On the plane headed down to New Orleans to the UUSC’s Justworks Camp, I learned that the folks sitting on either side of me were heading south to volunteer. For one, it was a whole new experience; for the other, a third trip. Their presence gave me pause – here it was, nearly 18 months after the hurricanes Rita and Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, on a Saturday morning in February, and (seemingly) the plane was loaded with people going to help out? The conversation on the plane allowed me to begin to imagine the scale of the work – and the week – ahead of us. We parted ways in the baggage area – one to Catholic Charities, another to Habit for Humanity, and myself and Imke Littman to our group, identifiable by the sleeping bags we all were lugging.
After depositing our luggage in the dormitory-style sleeping quarters housed at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans, a group of us headed out for a walk. It was my first up-close view of the damage. In the neighborhood of the church, “Uptown,” there had been three feet of standing water, for three weeks. Many houses in the area stood untouched from the day of the storm, while others had been gutted, and a few repaired and reoccupied. I was struck by how quiet the area was – very little active construction, few people out on the streets. Stores remained closed. Sidewalks and gutters were cluttered with debris. Again, the scale of the work grew inside my mind.
Throughout the week, Imke and I would learn more about the reality of today’s New Orleans . Whole areas of the city have yet to have water systems, electricity, sewer and even traffic lights repaired. Financial assistance to homeowners is bogged down in endless red tape. Nonprofits are struggling under the staggering volume of needs. FEMA trailers still sit, unused, in vast lots outside the city.
But we did more than learn. We also worked, helping to gut the houses of four families. “Gutting” involves removing everything from inside a house: all the personal belongings left behind; all the furnishings, household items and decorations; all the rugs, plaster, lath and tile – everything down to the studs. It was challenging work. One day I picked up a woman’s engagement ring from what might have been a bedside table. Imke took a frying pan of food out of an oven. The sense that individuals took flight, quickly, came home to us both.
Both Imke and I are still “processing” all that we saw, heard, and did in a single week in New Orleans . On the one hand, in the face of needs so vast, our contribution was so small. On the other, I think of how many other planes have carried volunteers like us, from all parts of the nation, to be of help. New Orleans indeed casts light on what is both the best and the worst of our country today.
Reverend Alison Cornish is the pastor of the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of the South Fork in Bridgehampton. This article and the companion article "What's the Katrina where you are?" were originally published in the UUCSF Bulletin for April, 2007.
Rev. Cornish can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org