A nobody’s reflections on New Orleans, pt. 4

My flight from New Orleans got into the airport at almost 11pm Sunday night and I have returned home. I have not had much time to digest all that has happened, especially over the final day of our time in the Big Easy. After closing our orientation session, a group of us went back to the 9th ward; Dr. Sheila had met a resident when we were there before, Ms. Gertrude LeBlanc, and had asked her what we could do for her. Ms. Gertrude wanted some flowers planted along the sidewalk of her newly built home and there was a group of new students ready to do it. My allergies had returned on Wednesday with a vengeance so I did not dig but rather spent the time taking photos and talking to Ms. Gertrude, her son Calvin and a neighbor called Terrol, who goes by “Terry”.

Ms. Gertrude left the Sunday before the storm for Baton Rouge. Her home is very near the levee that devastated the ward (about two streets over). All that remains of the original home, in which she had been born and where she lived all of her more 80+ years before the storm, was a porch (which had been torn down before our arrival) and her brick front steps. The steps now hold her mailbox and flowers. Her house was built in three weeks by volunteers. After the flowers were planted and over a box of take-out chicken, Ms. Gertrude told us about her journey. FEMA gave her a trailer. She was one of two or three who received them. A neighbor a few lots down (all the lots in between Ms. Gertrude’s property and this neighbor have no homes on them and are overgrown with grass–it is difficult to tell where one ends and the next begins) has two trailers and shares space with a disabled relative. He lost two other relatives in the storm. Ms. Gertrude’s daughter Jennifer lives with her; she stays because her mom refuses to leave.

Ms. Gertrude feels that the city (or whatever powers that be) did not want the residents to return to that side of the 9th ward. She points across the main thoroughfare, visible from her porch, and says they didn’t mind people trying to rebuild over there. She says there is a project underway to build solar houses that are more “green friendly” on her side. It seems that if the people were to remain elsewhere, the city could put whatever they wanted in the area. Ms. Gertrude is proud of her neighbors, a large number of whom have made plans or indicate that they are coming back and will rebuild.

Rebuilding and improving the lower 9th ward sounds like a monumental effort in an area where not much in the way of local, state, or national support (financial or otherwise) is reaching the persons it should be reaching.

There are two large houses on the street behind Ms. Gertrude’s; when the levee broke, a barge came through. It settled at such a position as to protect the two homes while the water surged around it.

Ms. Gertrude’s son Calvin is a sheriff. His first trip back to the ward was with the National Guard after the water receded. His mother’s house was a peach color and he found a single piece of it up in the tree across the street. He also recognized some of their belongings, including a curio cabinet. Someone’s refrigerator had landed on top of a house on the next block. Up the street, a statue of the Virgin Mary was not harmed or moved; Calvin said that the house that used to stand on the particular lot with the statue had been demolished and pushed into the street by the storm, but that the statue had remained where it had always been.

There is a military police patrol in the ward, designed to discourage looting. As people rebuild, the homes are not lived in and are targets for vandals. Calvin tells of an incident that occurred while his mother was living in the FEMA trailer; a young woman claiming that someone was after her came knocking on Ms. Gertrude’s trailer door at 2am. Ms. Gertrude and her daughter told the young woman that they were calling 911, to which the girl replied, “Don’t do that.” They called 911 and told the girl that they had. She walked away from the trailer but got picked up by the MPs along with two other people in a truck around the corner. Calvin thinks the group thought his mom had money and were trying to rob her.

The bridge that is visible in this part of the ward is operational except for the gates. Initially this was blamed on the storm but it was later determined that the gates were broken long before the storm.

Large and small tour buses have been coming through the neighborhood for the last two years. The 9th ward is now an official tourist opportunity; local websites and advertisements (including the coupon I received from the driver of the airport shuttle, which entitled me to $5 off a tour of the ward) offering city tours include the ward as a destination. None of the proceeds come to the ward.

Common Ground, a grass-roots organization, has a location on the block behind Ms. Gertrude’s house. In the first while after the storm, college students came to help in the ward through community service/service learning initiatives but that has since stopped. There is a sign in front of Common Ground’s location welcomes the locals back and another proclaims the injustice of the tourist industry.

Teddy and his mother lived in the next block up from Ms. Gertrude. he is back in New Orleans but their house is gone, except for a slab. He fights to keep the grass cut to a manageable height but it is hard. He and his mother are currently with his sister in her apartment because although his mother applied for a FEMA trailer, one never came. He spent three days in the Super Dome because people were not allowed to walk to other parts of the city where it was dry. An area of the stadium had been designated for the disabled, but in Teddy’s opinion there were some individuals should have never been brought there. He saw people die due to illness who did not have proper medication or care. The Dome was surrounded by water; to reach the buses that eventually came, they had to go through an attached department store and out to an area where the water was only ankle- to knee-deep. The buses stopped at two or three of the shelters that had been set up outside of the storm-damaged area, only to find them all full. They ended up in Texas, where his one sister has chosen to remain.

Mail service in this part of the ward is fairly regular now. The recycling company has not returned. The elementary school near Ms. Gertrude’s had been torn down before the storm and the junior high has not reopened. The few children who have returned to the ward are bused to other schools.

The Deja Vu bar and restaurant on Rue Dauphine is frequented by French Quarter locals. It was the first establishment to open for business in the Quarter after the storm. It is open now twenty-four hours a day, seven days per week. From what I understood from visiting there (the pulled pork is the best–I had the sandwich one day and the po’boy as a takeout which came back to California with me and was dinner Sunday and breakfast Monday) is that some of the staff are recently returning to the city. One of the patrons I talked to was preparing to contact FEMA for help since she hadn’t gotten any support from them. She was a resident in the Quarter; her home was located on Conti Street right up the block from the Deja Vu and has been known both as the Norma Wallace brothel and the Ernest Bellocq House. She describes her building’s owner in colorful terms; she and her fellow tenants had been willing to repair their apartments if the owner agreed to fix the roof and foundation–the two main parts of the structure that were impacted by the storm (she mentions that it was not so much the flooding per se that caused the damage but the storm itself, with the rain and winds) because they all wanted to live there, enjoyed living there, wanted to help save this piece of New Orleans history, and were committed to staying in the city. The owner refused and has let this historic building sit, growing mold for the past three years. She had seen it listed for over $900K but a listing I found today has it at about $800K. She describes seeing water for a year and a half and has struggled since the storm. She saw people swept away by water, saw cars and bodies floating in the water after the storm.

Most amazing is the compassion that Ms. Gertrude, her children, her neighbor Terry, and folks in the Deja Vu have for people fighting the water in the northern flooded states since the levee breaches there. All of them share a common sympathy and wish they could do something. They are praying for their fellow citizens who are having to suffer.

The pain, however, is still very real. One person I talked with about it says he had to turn off the reports after a while because it all looked too familiar.

NEVER FORGET

Wednesday, June 25th, 2008 Miscellaneous Updates

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