Sometimes it is hard to remember that the New Orleans area was completely under water a few years ago. But as I write this it is raining. It’s a gentle patter now but 30 minutes ago it was a deluge. I was out driving in St Bernard Parish and the roads flooded instantly. Not just a little but several inches – a foot in some places – within five minutes. And I remembered.
I don’t always remember that every house in my new community – Arabi Louisiana, part of St. Bernard Parish – had flooding during Katrina. Every single house was declared uninhabitable. I rent an apartment that was mostly above the floodline; the part I am living in was at least. My laundry and storage rooms were flooded. The bachelor apartment beneath me was flooded. The water went up my stairs. The floors creak, a lot. I am sure they weren’t fully, or at least properly, repaired after Katrina. When I step on the floors I remember.
I can’t imagine what it was like to have to flee from your home. Having survived Hurricane Betsy many residents waited out the storm. And when it passed they felt safe. And then the levees broke and they had to escape. From my street I see the Mississippi River flood wall. A reminder of how close the water is. The flood wall sits on top of an earthen levee. This is where people escaped to during Katrina. They were brought there by boat and left while the boats searched for other survivors. And eventually they were rescued…a few days later. When I drive to or from my house I see the levee and the flood wall and remember.
I don’t always remember that this was a community built by slaves. But then just around the corner I drive by the Old LeBeau plantation. For a grl who grew up in a mixed race house living a block away from a plantation is a jarring reminder of the reality of life in the South.
Next to the plantation is the Domino sugar factory (celebrating 101 years today). The factory was built in 1909, the first of several for the Domino company; today the nation’s largest sugar producer. After Katrina they established a trailer park for their employees and families. It’s a reminder that life hasn’t been the same for many but that the economy will be rebuilt only through a cooperative effort.
When I forget for a moment that houses were destroyed and are being rebuilt, I need only to drive down my street or around the block. There are empty buildings, concrete slabs, and efforts of reconstruction. Across the street and up a few houses is Rebecca Wise’s home. I helped insulate her house with 15 of my students last year. We finished the entire back portion of her house – where she lived before the storm – in 5 hours. It was expected to take us three days. Rebecca made us a huge lunch out of her FEMA trailer. I talked to her last week. She is fixing up the front half now herself so that her family can live in the back. She said “This is a house that love built.” Every time I pass her place I am reminded that without the thousands and thousands of volunteers who have come to the Greater New Orleans area recovery wouldn’t be as far as it would.
When I have heard the news reports about crime in the Lower Ninth ward, the dangers of it flooding again, and people espouse beliefs about why the community shouldn’t be rebuilt, I haven’t always had great answers. Last week, my good friend Tanya Harris came to talk to the students. A Lower Ninth ward resident, and community organizer, she told us about her block pre-Katrina. Her sister next door, her cousin on the corner, her grandma down the block.. She told us about the people; a teacher, a nurse, a few domestic goddesses, a police officer, factory workers…people with degrees, people who work, people who love their neighbours. I see the determination in her eyes and the spirit she has maintained and I know what to say to people, “Remember what was there before and let it be rebuilt.”
In Canada, I am not always the most patriotic. I think about what our government is doing politically – taking away Special Diet funds in Ontario from low-income people, holding Canadians on Security Certificates, our role in the war, defunding of women’s organizations – and I don’t feel proud. Here, the first thing anyone says in St. Bernard if you tell them that you’re Canadian is “do you know the Canadians were the first ones in to rescue us; four days after the storm.” That I remember. That I am proud to remember.
The fifth anniversary of Katrina is approaching. Today is changeover day between the 39 students my co-instructor and I have brought down this year. 20 flew home today and 19 are on their way in. I am proud of them. The 22 who came last year, and these 39. They are a reminder that youth have rebuilt this city and that youth will rebuild it. They can’t do it alone. This is an open invitation to anyone who reads this to help out in whatever way you can. Make a donation. Send a prayer. If you want to come work I will give you a place to stay. And at all times, remember.
PS As I was writing this the rain started coming down harder, both inside and outside of my house. My bathroom ceiling has sprung a leak. Water is pouring in through a growing hole; one that looks like it might burst open at any time. The landlord has arranged for a repair guy to come on Monday. What’s a little water in a bucket to a community that has been surrounded by it.