I was heading out the porch door when Miss Hazel stopped me. She asked what color paint we were using. Then she told me she'd seen me up on the ladders, putting up the facea. "When I saw y'all putting that up," she said, "I just started to cry. My house really looks like a house. Like a real house now." "Yes," I said, "yea, it does."
Before going down to Louisiana, the question of why we should bother rebuilding often came up in discussions. Talking with Pastor Turner, the religious leader of the church we slept in, the resilience of the community was apparent. These people had such faith and devotion to their homeland that they would return, even risking further floods, because this was home to them. The future owner of the house we were working on, Miss Hazel, expressed a very similar sentiment: she did not know of another place to call home. While some may assume this attitude to be ignorance or stubbornness, I learned that these people have a much deeper connection with the area than an outsider can comprehend. This common bond forged through struggles with nature brings the people of Louisiana closer together and allows them to endure.
The second day of the trip we finally arrived in New Orleans, ready for a long drive down the Gulf Coast of Louisiana towards the tiny town of Boothville. The landscape appeared dark and barren, with few houses and even fewer shops. As we kept driving the landscape morphed into complete emptiness and we soon approached a "DETOUR" sign blocking the end of the road. We stopped in puzzlement and soon realized we had driven past the church we were to stay in and were now at the end of the road at the end of the gulf coast and the end of the United States. With no other options we turned back around and stopped at the one open building...the Lighthouse Hotel. Inside, the manager, Ray, was surprised to see such a large group and eagerly found directions for us. In the process he told us about his experiences living in Venice. He came back 2 years after the hurricanes, to find everything he once called home changed. This area had been under over 20 feet of water, with strong waves crashing above. His hotel opened just two weeks ago and was one of the few businesses around. He told us how milk costs $6 a gallon, there are few stores and people simply can't afford to live in the town any longer. It was clear that the devastation of the Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, which occurred over 3 years ago, were still apparent everywhere. Ray offered everyone keychain lighthouses with the hotel's info on a round water-proof plastic tube to hold small items. It seemed like a strange token....a small waterproof tube? Why? In case of another flood?
I think that the hardest—but probably most rewarding—part of being in Louisiana helping people rebuild homes almost four years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, was learning how to be uncomfortable, exhausted, patient, and hard-working all at the same time. It sounds pretty basic, but I remember the first day we actually started construction and the older woman whose house we were working on came inside to say, “Hi.” She was just so happy to see her new home becoming a reality, and over the course of the week (she cooked lunch for us everyday) she kept saying over and over “we will survive” and kept a smile on her face. I realized that I might feel like complaining after one night of sleeping four or five hours on a hard floor, surrounded by 50 other people, but I probably couldn’t even imagine what it had been like to be without a home for almost four years and somehow still find the courage to persevere and hope for something better. I decided it didn’t matter how tired I was and became grateful for the opportunity to participate in this woman’s healing process—making a difference in someone’s life isn’t always easy or easy to see, but I think all of us did on this trip and grew because of it.
Over the course of our trip, I discovered how extraordinarily resilient Boothville was in the face of its crisis. Even after such great devastation, the strength of even a few residents had the power to propel the community forward and put it back on its feet. Although I think many people, including myself, sometimes question the value of rebuilding an at-risk area that struggled to remain financially solvent even before the storm, I learned that if members of a community are willing to invest the effort into rebuilding, then they deserve the help necessary to do so. Working in this community gave me the invaluable insight that in spite of the dangers and levels of risk in a location, everyone is entitled to their idea of "home"
Miss Hazel returned to her home in Phoenix, LA, a small collection of houses sitting flanked between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, three months after Hurricane Katrina. Yet, what she found was a new world from the place she had left. The land was hard and her vegetable gardens were all but a memory. She found cattle carcasses hanging from the tops of trees, an ominous reminder of the twenty or so feet of water, which had engulfed her community. Today, Miss Hazel waits patiently for her new home’s completion with an ever-hospitable heart, ushering paint-covered service groups into her interim home to use the bathroom and sit down for a home-cooked lunch. This hospitality was a theme, which surprised me throughout the trip; those who had lost so much never stopped giving out of their gratefulness for our support in their on-going efforts to rebuild their community.
Going on an ASB trip is unlike most other volunteer experiences we usually take part in. In the morning we don't leave the comfort of our own homes and at the end of the day we don't get to retreat into our private spaces. Instead we received an incredible opportunity to eat, converse, and live with the people whom we're trying to serve, to truly participate in the lives of others. We had the rare chance to try to understand impersonal, generalized 'victims' as individuals and their experiences on an intimate level.
Although there was not one particularly striking memory that I can recall, the most important feeling I felt during the trip that has stayed with me since being back at Bowdoin is appreciation for what I have. What I realized while helping to reconstruct houses in Boothville was that the people who lost their homes were left with virtually nothing in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The devastation of the storm took away their material possessions and caused fear and confusion. However, as the group began interacting with Ms. Hazel, an elderly woman whose house we were assigned to help repair, I began to realize that even though she lost a great deal because of the storm, her spirit was not broken. Thus, her optimism and ability to persist was both admirable and a reality check on how fortunate I am to have what I have.
We went to a very small town (Boothville, LA) in Southern Louisiana. Although Hurricane Katrina hit the area almost four years ago, Louisiana people still remember those horrible days. When I first told my friends that I was going to Louisiana for an ASB trip, people were surprised that reconstruction work in Louisiana was still going on. It was overwhelming to still witness the devastation caused by Katrina. We helped Ms. Hazel's house, the same house that last year's ASB members worked on. I remember when we told her that we finished painting her house, she was so excited. I remember her fixing us lunch. We stayed in the church, so I encountered people who believe that God has plans and Hurricane Katrina was one of them. It was amazing to see how religion can bring people together and be thankful for what seems to be devastating. It was a wonderful experience and I miss Ms. Hazel and everyone else we met and Louisiana!
I would have to say the most striking memory I have from the area of Louisiana devastated by Hurricane Katrina is how much destruction there still is throughout the different towns. One image I think about frequently is of a doll stuck all the way up in a tree. That doll has been in that tree for years, and for me represents the urgency with which people had to evacuate their home, and all the possession that many people lost. This image will stay with me as a reminder of Katrina and the hardship that the people of Louisiana had to endure.