By Bryan West
Did you know there is still cleanup and re-construction work in New Orleans?
In 2005 Hurricane Katrina struck the city with fury; the chaos humbled a nation and highlighted the corruption of state and federal government. Poor, primarily black, communities were left to die. The media’s investigation of how the disaster was handled (before and after the hurricane) made it very clear that racism and classism were very much alive in America.
“Disaster Capitalism,” which was pioneered in Central America in the 70s and applied with great financial success in Iraq just a few years earlier, was now being tried for the first time on American soil.
Exclusive cleanup and rebuilding rights were sold off to out-of-state contractors, forcing the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana to lay off government employees. Wealthy residents, or those living near New Orleans’ popular tourist destinations, were given immediate assistance while poor communities, like the Lower Ninth Ward and Central City, were often left to fend for themselves. Some people received FEMA grants, but it was seldom enough to pay the full amount of repair work needed.
Where the government failed so miserably, volunteer groups and service participants tried to pick up the pieces. Habitat for Humanity, AmeriCorps, and other non-profits born out of the disaster brought thousands of American citizens to volunteer in New Orleans.
I worked in New Orleans twice as part of my term of service with AmeriCorps NCCC. The first time was for two months partnered with Habitat For Humanity, the second for a little over two months with a small non-profit called United Saints 1st St. Recovery. I vividly remember driving into New Orleans for the first time with my NCCC team.
The 12 of us were on our third day of driving and we were experiencing acute “van fatigue”. Resting my head against the window, MP3 player blaring out of my headphones, we approached New Orleans from the freeway. Seeing the skyline in the distance we exited the freeway and descended upon the surface streets. The song “Avenue of Hope” by I am Kloot came on shuffle.
This song encapsulated many strong feelings and served as the soundtrack to a very poignant moment in my life. We drove through one of the city’s many low-income neighborhoods, and I remember passing a wake that was in progress. Even the funeral home had iron bars barricading its windows. The five minutes spent driving through New Orleans for the first time are some of the most memorable from my entire experience as a service participant in AmeriCorps NCCC.
Still, the most staggering and life-altering experience I had in NCCC was working on the home of Ms. Ella Mae.
Ms. Ella Mae was an 86-year-old widow living in central city. Her husband who was a local church pastor had passed away years before the hurricane. We didn’t have a lot of concrete information regarding Ms. Ella Mae’s family. We would ask her, but her answers tended to be nonsensical or contradictory to the other occasions we had asked her the same questions.
Sometimes she had a daughter who was 17. Sometimes she was 30 and living in Florida. You see, Ms. Ella Mae had dementia.
She also seemed to be a “hoarder.” There were old magazines and newspapers stacked like columns in her home. Running from the floor to the cracked ceiling, they appeared almost load-bearing in nature. We were never sure if they were gathered by compulsion or if she simply didn’t know what to do with them, but they filled the majority of the living room and kitchen.
Katrina cut through her house leaving holes in siding and roof, some the size of basketballs. The plumbing under her house was damaged and had broken about a year after the storm. By our best guess, she had been living without proper running water for almost two years.
Her home was more unsettling than the set of a horror film that you’d care to recall. There were massive piles of garbage, birds, and rodents, all manner of insects, and a bathroom that could be classified as a “bio hazard.” When the toilet stopped working she continued to use it, when that became too disgusting, she used the bathtub, and when that plugged up, it was on to pots and pans.
It’s astonishing that Ms. Ella Mae managed to survive in this house as long as she did. She spent most of her days outside on the porch. Locals would stop by bringing food and conversation, but nobody ever went inside and saw how bad things had gotten, not until one day when a woman from a local church who visited frequently stepped over the threshold into a realm of nightmarish squalor.
To step into Ms. Ella Mae’s home was to see the betrayal of the federal government, the absolute abandonment of those unable to help themselves. Upon leaving, the woman alerted the city government. When social services visited and interviewed Ms. Ella Mae they deemed her mentally stable and therefore not eligible for assistance.*
Eventually, the non-profit United Saints 1st St. Recovery was alerted to the situation. My NCCC team was working with this non-profit at the time, thus began my strange and enlightening project in New Orleans.
Darrell, the founder of the organization, went to Ms. Ella Mae’s home to do a site inspection, as he did with all potential projects. He was so moved by the visit that he put the other potential projects on hold. It was clear our priority was the home of Ms. Ella Mae.
The first step was to rent a port-a-potty and a large dumpster. We filled the dumpster completely on the first day.
The work crew consisted of other NCCC service participants, a handful of United Saints employees, and, of course, dedicated volunteers. It was an inspiring group; everyone cared deeply about their jobs.
It was July in New Orleans so the air was thick with humidity, the sun beat down on the work crew and I never heard a single complaint. The work was hard and dirty. People working within the house were required to wear elbow-length rubber gloves and respirators, but that didn’t stop them from attempting to sing while working.
The positivity was almost tangible. It was wonderful to see people with different backgrounds, age, ethnicity, and beliefs pull together. At some point, I volunteered to gut the bathroom with two volunteers from a church group. Armed with our tools, we went to war with the filth, and it remains one of the high points of my life.
This project, the crew, the work site, Ms. Ella Mae, it all culminated into something inspiring.
Every year participants in the AmeriCorps program touch more lives, and every year it is on the chopping block. I urge all of you who are interested to look into AmeriCorps. For those of you who are stuck in a post-high school or college slump, consider AmeriCorps as an alternative to a gap year of aimlessness. You’ll only get what you put into it, but, if you are like me, it can become the high water mark of your life.
*This information was relayed to us and I can not confirm it’s validity. However, when we tried to get assistance from the city we were politely declined.
P.S. Also, I would like to thank my friend Neeki for assisting me with the grammar and punctuation in these articles. I would also like to give a shout out to Chris who is doing a damn fine job running the website!
The views expressed in this article are solely those of Bryan West. They do not represent the opinions of Quote Your Pulse or any affiliated bands. Please direct all hate mail to Bryan.WestNCCC@gmail.com. For more Creative Emissions you can log on to Bryan’s Tumblr