Hi everyone, Barbara Thomas here. We arrived back in Boston yesterday from what I describe as a life altering experience in New Orleans. I must say that I am still filled with many emotions, both happy and sad in regards to my personal feelings and experiences from our trip. I have totally embraced my Berklee-NOLA team members as my family. I am honored to have bonded with such wonderful people. I literally fell in love with everyone. I am so amazed at the work being done by Habitat for Humanity....Thank God for them and the countless volunteers who have been tirelessly rebuilding homes for so many displaced families in NOLA.
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.