Monday, June 30, 2008
When I found out that I had been selected to be a part of this amazing trip, I had already made up my mind that there were certain things that I needed to accomplish while in NOLA. The first was to work hard to help build a home for a family. The second was to bond with our Berklee team and third was to hopefully meet someone who would share their personal story with me. I am happy to say that my mission has been accomplished.
Everyone in our group found out early in our trip not to ask people about Hurricane Katrina. Most people are still very emotional about it or they are just tired of being asked about it. Many suffer from post traumatic stress disorder because of the storm. So I had to respect that since I had already turned into a roving reporter from time we landed in New Orleans. I immediately began asking the Habitat for Humanity construction site managers about everything that had to do with Hurricane Katrina. Ann, who was a site manager has been in NOLA since right after the storm and knows everything. She was so knowledgeable about how local government works. She knew about what people were and were not getting in terms of home insurance payments, fema trailers and other services.
One evening I was out alone, checking out the French Quarters. I went into a Walgreens, came out and ended up on Ibeville Street. I needed to get back onto Bienville Street. I truly believe that God sent me that way because I had to ask a gentleman for directions. I approached a man who was standing next to the alley of the Mendaleone Hotel and asked for directions back to Bienville Street. He laughed and told me to turn around and look at the corner behind me. As I said, God must have directed me onto that street, but did not want me to get lost because Bienville Street was just steps away. We both laughed as I thanked him. He said that he noticed me from across the street as I looked at a Mexican Restaurant menu...Can you believe me....wanting Mexican food in New Orleans!!! Shame on me! Needless to say, I did not go into the restaurant. Instead, Rene and I introduced ourselves to each other and became engaged in what would turn out to be a heart wrenching account of his experiences during Hurricane Katrina. Rene works at the Mendaleone Hotel as a cook and was on a dinner break. He had been employed at the Sheraton Hotel when the storm hit. We stood at the base of the alley way for almost two hours.
I told him that I was here with Berklee College of Music and we were working on a Habitat for Humanity building project in the upper ninth ward. He was so grateful and acknowledged all of the work that HFH has done for the people of NOLA. Because we were talking about HFH, I feel that was the reason he began to talk about his personal accounts of the storm. He went on to share with me each detail of his horrific ordeal under 9 feet of water as well as being rescued by helicopter. We both agreed that he was blessed because he was not in the lower ninth ward under thirty feet of water. He spoke very openly about his family members and long time friends who were in the lower ninth ward when the levees broke. He spoke of the people who disappeared in the water, never to be found. I could go on and on about the very graphic details that Rene shared with me, but it is all so heartbreaking. As I looked him in his eyes, I could see him reliving each of the moments that he was sharing with me. By the time he was done, I was crying and he was hugging ME, telling ME its going to be alright. Rene went on to say that I was the first person outside of the locals that he has shared his story with. He said that he has waited a long time to REALLY talk about it. I thanked him a million times for sharing his story with me. He asked me to promise to share his story with others and to let everyone know that so much still needs to be done in New Orleans. He is absolutely right. Unfortunately, so many of the communities are in major disarray. Thousands of homes are dilapitated, and will probably be leveled at some point. Communities are like ghost towns. Especially the lower ninth ward, where Diane, Roya and I went to see. More importantly, the levees are not fixed, making the lower ninth ward, in my opinion, inhabitable. The people there are still fearful that another Katrina could come through, further devistating their city. I pray that this never happens again. I pray that our country will care enough to fix the levees correctly. I pray that families will someday be able to return to New Orleans and feel safe. I pray that the young people in New Orleans will put their guns down and help in rebuilding their communities. I hope all of my prayers will be answered.
I've come full circle.
Being my first time in New Orleans I was unfulfilled with all the things to do. The nightlife seemed never ending. Everyday after work we seemed to have several choices of what to do, where to go, and what to eat. So by segmenting our big group we covered many spots while managing to avoid the touristy activities. I had an unexpected adventure when I accompanied my friend to the local hospital. As expected in the waiting room we saw a cross section of New Orleans that was opposite the usual party vibe. It was filled with a variety of simple to intense emergencies and personalities. My tendency was to try and guess each person’s life story and situation. Eight hours later as we migrated from our sterile asylum the town was on the edge of going to sleep. You could see people staggering to or from their next adventure. We were so pumped up that we added another two hours to our own adventure by going out to a 24 hr eatery. The craziness of the day was not ready to sleep yet. The inebriated waiter (what do you expect in a bar) forgot our order until my inquiry. That was funny because there were only two other people in the restaurant. Feeling guilty the manager gave our meals on the house. The positive finale made the whole experience seem worth it. Well at least for me; my friend was the one with the injury.
The last day was filled with goodbyes, marveling at the process thus far, and with hopes of reconnecting next year. Towards the end of week we started to get comfortable with our assignments and even though mundane and monotonous it was with the spirit of our cause. We made a lot of new friends and said a lot of goodbyes. The picture to the left is reminiscent of who we are, why we are here, and where we’ve come from. And why we'll be back. Thanks to Gracenotes for providing this wonderful opportunity of realization and growth.
Friday, June 27, 2008
"Once a man was walking along a beach. The sun was shining and it was a beautiful day. Off in the distance he could see a person going back and forth between the surf's edge and the beach. Back and forth this person went. As the man approached he could see that there were hundreds of starfish stranded on the sand as the result of the natural action of the tide.I have been thinking about this parable all week. New Orleans is an amazing city. Its architecture is rich and beautiful. Its history is vast. Walking through the French Quarter, where our hotel is located, I feel like I am in Paris. The shops are vibrant. The tourists are strong. It is great to see that New Orleans, at least here, is recovering.
"The man was stuck by the the apparent futility of the task. There were far too many starfish. Many of them were sure to perish. As he approached the person continued the task of picking up starfish one by one and throwing them into the surf.
"As he came up to the person he said, 'You must be crazy. There are thousands of miles of beach covered with starfish. You can't possibly make a difference.' The person looked at the man. He then stooped down and pick up one more starfish and threw it back into the ocean. He turned back to the man and said, 'It sure made a difference to that one!'"
But the neighborhoods are overwhelming. We are working on a street that is populated mostly by empty or decayed houses. In between the two new Habitat for Humanity houses, where we are working, is a house that has sunken into the ground. The roof is below knee level. The weeds have overgrown what is left of the green shingles. This decayed house sits there, untended, as a part of the landscape. For every new home being built, there are dozens (if not hundreds) more, in need of renovation, or in need of being torn down and rebuilt completely.
In New Orleans this week, I sometimes feel like the man in the parable, watching the person toss the starfish back into the ocean, wondering how the job will ever get done. Three years have past since Hurricane Katrina, yet the city is nowhere near where it needs to be. How will it ever heal? How will it ever be restored?
But everytime I start to feel discouraged, I remind myself that the work we are doing, and the work thousands of others are doing, is making a difference. People are re-building New Orleans one house at a time, one nail at a time, one 2x4 at a time.
Just as the person throwing those starfish back into the ocean has made a difference for that starfish, we have made a difference for Miss Ruby, who will live in the house we have been working on all week.
I am also humbled this week, truly humbled, by the dedication and hard work of my Berklee colleagues, and by all the volunteers. We are working with people like Nancy and Kyle, who took their own vacation time and came at their own expense to New Orleans, because they wanted to help. Another volunteer, Jim, from Campers on a Mission, is a retiree who spends 5-6 months a year, with his wife, in his RV, traveling the country and helping. He has been our mentor, showing us how to hang "dead wood," prep for drywall, and shore up trusses with support beams. Such selfless giving reminds us that there are kind people in the world and that, with all of this love and help, one starfish at a time, New Orleans will recover.
I am grateful for this experience.
Thursday, June 26, 2008
Well, I've been a little out of the loop re: this whole "blog" thing as I left my large, heavy chunk of metal otherwise known as a "laptop" back home, but I just got caught up on what my co-volunteers have been sharing and want to chime in as well. Although I must be brief as it's quite late and we've got another day of hard work ahead of us tomorrow. Hopefully the rain will hold off so we can get a full day in.
I don't want to spend much time writing about personal challenges, rewards, and experiences over these last three days, although they are numerous, but instead want to convey the overwhelming need for more help, money and resources in order to attempt to restore the livelihood and spirit of the city that care forgot. I'd seen the news, the video from last year's group, pictures my brother took of the lower 9th ward from two years ago, etc. etc., but nothing could have prepared me for that first drive from our comfortable hotel in the French Quarter to the upper ninth ward where we were to begin our week's work. I sat quietly looking out the window as we drove past countless homes and businesses that had been left to be dealt with by someone else. It seemed someone else never came. The only thing more shocking was seeing some of the homes that are still inhabited to this day.
Thanks to Habitat for Humanity, and thousands of volunteers, families are slowly getting back on their collective feet. There's much still to be done. I'm hopeful that Berklee will continue to offer, and hopefully expand on, this amazing opportunity.
Sorry to bring you down.
Although I'm somewhat repulsed by the goings on on Calle Bourbon, I think this city needs the revelry and debauchery and smiling and laughing to balance out the picture I've just painted.
I am 3 days into this trip and I can honestly say I am a changed man. Here's why.
I grew up in a middle-class family in Maine. It was me, my older brother and my parents. We lived in a modest ranch-style home with a pool in the backyard on a quiet street. We would go on family vacations every summer. We owned 2 cars. There was no crime, no poverty, no natural disasters. It was a very comfortable existence.
We never worried about things like where our next meal would come from, where we would sleep at night, our home, or our health.
The people who used to live in the 9th Ward of New Orleans lost everything. Many people know this, but they never really understand fully what that means. I had no idea until I walked past a house that had been destroyed and examined the contents of the "garbage" pile in the front yard. Once I saw a little girl's doll...a frying pan...a television set...a stack of books...I realized what it really meant.
If I could have one wish, it would be that everyone in America come to the 9th Ward in New Orleans and see for themselves what is going on. Walk through the neighborhoods like I have. Talk to the people. Experience this reality first-hand and really get a sense of it unlike any television story or news article you might read could provide.
The people here are wonderful. They've lost everything and they are wonderful. I am forever humbled by their show of fortitude and graciousness. It is ironic how in these times of tragedy, the essence of the true human spirit shows itself in all its glory.
But is it really ironic? My experience here has me thinking otherwise.
I walked past a group of people in the 9th Ward the other day near our work site. At first I thought they looked somewhat sketchy and I wasn't sure what to expect. As I walked by, I looked at them and just smiled. They immediately smiled back, asked me how my day was going, and wished me well. These people were hanging out in front of their house which was little more than a shack, but they wore bright smiles, kind eyes, and genuinely talked to me.
Last week I walked down Mass. Ave. in Boston and I passed a guy wearing an expensive suit getting out of his Lexus. Again I just smiled at him but he frowned at me, answered his cell phone and started arguing with the person on the other line.
We live in a very materialistic culture. We identify and find comfort in our possessions. This is a shame. Think of everything you own and hold dear to you. Now think about losing it all and not being able to do anything about it.
It is my personal belief that when you strip away all the superficiality of material possessions and identification with status, wealth and the ego, people are good natured, generous, and happy. I also believe that most of us in America are extremely fortunate yet we lose perspective on just how good our lives are. We become so wrapped up in our own lives we lose perspective and spend lots of time and energy worrying about inconsequential things.
I've realized only 3 days into this trip that perspective is so important to us all. We all need reminders of how incredible our lives are regardless of our status, wealth, success, material possessions. I know that this experience will forever remind me how fortunate I am.
My last trip down to Louisiana occurred a few months shy of Katrina, and I wasn’t prepared for what I would encounter this time around. Whole neighborhoods are dilapidated. Doors and windows are boarded up; it’s only occupants were likely disaster crews making assessments. A sign cautioning once busy traffic to slow for children in a school zone now stands alone amongst a deserted street. The school is being demolished. Most of the abandoned houses are spray painted with a large X. Inside it lie four quadrants for assessment crews to mark their crew name, date of entry, number of dead or deceased found in the home, and any other notes- such as found pets or an unsafe entryway about to cave in. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. I’m reading Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”, which recounts fallen societies fated by environmental ruin. It certainly draws uncomfortable similarities to what our “worst case scenario” could have been here.
But there’s a reason I’m having such a good time. Our Habitat affiliates are phenomenal. Neighbors are returning, one house at a time. There is hope. For the south has a way of bonding. Maybe it’s the beignets, or the hurricanes at Pat O’Brien’s, but it’s probably the people. People make a place and the music and the anticipation of a neighborhood revival make this. On the worksite each day, locals pass by and wave. I’m swinging from the rafters on our incomplete roof, nailing and sweating in the 90-degree morning heat. And I love every minute of it. Our work here accomplishes that sense of revival; that neighborhood that is creating itself all over again. Like a song they forgot the words to, but we’re all here singing it back to them, so they can discover it as if for the first time.
This is New Orleans. Discovery. The southern charm of flowers draping over wrought iron balconies in the French Quarter, where music- all kinds of music- seep out through open windows and courtyards to each passerbyer. I can’t help but experience pure bliss.
I’m sitting on my balcony in the French Quarter, reminiscing about the day. It’s really special to be living this experience with such an amazing team of Berklee faculty and staff. I’ve learned such important things from them, too. Eat bananas so your muscles don’t cramp. Flushing several inches of rainwater out of a house with OSB and a broom is called Louisiana Hockey. (That’s an official term.) Crawfish, jambalaya, and oyster po-boys are really, really good. (And should be eaten every day.) The Red Sox can be enjoyed in Louisiana, too. Just because there’s a hail storm outside, doesn’t mean there will be a tornado. (But it does require cramming a large family in their rental car and driving them through nearly-flooded streets to Subway to wait out the storm.) Always check with management at your local restaurant prior to using their bathroom plunger. (It’s possible it could break in time of crisis.) And finally, having a balcony in the French Quarter can be a charming experience, but only until being serenading by a local southern gentlemen with outstretched arms and a belt headed for Broadway.
Yeah, this is New Orleans.
It is the 3rd day of work at The Habitat site. The first day was a test to our enthusiasm for the work, the second day built our confidences, but today tested our resolve. It began a hot day, the sun baring down on our heads, rich blue of the sky being enhanced by cotton ball white clouds. Miss Ruby's house was making progress. We finished up the blocking, the front roof of the porch was finally being put in place and Camille, Diane and I finally finished putting up braces in the rafters. Overall a busy and productive morning.
And then we learn to put in windows!! Caulking, weather striping tape and shims, we learn the proper way to level and permanently put in windows. The first went in like butter, easy, sweet and clean. The second one, not so much. As the inside crew leveled and shimmed and leveled again, the dark clouds began to roll in. Fifteen minutes till lunch and as we struggle to level the second window, the lightening begins. The decision to start the window again after lunch is made and we all put down our tools and assemble in one area and dig into lunch.
About 20 minutes in, rain began. Big, fat drops of pure gold. We rejoice at the thought, enjoying the understandably refreshing respite from the intense New Orleans sun. But instead of raining for a short bit, it gets heavier and harder. We all scurry from our eating places to find the few spots that the roof manages to not drip cascades of water. Soon the floor begins to flood and instead of being protected by the roof, we are all damp and dirty. This long bout of rain has now put a stop to all work for the day and we quickly clean up shop and return to the hotel. In the worlds of Juliana, it is amazing how quickly your priorities change. At first you are rejoicing in the cooling rain but soon wish it would stop so you can continue to work. But tomorrow is another day.
Wednesday, June 25, 2008
Hello, everyone. It's Roya. Today was our second day on the Habitat site. It is truly an honor to be in New Orleans and to share this amazing experience with my fellow colleagues. I can’t believe that it has been a year since I was last here with seven other staff members to help with the rebuilding efforts. The Musicians Village is almost unrecognizable – it has come a long way since June 2007! Last summer, there were around 40 finished homes in the Village. Now, there are nearly 80 homes completed and many people bustling around the neighborhood. I was happy to see streets lined up with Habitat homes, when only a year ago we were laying the foundations and floorboards.
During lunch today, Barbara Thomas and I went for a short walk to North Galvez Street, where last year’s group tirelessly worked on two houses. I was excited to see that the two houses were not only completed, but that a family, a single mother and her 9-year-old daughter, already occupied one of them. They had a small wreath on the door and I could tell that it had become their home. It was a poignant moment for me to realize that our efforts contributed to this process. I have included a few pictures of the two houses from last year and the picture that we took today so you can see the progress for yourself. ~ Roya
Aside from the hair-raising roof work, I truly enjoy construction. If it wasn't so dangerous for my hands I would do it more often. The feeling of completing an "honest day's work" is uniquely satisfying, especially when it's for such an amazing cause.
Anyways, here's an interview Linda did with Juliana Horton explaining her experience so far:
Herman here. So overwhelmed with anticipation about what to expect in New Orleans. Ended up having extreme contrasting experiences between the first night and the first day of work. Obviously Bourbon St is one of the main places to check out but the next day in the upper ninth ward erases the party mood of the previous night. I’m sure you’ve already seen some pictures but they don’t capture the impact of being on site constructing a new house next to one that’s been gutted and abandoned. Then we arrive home to recycle the experiences all over again. But what has stuck is that I learned the value of a honest days work, carpentry work that is.
What I do find amazing is that there are families who have come to work together. Mother, father, and children all sharing this intense experience. I imagine that gives them such a deep bond that is so non traditional. Our site has a father and son team, and parents working with their two children. That’s so great.
This is such a tourist town. I wish I could take one tenth of the people from Bourbon St., bring them over to the ninth ward, and give them a hammer and nails.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Maegan here! My Monday started out bright as I traveled Via public transportation to Logan Airport. I arrive early to the gate, pass through with the classic thorough inspection of my baggage and meet the rest of the members of Berklee's NOLA 2008 group. I sit around, chatting with everyone, getting to know who, what and why they were all here. But as I explain my reasons I recall the out pouring of support that our small group received by email last week. I and the others here each received wonderful messages of well wishes, support and the hand of the Berklee community. This made me realize that although I was going as one of 15, that I was more than that. That I was representing the hope, well wishes and honor that we are trying to give to the people of New Orleans from a college up north. So as I prepared for my first day on the job I thought of the friends and colleagues in Berklee. I say that you, as much as me, are here as well. You are helping support the offices, the departments and the classes so we can be here. So I would like to return the well wishes and words of encouragement and say thank you for all the help you are giving the NOLA 2008 fifteen!
We arrived in New Orleans, happy to have finally arrived. After checking in we met in the lobby to all go out to eat and then explore the city. Going down the infamous Bourbon street we were greeted by jazz bar after jazz bar, with a little rock to shake things up a bit. Never having been to NOLA before, I can not say to the impact to the economy of this street. As it seems down here, you brace yourself up, brush yourself clean and continue as you were. It was no more apparent then on this street. There were hawkers for adult venues, Jazz bars and big *** beer to go. We were greeted by a man with mardi gras beads, struggling to survive, but earnestly cheerful and hopeful. After our exploring of the streets of the French Quarter, we said our good byes, being wise to the need to get up early the next day. I came away from the evening with respect for the citizens and hope that one day this city will return to its glory, though not the same, but hopefully better.
We had the first day and boy was it hot!!! We mostly subsisted on gatorade and water, with some sandwiches in between. But the heat was so worth it. The amount of devastation that is still present makes what we do that more important. Like after a brush fire, these Habitat homes and other private domiciles were like fresh foliage sprouting up and saying we can not be destroyed and we will survive!!! A group of us continued the work on "Miss Ruby's" house. Working from the rafters to the floor, we measured braces, did some demolition on support beams and hammered in "deadwood". Ably supervised by our Habitat staff person Ann, we continued through the day until we piled into the transportation and headed back to the hotel for that much earned shower and nap!
Monday, June 23, 2008
After we arrived at the hotel (which is really nice) and settled in, the entire group met for dinner at Acme Oyster which is an institution for New Orleans style cuisine. I won't go into the mouth-watering details but I will say that everyone had an incredible meal.
After dinner several of us took a stroll down historic Bourbon Street. For those of us who are visiting NOLA for the first time, it was definitely an eye-opening experience. Jon Hazilla continually exclaimed, "There's music EVERYWHERE!!". It's true; every other bar we passed had a live band...everything from blues to rock to zydeco to gospel to jazz.
I have to say that hanging out with this group of people was really special. It's a very powerful experience to be part of a team that shares the same passion for the cause that brought us here in the first place. Moreover, it was really, really cool to see both faculty and staff hanging out together and having a great time. I personally haven't experienced this very often in my 8 years at Berklee...it was a unique and dynamic environment that I would like to see happen more often.
That's all for now. I will have video clips posted tomorrow of the hotel and the work site. Until then, thanks for reading and make sure to visit back as we will be updating this blog daily!