This year I didn’t want to do the typical Cancun spring break every college student does. I wanted to do something different. So on Sunday afternoon, I packed my bags, boarded a charter bus and took a trip to New Orleans to participate in some relief work.
While passing through Alabama and Mississippi at sunset, I noticed the clouds, covered in a cranberry tint, trailing across the sky in strange diagonal patterns. Although beautiful, this sight only reinforced the fearful premonitions I had been having about the people in New Orleans and my safety.
After arriving and getting a good night’s rest, the next day we toured parts of the city and got a chance to survey the damage done by Hurricane Katrina and flooding that resulted from the faulty levees.
For some reason, I thought after 18 months things would be different, but I was sadly mistaken. As we walked through the lower ninth ward, an area primarily occupied by blacks, I felt like I was walking through a nightmare. Houses were toppled over, in shambles and totally destroyed. There were places where I saw foundations and porches with no houses attached. The area was covered with overgrown grasses, vines crushing fences and eerily hanging trees, decrepit in form and broken by nature. The disgusting irony of it all is that right across the bridge, construction is going on downtown to enhance and beautify the area.
During the tour I saw several levees. Two of which were in the French Quarter and the other in the lower ninth ward. The levee in the lower ninth ward was a shoddy looking 12-foot wall made of cement that went about 4 feet underground and was about 6 inches wide. Before Hurricane Katrina, the wall only stood 4 feet high.
In the nicer areas like the French Quarter and Riverwalk, levees are in tiptop shape. In fact, physical elements from the landscape, like man made hills and high, steep sets of steps are used as an additional line of defense against high water levels. After a look at the levees, we went by some housing projects just outside the French Quarter. Apparently after the hurricane, many former residents were welcomed back with a rude awakening. Housing authorities sealed the doors to each and every apartment and left notices on the doors saying residents were no longer allowed to live on the premises. Unable to return to their homes and without access to their personal belongings, many were left with settling for homeless shelters, bridges or living on the street.
The next day we suited up in protective gear to try and salvage books and school-related materials from Lawless High School. Sadly, many of the books were spoiled by water damage and mold. The lockers were tattered and stained with rust. Water fountains hung out of the wall, wires and pieces of insulation hung out of what used to be ceilings and lunch tables, and steel stools lay among the rubble.
Eventually as the days went by, the fear I had about my people began to subside when I shook their hands, saw their smiles and heard their stories. While canvassing through various housing projects, residents told me how housing is no longer as affordable as it used to be. And the struggle to implement mixed economic communities is only at the expense of poor black ones.
On the last day of work, we were taken to Renaissance Village, a trailer park in Baker, La., just outside of Baton Rouge. There are nearly 600 FEMA trailers there and the park is similar to a concentration camp. Because the park is in such a rural area, it’s difficult for residents to keep jobs because they must rely on unreliable buses for work. Because of its location, there isn’t much recreation, leaving many residents wallowing in self pity and deterring them from any sign of motivation or advancement.
With many people unemployed and still being charged for electric, water and cable bills from former homes that no longer exist, it’s difficult to save enough money to get out and buy their own homes.
As of now, there are currently plans for 300 new trailers to be added to the park.
By the end of my trip, I saw more than dilapidated communities. I saw a people that have been severely neglected and abandoned by their government, and how much the poor and working black class is seen as a nonessential piece in the fabric of New Orleans. This is exactly why no money has been reinvested in rebuilding poor black communities. This is exactly why contractors come every day to scope out prospects for future developments and potential real estate. After all, what would the new lower ninth ward be without its condominiums, casinos and other investments that could increase tourism?
The lower ninth ward is a community that has been totally stripped of its livelihood. One where the nearest grocery stores, schools, community centers and hospitals are miles away, making it virtually impossible for people to come back, reclaim their homes and live; a community where you return at your own risk.
This experience has let me know that our mission as a people is bigger than me or the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It lets me know we as a people are charged with the duty of uplifting our communities. Because if we don’t, no one else will.
Sincerely,Yewande O. Addie