I don’t quite know how to answer the question “How was New Orleans?” Visiting New Orleans aka NOLA is really unlike visiting most other places and therefore the answer is unfamiliar.
How do you describe a city where everyone has experienced loss? In St. Bernard Parish where we spent our first week every single home, indeed every single building except 4, was damaged by the flood. SBP is the only community to ever have been 100% affected by a natural disaster (though we know that natural is a bit of an oxymoron really).
SBP and New Orleans itself were so welcoming to us. Everyone was friendly, welcoming, excited to meet us. Residents of SPB were so excited to meet Canadians; they know that it was rescuers from BC (Search and rescue or mounties is debated but for sure they were from BC) who were the first official people to reach St. Bernard. Each of the families that we worked with shared their Katrina stories…stories of loss, of grief, of despair….and stories of hope and renewal and faith. Random conversations with strangers; waitresses, taxi drivers, hotel staff.
How do you explain sleeping in a hotel knowing that nearly 4 years ago water lapped at the porch, or for those on the 2nd floor that your room was underwater? What emotions can recount sleeping in a volunteer house in SBP that has a picture on the wall showing the roof of the house; the only thing peeking through the water while a boat drives by?
We attended a community meeting – you can see my speech here – about the closing of a mental health hospital. Think of what is required for a group of students, from another country, to be so motivated that after a day of work in the blazing sun (I think it was “feels like 39C” that day), after missing supper, not even having had a shower necessarily, to want to attend a community meeting at City Hall in protest of the hospital closure. Why did they do this? In part, because they were so motivated by the emotions expressed to them by people in the community; they could see the value of keeping a mental health facility in the community.
It’s strange to be in a city where you know that a great deal of the population is experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s bizarre to watch kids drag a basketball net out to a “park” only to realize that the park used to be houses, and the court they are playing on is indeed the foundation of a house.
It’s incomprehensible to watch the destruction of a huge social housing project that could so easily have been renovated and rebuilt. It’s eerie to walk through that housing complex (see the Florida Ave blog post) and see remnants of people’s lives.
How do you explain driving by a house 8 times in an hour and each time seeing it destroyed and removed to the point that it is gone on your final trip? This happened one day in SBP; a house on our street disappeared, only a concrete foundation remained after 60 minutes.
What words can recount the stories we have heard? How do you explain second hand the obvious grief in someone’s voice as she talks about the relocation of her family and the necessity for them to remain apart because of the lack of health care and educational facilities?
How do you tell the story of demoing a shed and seeing someone’s life before you. Of opening a container and dumping out what very well may have been Katrina flood water.
How do you share the emotions that arise when you hear a large group of children exclaim “Katrina” when asked why there has been salt water intrusion into the Bayou. To know that these kids have experienced something most of us never will. To see the resilience in these kids even as their entire world has been turned upside down by relocation, death, loss, new schools, new curriculum, new lives.
On a more personal level, how do you even explain what it means to live, eat, work and sleep, side-by-side with 23 other people. To build a family, a community that shared what you experienced, and to know that time will separate and while a bond will link us it will never be like those two weeks again.
So I don’t know how New Orleans was. If you ask me, I’ll say it was good, or fine, or joke about my kids, or point out my sunburn and blisters. But I can’t answer you because I just don’t know.