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WC Retro: Helping Fix the Gulf Coast

By Jeremy Faludi, posted on February 24, 2006.


You may have heard that the gulf coast is still broken from hurricane Katrina five months ago. It's definitely true--I know because I was just there, doing reconstruction work with Hands On USA, an organization of amazing people who are exceptional at getting things done. As we see more and more in this globalized world, the organization started overseas and then came to the US. Hands On Thailand was created a year ago by a handful of people responding to the destruction of the 2004 tsunami, and when hurricane Katrina hit, two of the American founders came home to found Hands On USA. They are now handing operations over to Hands On Network, a different but coincidentally-named organization with a long history of relief work.

I'd never done this sort of thing before, but I highly recommend that anyone with the time go volunteer with any of the myriad organizations working down there: Hurricane Relief Corps, Rebuild Green, Habitat for Humanity,
Architecture For Humanity, and of course the big-name orgs. Some people can do more good with their money than with their time--if that's you, good recipients are those above, or you can search for specific-target organizations at places like Charity Navigator or GuideStar. But there's something personally fulfilling about being there in the flesh, doing the work with your own two hands. The following is not really an article about it, just a personal travelogue of the experience.

I spent ten days out there, but felt like I was just getting started. The experience is a lot like camp, just with hard work. Sometimes exhausting work, sometimes dirty work, sometimes both. It's a great bonding experience, it feels good to spend all day swinging a hammer, hauling plywood, etc., when you're used to just sitting in front of a computer all day long. And then there's plenty of hang-out time at night, with camaraderie galore, which is when it feels like camp. I can see why people stay for months and months. It's also neat because I was hanging out with people I'd never otherwise meet and who'd never meet each other--we'd have a 40-something Mennonite guy working next to a young black East Coast college kid next to a Lutheran grandmother next to a barely-GED rednecky guy next to a Jewish bioscientist. One thing that struck me about the people out here: most of the organizations doing reconstruction, handing out food, and doing other support work, are Christian groups. Hands On USA is one of just a couple that aren't. Most of the time we Left Coast Godless Commie Pinkos (TM) scoff at really devout Christians, but you come out here, and you see they're almost the only ones who care enough to help. I have to really hand it to them. Although I'm also happy to say a large number of Seattle's Burning Man community have gone out and volunteered, with some of them spending months out there.

New Orleans gets all the press, and I'd originally wanted to work there, but apparently things there are such an utter mess due to political problems, that very little is happening. Biloxi, by contrast, is getting things done and rebuilding, as are many of the smaller towns on the coast, so that's where I spent my time. The volunteers do any number of different things. I spent my first three days looting a casino barge. (Woo-hoo!) It had smashed into what used to be a four-story steel dock, and was done for. It'll be demolished, but it had a lot of perfectly good salvageable stuff on board, so we were pulling industrial kitchen wares off to donate to soup-kitchens (which many residents still need), and other miscellany will get sold to raise funds for rebuilding houses. It was a lot of fun playing pirate. First, because the barge was momentously destroyed--stuck about twenty degrees off of level, torn so much to hell that the first floor is gone; the second floor is shredded, and partly underwater; the third floor has a chandelier hanging askew surrounded by a balcony of dead slot-machines; and from a doorway on the fourth floor we had a zip-line running booty down to the dock. We illuminated our workspaces by smashing holes in the outside walls to let in daylight. It was like touring the Titanic, frozen halfway through sinking. The strangest part was once when I popped into the hotel that ran the barge, which is now also the casino--everything that was dead wreckage in the barge was there, live and working, full of people. Like a scene from a horror movie where you flash back and forth between the real world and the ghost world, or from the present time to the carnage that's about to come; even complete with the eerily muffled music that's should sound happy and bouncy but just sounds creepy instead. (Who knows what the building's sound engineers were thinking.)

Most of the work there, however, is what you would expect: I did roofing, tree planting at an elementary school, a beach cleanup (different from a normal one--mostly digging big hunks of metal out of the sand for a front-end loader to pick up); there's also cutting dead trees, distributing food & building supplies at warehouses, getting people's FEMA paperwork sorted out, and mostly, above all else, ripping out houses' interiors and killing the mold so the houses can be rebuilt. Our group isn't always the most competent or efficient, but none of them are; FEMA is talked about by everyone as little more than a horrible joke, the military are called lazy by the locals, and the myriad religious groups spend days arguing over who should do what. But in the end, a lot gets done. Towns are being rebuilt, house by house. And a lot more needs to be done--they will be rebuilding for years. Hopefully the coming hurricane season will be mild.

When I first arrived, Biloxi didn't look too bad. A lot of it is pretty intact, houses still livable or newly-rebuilt, even fences in yards. But then I saw the beach highway, and everything was broken. Casino barges the size of hotels were not only washed up on the beach, but washed across the highway and smashed into buildings; now slowly being eaten by heavy machinery for conversion into bales of scrap metal and landfill. Many buildings were nothing but foundation slabs with the names of what they used to be spray-painted on them. Other places were mere roofs, or were ragged doll-house cutaways, or high-rise hotels with the first two stories ripped out and ocean gaping through. New Orleans was the same but more so. Uptown areas are mostly fine; the French Quarter is in business, sort of--if only there were still people there to do business with, it would be done. But the Ninth Ward is wholesale destruction. The entire neighborhood, the entire suburb, is destroyed. For blocks and blocks and blocks in all directions, there is nothing but wreckage. Houses picked up and dropped on cars, or washed into the neighbor's house; trucks smashed sideways through porches and each other; piles of debris so random and jumbled as to make the constituent parts unidentifiable. Your material life in a blender. It's amazing how much stuff a house holds. At least in Biloxi, the trashed properties have mostly been gutted or demolished, but in the Ninth Ward everything was just left to rot. Cracked dried mud laying an inch deep in car interiors, air conditioner parts hanging from telephone wires, power lines dangling by a knocked-over fire hydrant. (both shut off, of course.) And no one there anymore. At first I felt guilty about being a tourist in the ghost town, just wandering the desolation and taking photos as screen doors creaked in the wind, but then I noticed that the only people there were also doing the same thing. Which was that much weirder. Although my friend said she talked to one woman who was looking for her house. ...She'd found the lot where her house used to be, so the house itself was probably no more than a block or so away.

There's clearly a big cultural difference between New Orleans and Biloxi. In each, some houses have spray-painted messages on them; but in Biloxi, they say things like "if you loot, we will shoot", or "do not enter, we shoot to kill." In the big easy, they say things like "we are coming back", "don't bulldoze", or "love". The only threatening one was a joke: "Don't try. I am sleeping inside with a big dog, an ugly woman, two shotguns and a claw hammer", then, dated later, "Still here. Woman left fri. Cooking a pot of dog gumbo." One night in Biloxi, some of us went to see a play by the local community theater, and one of the actors chatted with us for just a second after the show; he was clearly gay (not flaming, but obvious), and in the course of talking about something else, he mentioned getting pulled over by a cop who was "getting all hate-crimey on me", just thrown in there in the middle of the sentence aside from the point, like you would any common-but-annoying phenomenon. Culture there wasn't all stereotypical, though--for instance, there's a big Vietnamese population there, with a very nice Buddhist temple. I personally had nothing but good interactions with the few locals that I talked to, but was always in the context of a work crew helping them with something. That's part of the point of coming, because helping folks in need breaks down barriers that would otherwise be there for both of us.

Oddly enough, the biggest impact of my trip was not when I was out there, but when I got home. The perfection of everything was a little jarring, like it is when returning from third world to first world. Riding an escalator in the airport gave me a flashback to the destroyed escalator on the barge, where shattered safety glass piled like drifting snow in the stairs, and that set off a cascade of other memories. I wish I'd been able to spend another week or two there. But some people have a much more intense reaction: when out there, several of the people I met had gone home but returned to the disaster site, because coming back home they felt like normal life was somehow less real, and no one understood, so they had to go back to rebuild again. Back to the emotional springtime, pushing buds of order and hope through the hard earth of disaster.

People out there talk about the experience changing their lives. It's certainly a vibrant group of people, where the walls of normal society are as removed as the wrecked buildings' walls. I was apparently changed a bit, because on the way home strangers randomly started conversations with me both in the airport and on the flight, which normally never happens. And I've woken up shining with energy like I haven't all winter. It was a remarkable experience, I'd recommend it to anyone who can go.

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"and in the course of talking about something else, he mentioned getting pulled over by a cop who was 'getting all hate-crimey on me', just thrown in there in the middle of the sentence aside from the point, like you would any common-but-annoying phenomenon"

This isn't quite the same, but when I lived in Birmingham, AL I was consistently stopped by the police when riding my bike less than 3 blocks from my house. They consistently said, "you understand". While I was stopped for riding in Florida it was always because of a helmet or other safety law, in Birmingham they just said they have to "check people out" and then threw in the you understand thing and something about local criminals. Once I changed my driver's license to an Alabama one that proved my residence they stopped, but it was a bit a shocking to be profiled in such a way one several occasions.

Posted by: andrew on 3 Jul 06



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