Of course it didn't happen on the level that we initially expected. And as things 'calmed' down in my office, I joined everyone else watching CNN in complete and utter disgust...at our collective inability to do anything but watch CNN in complete and utter disgust.
Fast forward to January 2007: I was on the board of directors for Seattle Works, and was asked to join the first group of volunteers being sent out of King County by the organization. The destination? Biloxi, MS. The reason? The local Hands on Network affiliate was recruiting other HON organizations to send volunteers down to help in the rebuilding efforts from Hurricane Katrina. (Katrina, I thought? Wasn't that, like, two years ago?) After initially hesitating, I decided it would be an interesting trip to a part of the country I'd never visited.
I was horrified by what I saw. You can view some of the photos here (you need to sign up for a Kodak account), and read our blogs here. I swore I would return.
Fast forward again to January 2008: Thanks to Seattle Works, I did return, this time to New Orleans. Unfortunately, the experience with our host organization and base site soured the experience somewhat, but it was still inspiring and sobering. Whether we were working at the "school" (you could hardly call it that) or helping at the animal shelter, we all understood the magnitude of what had happened. And more importantly, the magnitude of what wasn't happening. Twenty-eight months had now passed, and several areas still looked as if the storm had occurred mere days ago.
Then, in October 2008, I brought a third group down, again to New Orleans, but Seattle Works hooked me up with a different host organization--Katrina Corps. They'd had good success placing groups with them, so I thought it might be a good change of pace. I wasn't disappointed. Not only were we set up at a quality project to help establish a community arts center at a school all but forgotten after the hurricane, but the project coordinator and field director made sure we had a chance to see the devastation of the Lower 9th Ward as well as experience the true spirit and magic of New Orleans. To a person, each of us fell in love with it.
So much so, that 5 of us returned again last week, this time on our own (with Katrina Corps, but without troubling the great people at Seattle Works to organize us). Again, we had challenges with our host site and the project logistics. But I look past that now. Having mediocre food for lunch or having to leave one job to help with another site midway through the day...those things are relatively minor inconveniences to me. I help where help is needed, and that's a sense of spirit and giving that I so appreciate about each and every person I've had the privilege to volunteer with down here.
What I think I've finally realized this last time, is that in order to see the change I want to see, and help achieve what I perceive to be the most basic of goals--getting people back into their homes, period--I need to be here for more than 5 days at a time. I mean, I knew that. I really did know that. But when I look at the photos from this latest trip, and see what it still looks like just blocks away from the levees, I desperately want to know that things are happening to help get people home. I want to see improvement, and experience hope alongside opportunity, and I don't have any sense of that in my current 'role'.
I don't expect everyone to understand how I feel, and I don't expect people to react the same way as me. A vast majority of people in the country have moved on from this. Quite frankly, a lot of former residents of New Orleans have moved on from this. But there's still a neighborhood there, a community there, without services...without schools...without coherent and consistent hope and opportunity. We may have moved on, but they can't. And if I can help house by house, block by block, to get these people back into their homes, get their children back into schools, onto playgrounds, get these families back into their churches again, then I need to do it.