some
traditional Southern cuisine at Acme Oyster House. Members of our group enjoyed classics such as jumbalya, gumbo, and po’boy sandwiches. Tasty!
After the FQ, we headed to the Honey Island Swamp. At first I was a little skeptical about the excitement a swamp had to offer, but right as we got on the boat I could tell this tour was going to blow us out of the water (pun intended). We started off the tour by driving to a patch of shoreline that was home to about 6 or so houses. During Hurricane Katrina the water level of the swamp rose 18 feet, which was more than enough to go above the roofs of these houses. A couple people were fortunate enough to be able to rebuild their houses, but many houses were abandoned. We could see obvious water and structural damage that made entering the houses a hazard. Throughout the rest of the tour I was able to spot debris from these houses that was carried by the water to other parts of the swamp. No one has been able to clean up the effects of the houses and belongings inside of them. This junk has been cluttering the swamp for years! The swamp is home to many animals, including quite a few endangered species. Household items such as bleach, detergent, and car fluids were released into the swamp when Hurricane Katrina flowed through the houses. The way Hurricane Katrina harmed the fragile swamp ecosystem is less obvious but just as disastrous as the effect of the Hurricane on people. The positive part of our tour was we were able to see many types of wildlife including baby alligators, snakes, and the cutest beaver-esque mammals! Our tour guide was amazing. He was very passionate and knowledgeable about the swamp. After a lovely 2 hour adventure through the Honey Island swamp, we hurried back to New Orleans to drive through the 9th ward before dark.
By the time we got there it was already dark, but what we were able to see was astonishing. The ninth ward was unlike anything I had ever imagined it to be. It was very, very dark. The only light came from our headlights or the handful of houses that had lights on inside. There were no streetlights. Whole blocks of the neighborhood were completely demolished. In the blocks closest to the levee, the ground was bare except for overgrown weeds and the remnants of housing foundations. On a few properties, the only thing left was a concrete porch with steps leading up to it. No house, just the stairs and porch. This sight affected me the most because in my imagination I saw families running up the stairs to chat on the porch or entering the house that was connected once upon a time. Another thing that struck me was how close these houses were to the levees. The levees were just across the street from the neighborhood. I can’t even begin to imagine how frightened the residents must have felt at the moment the levees broke. The levees are basically a glorified wall, yet, that is all there was to protect the 9th ward residents from peril. I was shocked at the amount of debris that was still lying around years later. A few families were able to rebuild their houses, but most of the houses were abandoned or barely stable enough to be lived in. When people looked out their windows they saw the scattered remains of their neighbors homes and lives which reminded them of the atrocities of Hurricane Katrina on a daily basis. Even worse than the debris, were the houses that were torn apart and crumbling to the ground before our eyes. These houses still had the spray paint tag from FEMA clearly painted on their walls. This tag included numbers such as people who used to live in the house and dead bodies recovered from inside. In my opinion, it is unacceptable for the government to allow death tolls to be plastered all over a neighborhood years after the time it occurred. It is no wonder the 9th ward has turned into a barren, scary, and depressing ghost of a community. The whole time we were there we only saw one other person. We drove around for forty minutes and never saw another car. The ninth ward is desolate and desperate for our attention and help. There are boats and cars that have drifted far from their homes. Houses are stripped to the frame and somehow still manage to stay upright. As it stands, the 9th ward is hazardous to the safety and morale of its residents. After being in the 9th ward and roaming the streets that were once filled with joyous families, I know why it is important that I am here. The communites affected by Hurricane Katrina need our help just as much as they needed it the day after it happened and will continue to need our help for years to come. One day, the 9th ward will be the vibrant community it was before the storm hit, before the levees broke, and before its needs were ignored by the government. I am embarassed at how long it took me to come down here and help, but what is important is that I finally made it to the Gulf Coast. This week, I plan to be unbelievably productive. After the day trip to New Orleans, I feel passionately about the work I am going to do in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever felt before. This week, my ASB group is going to make a huge difference in the lives of Hurricane Katrina victims. Hopefully, our actions will encourage friends, family, and readers of this blog to do the same.