Wednesday, 26 March 2008

new orleans -- 15 years and a heckuva hurricane later

typically this is a pretty light-hearted blog, but my recent trip to new orleans was not. all things added together, it was a wonderful trip, but parts were really sad.
this is the post of the sad, hard stuff--like driving through my old mission and searching for people who were displaced by the hurricane.

as all of you know, katrina wreaked havoc on new orleans and st. bernard parish. i served my mormon mission in southern louisiana, and i spent a great deal of time in chalmette in st. bernard parish (in the glbrm-great louisiana baton rouge mission). st. bernard parish was devastated by the hurricane, the surge, and a toxic oil spill.

going back was amazing. after 15 years, of course things have changed, but nothing prepared me for what i saw. here are some snapshots.

dianna was assigned to go to new orleans to be the npr bureau chief for 3 weeks, so i convinced her to let me tag along. i provided her with all the good story ideas.

we got up to run on saturday morning along the mississippi levee, but wound up just eating breakfast in the french quarter.

you can never go wrong at any restaurant in new orleans--
except, sadly, in the french quarter.
the views are spectacular, even if the gumbo is watered down.

the french quarter is part of the city that survived the hurricane pretty much intact, although there are little signs of it.

our big saturday activity was tracking down marian. i met marian on accident. i was backing out of a neighbor's parking lot after a brief lunch in my brand new sea-foam green corrola (it had 300 miles on it). apparently i didn't look behind thoroughly enough, because i slammed right into marian's car. i had on my missionary name-tag. after the cops came and my fear of getting arresting was allayed (a small miracle--the arizona DOT 's computers must have been down) this poor woman that I'd hit looked at my name-tag and said, "are you a nun?"

i said "kinda." and then i walked away embarrassed.

but i'd just had a convo with my companion that Christ can take any bad thing and make it good. and thought i should give a copy of the book of mormon to the lady i'd hit. my comp though t i was crazy, but i went to marian, and said, "i'm really sorry about hitting your car, but i want you to have this book. it changed my life."

she grabbed the book with both hands, like something she would treasure. she looked at it, and looked at me and said, "maybe the whole reason we got into this accident was so i could get this book. "

marian lived in delacriox island. it was in my missionary area, but really far away. we were only allowed 200 miles/ month and going to her house a couple of times would eat up our miles for the whole month.

so when i told my mission prez that i'd crashed the car with 300 miles on it, and asked if i could have more miles, he told me: "running into people with your car might be an effective finding tool, but it's will NEVER be approved. "

long story short: we taught marian and a few month later she got baptized. a year after that, we went to the temple the temple together.

marian and i stayed in touch over the years, but i could find her after hurricane katrina. i sent dianna to find her in the days after the hurricane hit. but she reported that there was no way to reach delacroix island from new orleans. thigh-high toxic mud blanketed all of st. bernard parish.

in december marian called me, and i was sooo relieved to hear from her. but she didn't sound good. she was calling from texas, and she told me that her house had been completely destroyed in the hurricane. she didn't know that she hadn't had insurance on her house, and that the insurance companies, of course, would do nothing. she also had a hard time proving that she owned the property because the title was still in her father's name and her father had died a long time ago. she'd grown up in that house, and her mom had grown up in that house--the entire family history was in that house. she said a number of times on the phone call that life wasn't worth living. she lost literally everything she'd ever owned. we talked a couple of more times. the last time i talked to her she had called me in the middle of the night when i was working in africa somewhere (i can't even remember where i was).

i, of course, lost my cell phone. it was the only place i had her number. she stopped calling me, i didn't know what had happened to her. i got very worried. so we went in search of her.

driving into st. bernard parish and across the canal was like stepping into the post-apocalypse. it was surreal. i didn't even recognize where i was. heavily populated areas were now wastelands. we drove down judge perez ave, past what i thought was my apartment.

i knew where i was when i passed what was left of the schwegmans' shopping center. this is where i used to shop, makin groceries schwegman's style.

this taco bell represented everything i hated about serving my mission in the states.
it was hard for me to feel like a missionary when i was surrounded by things that were so familiar. it felt weird to tract and be so open about religion in a place that felt so much like home. . . even still, it was sobering to see it marked as a public health hazard.

this is the apartment i was visiting when i backed into marian's car.
it was the house with the yellow sticker on it.

marian was visiting a friend in the apartment at the end of the road there.
and then i slammed her with my car and with the good news.

these markings mean that the house was searched on 9-8 (05) and they didn't find any dead bodies here. spray paint is still on houses all over the city.

this is the living room i used to hang out in.
too bad photographs can't capture the rotting smell.

the calendar says august 2005, like it's frozen in time.

how am i supposed to react upon seeing a crude oil pipeline laying in the grass?

we drove all the way to the end of bayou road looking for marian's house, but couldn't find what was left of it. we did find some pelicans.

(by the way, when i was a missionary, i taught julia roberts' stunt double for the movie pelican brief. i taught her about joseph smith, and she made us a fancy dinner. it was nice to have someone sorta normal to hang out with.)

we reached the end of the road--it literally ends. if you could drive out past it, you'd hit venezuela.

to give you an idea of how desperate things are in st. bernard parish,
this is the government coastal complex.

look carefully, and you'll see a refrigerator in this tree -- almost 3 years after the hurricane.

some old guys on delacroix island remembered marian nash, and told us where her brother lived. he gave us directions to her brother corky's house, who helped us find marian. she was living in a trailer behind her daughter's house.

(this is something i love about southern louisiana. if you asked the neighbors on the end of my block where i lived, they would have no idea. but in louisiana, everyone knows where you and your family live. there's a real sense of community here)

when i knocked on the door to her trailer, all she said was, "you came back." i was filled with all sorts of emotions--i had been afraid i wouldn't find her, and also afraid that i would. i felt so guilty for not being in contact with her and with all sorts of people that i'd loved as a missionary.

marian had suffered a lot in the hurricane. her memeory is really shaky, and she can't even remember how she got through the hurricane and where she lived in the months afterward. she got up a few times to get things, and came back empty-handed.

i thought it was just her short term membory, so i asked her to tell me some longer stories--like about how her family came here from the canary islands. she pauesd a really long time, and said, "if my sister was here, she could tell you, but i can't really remember." that was one of her favorite stories, and seeing her strugle to remember it made me really sad. marain, who always had the happiest of dispositions and could laugh at anything, had lost a lot when her house and all her memories were destroyed.

she doesn't go to the mormon church anymore, but to the catholic church nearby with her family. i can't say i blame her, because the nearest church is in uptown new orleans, 45 mintues away, and it's not safe for her to drive with her mind as shaky as it is. she said she still talks sometimes to margaret villanueva, a tribute to the power of visiting teaching.

we had a pretty short visit, myabe an hour. it didn't feel short. we sorta ran out of things to talk about. part of me wanted to stay with her, but the silences became long. i eventually said we had to go because dianna needed to get to something.

this is me and marain right before we left. i have her address and phone number now, so i'm determind to stay more in touch. missions are a funny thing because you love people you would never have any other opportunity to know. i was a 22-year old zoology student when i met marian. she was a 50 year old crossing guard in delacroix isalnd. our worlds would never have collided. i feel like meeting and teacher her was a real blessing.

i i started recognizing more stuff on the way home driving thru st. bernard parish. i took pictures of this fire station for my dad.

we drove thru some of the neighborhoods that i served in.

the home depot was the only thing open, and it was doing a booming business.

FEMA trailer in front of a house with a gaping hole into the living room.

block after block of abandoned, condemed houses. many have been demolished already. some people are fighting the demoilition, leaving one house standing in an otherwise open field.

these pictures were taken in one of chalmette's wealthier neighborhoods.

when the houses were razed, you could see where tile, wood, and carpet
had covered the cement foudation.

wood floors, walls, tile, and probably carpet.

amidst all the shells of houses and empty lots, there was the occasional house that had been rebuilt, with a kids hanging out in the driveway. but the one thing that was definitely missing in these once-heavily populated neighborhoods were old people.

as we drove through the poorer parts of my old stomping ground, i remembered old people stitting on their porches, playing games, sipping tea, and listening to music. there were no people sitting on porches anymore.

it's amazing that the hurricane and flood happened so long ago, and parts of the city still look like a ghost town. like the disaster stuck yesterday.


KamilahNYC said...

Not sure why, but I got kind of emotional reading this post. I didn't know anyone in New Orleans and actually had never been there, but yet still felt this connection with the people there. I still have been hearing so many stories about the lives people lost there years ago. I am so glad you posted this. I am always at a loss at what to do now though...any suggestions?

Cassi said...

This post really tugged at my heart strings. Thanks, Bush, for all your amazing efforts to help rebuild LA like you promised. Not.

Kikibug said...

I couldn't help but cry at this post. I am AMAZED that this is our country. How can this happen..WHY is this happening. It is so easy to forget that these people are still suffering since my parents weren't effected nearly as much by the hurricane. We were just there in Nov and it is different, but nothing as bad as these photo's. I guess I wasn't looking hard enough. Seriously, it is so sad.
Oh an happier note, I am glad you got to see your friend. I can't imagine her devastation. I feel blessed on a daily basis and I KNOW that I AM, but I REALLY feel extra spoiled after reading this post. I should never complain again!