Home sweet home Wednesday, May 27 2009 

We’ve been back for a while now and adjusting again to the lack of scorching head and crazy humidity (and blissful lack of giant cockroaches and hornets). I finally have sorted through my 60 gigs of pictures and videos and work is currently underway on the NOLA DVD. Here’s a few samples of our adventures:a few kids playing basketball, which seems fun and normal until you realize they are playing on the foundations of their neighbors home,
the demo gang having a little fun during a blazing hot sun break…
and seeing an alligator while on a swamp tour!
Back with more soon!


FEMA taketh away Wednesday, May 27 2009 

It’s been four years since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita ripped through the Gulf Coast leaving millions of Americans homeless. While government response was less than timely, FEMA eventually made provisions to temporarily house the victims in government owned trailers and cottages. Fox News reports FEMA officials will begin to send eviction notices to hurricane survivors in the temporary housing units starting June 1.

read more

While we were working at our first job site – Rebecca’s house – FEMA officials came to talk to her. She was out, but Amanda, one of our students, gave them the evil eye and sent them on their way. I don’t know if it would have mattered if Rebecca wasn’t out. No way Amanda was going to let FEMA take a trailer away on her watch 🙂


Save Charity Hospital Tuesday, May 26 2009 

While we were in New Orleans we went to a community protest meeting organized by ACORN and other community groups focused on saving NOAH, an adolescent mental health facility. However, the issue of Charity Hospital and other community health facilities were raised by many speakers.

A message was sent out today from Save Charity Hospital saying in part….”Because of your support, the campaign to save Charity Hospital now has more momentum than ever. There are two crucial events this week that will define the next phase of our fight — and we need your help.

In the past month, we’ve learned the details about the current proposal for the LSU Medical Complex — that it would take more money and more time than rebuilding Charity, that it unnecessarily destroys an historic neighborhood, and that the new site would abandon downtown New Orleans.”

There is a call in the message for local residents to go out to a public meeting on Thurs May 28th from 4-6pm sponsored by the City Planning Commission. Tell your NOLA friends to go out to that meeting

As well, state legislators in Baton Rouge are considering new legislation – Bill 780 – that will “prevent LSU from prematurely seizing private property in New Orleans and putting taxpayers on the hook for hundreds millions of dollars to finance LSU’s flawed plan.” A bus trip is being planned for tomorrow to help lobby Louisiana legislators. Those with a LA address can click here to lobby legislators . This site only works for those with a Louisiana address. Those outside of Louisiana can find legislators here.

You can also watch the Save Charity Hospital video to “learn why rebuilding Charity Hospital is the best option to rebuild downtown New Orleans”.


reading New Orleans Sunday, May 24 2009 

I have a growing collection of New Orleans books; many are technical and likely not for mass reading but a few really capture the heart of the issue of Katrina.

down in new orleans

Down In New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City by Billy Sothern shows that New Orleans is a city that was in crisis before the storm. A criminal defense lawyer working on capital cases Sothern isn’t afraid to point out the failings of the system, and to highlight discrimination and injustices in NOLA before and after the storm.

1 dead in attic

One Dead in Attic by Chris Rose takes its title from a column Rose wrote in November 2005 for the Times Picayune, where he works as a columnist. The book captures his experiences beginning just a few days after the storm when he was one of only a handful of people in the city. Told through his Times Picayune columns Rose shares his personal struggles along with the stories of his city.

Nine Lives: Life and Death in New Orleans by Dan Baum is a bit different as it tells the stories of nine New Orleanians from their early years through the hurricane and beyond. Also different is a video trailer for a book:

How was New Orleans? Wednesday, May 20 2009 

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.


Mom duty is almost done Saturday, May 16 2009 

To the parents, professors, boyfriends, girlfriends, family and friends: I’m almost ready to sign off from mom duty and relinquish my 23 charges back to their loved ones. It’s been an amazing experience to be here working with all of them over the past two weeks. They have worked hard; day in and day out. Workdays started with breakfast between 7-8 and they were on the worksite by 830am most days. Often, there was something going on in the evening as well. This week for example – Mon – Tanya Harris from ACORN spoke to us, Tues a community meeting at city hall to protest the closure of NOAH, a mental health hospital for children and youth, Thurs a group dinner and Friday a meeting with Phyllis Montana Leblanc from When the Levees Broke and the upcoming Treme, followed by a team meeting. Not unusual but it meant 12-14 hour days of work/meetings. No one complained, everyone showed up, and everyone gave 100%!

To my 23 wonderful kids
I told you all today at the wrap-up meeting how impressed I was with all of you and I really am. I would have liked to say more but you know I was already getting emotional. So here’s a little more of what I would have liked to say:

Ahmad – You are a very hard-worker, truly funny, and a great team player. I think that you have a lot of hidden talents, some of which came out on this trip like your mad demo skills. You were always upbeat and helped build up others’ confidence and spirits.

Amanda – It was great getting to know you better, and thanks for all your work. You were a good leader on the worksites, and I think your photos are going to help represent the trip to others to help them see what we saw. I hope you are able to come back here to work.

Ashleigh – I’m so glad you decided to come because I know how excited you were about it when I announced it in Homelesssness class. You have been a great help to me in getting all the little stuff done, and keeping me sane when I was stressed. You also have a great work ethic.

CC – You have a very bubbly personality and are very determined. I was impressed by your willingness to stick out a tough situation and to see another possible side to some of the issues that the class was experiencing and yet, respect others’ decisions. You were always willing to jump in where you were needed.

Chris – You are transformed from the guy who took my homelessness class. Your participation then showed me that you are a great student, but quiet and reserved. That person is gone away (though you are still a great student); you are funny, funny, funny and really kept your team motivated during the work day.

Danielle – You are fierce. You worked incredibly hard and really gave everything you had. You should become a construction contractor 🙂 you have the determination, drive, energy and organizational skills.

FM – I feel like we may have corrupted you a little but I really saw you blossom during this trip at the same time. You certainly are more vocal then you were at the beginning. You were very determined to get the job done and worked hard all the time. Finger licking good eh?

Heloise – You showed that you have a true hippie spirit when we hit the Lower Nine, although the van should have been a clue to that 🙂 You worked hard on this trip and I’m glad you were able to end with a wetlands trip. Enjoy your leisurely trip back to Canada.

Isaac – You are a crazy shopping dude 🙂 You have contributed a lot to the enthusiasm and atmosphere of the group and even if you demo like a girl you can drywall like a guy. You have an energy about you that is so positive; thanks for the hugs and uplifting words.

Jessica – You have a great spirit about you and really were willing to roll up your sleeves and get to work. It was good to know that I could rely on you to get things done when needed. You’re very energetic and brought a lot to the group.

Joanna – I really do like your hair like this. 🙂 You came back from an initial sickness setback and really stepped up. You were always ready to work and kept working which is always appreciated. You have a great sense of humour.

Joy – You showed a lot of leadership potential during this trip. You have a calming attitude and at the same time a great deal of energy. You have a great sense of humour and were always willing to step in and get stuff done (especially at the Volunteer House with meals and dishes!).

Kealey – Though you tried your hardest you did get some colour. You always seemed to be having fun no matter what you were doing; that’s a great attitude when doing this kind of work. Thanks for all your contributions.

Kevin – I was really impressed with the way in which you connected with people in the communities we worked in, and your dedication to getting the job done. You had fun here but you worked just as hard as you partied!

Laura – You have a wicked (if somewhat bizzare) sense of humour. Your wisecracking got the group motivated and laughing. You are a demo queen and brought a lot of energy to the group.

Lilly – I know what it meant to you to be able to help people from your own country, even if you had to go to Canada first in order to do it. You were always ready with a joke, and helped keep up the morale in the group.

Melissa – I am sorry that you were plagued with health issues but was impressed by how willing you were to work no matter what. You worked hard and got a lot of work done when you were onsite. I’m glad that you were able to try out the other org and do some wetlands work this week.

Rachel – Your wonderful voice was a great addition to the house. You worked hard on the trip and I enjoyed rooming with you so much (lack of snoring always appreciated). Thanks for getting up and getting going and always giving your best effort.

Ron – Yes even you can get tanned Ronjohnson! Thanks for all your hard work ensuring that everything we did was recorded on video. I am sure you are as sick of the video camera as I am of the mini-van. It was also nice to have an older stablizing force on the trip.

Royjan – You are a tiny tiger. You have amazing energy and contributed a lot to getting the work done. Like Danielle you should become a construction contractor – maybe the two of you should start your own company. You gave 100% all the time and more.

Said – Thanks for your contributions to the cooking and the shopping. You are a hard worker on the job site and were able to keep your team focussed. It was great getting to know you better.

Sanjini – You were always “there”. A calming presence for the group and a very hard worker. You have a great personality and helped knit the group together; everybody enjoyed being around you.

Stephanie – You can have a job cleaning my house anytime you want. Thanks for making the Volunteer House shine when we left. You showed that you are ready to give your best effort on the job site no matter what and that’s a wonderful attribute.

Thanks to all of you. I look forward to reading your journals and assignments.


Florida Ave Townhouses Friday, May 15 2009 

There is a set of beautiful townhouses on Florida Avenue in New Orleans.

florida townhouses

This is an area that has undergone many changes. A pre-Katrina housing authority article summarizes some of those changes. The demographics prior to Katrina were consistent with many public housing buildings in New Orleans.

Surrounding these townhouses were concrete fragments of removed houses.
florida town houses blocks

When we arrived in the city there were only three rows of townhouses left. Now there are two.

florida town houses 1 row gone

Today when I drove by I noticed that the boards had been removed from all the windows (glass lying smashed on the ground) and the doors were wide open. It seemed like an invitation.

The townhouses are multilevel. Upstairs the only damage is man-made; caused by the search teams or by removal of fixtures, appliances, baseboards, flooring etc. The flooding didn’t reach all the way up the stairs. The black mold shows what flooded.

florida town houses inside stairs

The living room, as seen through the front window, is destroyed but similar rooms upstairs are fine.

florida town houses inside living room

I did venture inside. It broke my heart to find this room….

florida town houses fan

florida town houses clock

florida town houses mardi gras

These were people’s home. People already living on the edges of civil society; pushed away by racism, classism and other forms of discrimination. Why are they being destroyed when it would be so easy to renovate the main floors……

Wetlands – Bayou Sauvage Friday, May 15 2009 

To add to Stephanie’s previous post about the wetlands…members of the group worked on three wetlands restoration projects this week.

One project was planting in the manmade pond at City Park. Despite its name, City Park isn’t municipally funded but is one of the largest urban parks (at 1300 acres) in North America and home to the New Orleans Museum of Art, and Storyland Amusement Park (not to be confused with Storyville).

This pond is used for education; teaching children and adults alike about the value of wetlands and how they could help prevent another disaster similar to Katrina. It also, because it feeds into the other water systems, provides breeding grounds for shrimps, crawfish, and other fish.

wetlands planting at City Park

A second project was tree planting. These trees and bushes are nursery grown and eventually end up in the wetlands, either in City Park, or in one of the more rural wetlands.

The third project was planting in Bayou Sauvage, Nationaal Wildlife Refuge . It is made up of 23,000 acres – all within New Orleans city limits – of marsh. Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina caused significant damage. The first picture shows a broad view of one marsh, while the second gives a close up. The stumps are cypress trees that actually maintained a tree canopy – ie complete covered the area. The small knobs are called fingers and are caused by the roots of the cypress tree expanding and coming out and up from the tree itself.

wetlands broad view

wetlands focused view

On Wednesday (and again tomorrow, Friday) students worked with elementary school kids who were doing water and habitat analysis, as well as wetland plantings. This gave/gives the TO students a chance to learn about the wetlands and to talk to New Orleans students. For the latter, they enjoyed being able to show off their knowledge to others from outside of their area. IE Did you know that the best way to escape from an alligator is to run in a zig-zag?


Bayou Sauvage and work differences Wednesday, May 13 2009 

So I think I’ll start off this post by saying that I had the best day so far this week today.
This week has really shown me how much structure and organization is the key to making everything come together smoothly. There has really been a noticeable difference of organization between St. Bernard Project and Common Ground. With St. Bernard Project, we always knew where we were going and always had what we needed. When it came time to work for Common Ground, it was a huge shock when we went to dinner and there wasn’t enough for everyone. I felt really bad for the people that did not receive dinner and took much less for dinner the night after. Tuesday morning we showed up for work and waited for our supervisor to show up and at about 9:50am, they came…. and then didn’t need us. After being bounced around a bit, we settled in to a work site doing drywalling. It was hard to settle in and feel helpful when everyone had already had a system set up to get things done. 
I feel like I should be disappointed in the way things are going this week in regards to our accommodations, but I am really not. We came here for an experience and let me tell you, this is quite an experience!! 🙂 I’ll always be able to look back at the things I have written in my journal entries as well as looking at all of my pictures to remember all of the crazy and amazing things that we have seen/experienced in the last few weeks.

Here is a little update of what we did today (since it has been one of the best days for me here!)
We went to do wetland restoration and found ourselves helping grade 4/5 classes with activities throughout the day. We started out by planting in a marshy area, then went to catching critters from the water! We found all sorts of things such as shrimp, fish, some sort of eel, crawfish (yum), and some sort of mussel. Sadly, we did not find any Alligators! They do live in that water, but they must not have felt like hanging out today. Oh well! Anyway, since we were running out of time, we decided to do two activities at once. We were looking and listening to different bugs and animals to see how many we could find on our way to the water testing area.
When we got there, the kids got to test the PH levels, as well as nitrogen in the water. It was really cool and a lot of the kids were really interested in using the knowledge they had learned in the classroom and apply it to their field trip!
Other than a small little burn I acquired, I think everyone had a really great day today.
p.s. the Snowballs they have here are delicious!!! (they are pretty much the same as snowcones, only way more syrup!!)


ghosts… Tuesday, May 12 2009 

So the weekend was spent at Creole Gardens which is supposedly haunted. I had one of the haunted rooms but the little servant boy who haunts it never showed, and certainly didn’t come to be given orders – ie “pack my suitcase!” – as I had hoped. Despite not *seeing* any ghosts many of us were a little apprehensive that they might appear.

Sunday night a few of us headed to an IHOP for supper. We took the exit according to the directions but must have missed a turn because we ended up back on the highway instead of the service road. No problem; next exit we’ll catch the service road back.

So we get off the highway and slowly turn on to the very dark…very very dark…service road. I’m going quite slowly because it was just so dark. We go around a sharp curve and suddenly I see something in front of us and swerve into the lane beside us.

We saw this…..

ghost car

The front end of the car (right side of the picture) is actually facing the traffic that approaches it. So not only is it on the road but it is facing the wrong way. I don’t know how long it has been there, how it got there or why it is still there, but with no streetlights and coming after the sharp curve it was very dangerous. But moreso, at least at the time, was the fact that it scared us and made us laugh at the same time. We called it the “ghost car” and started a round of jokes reminiscent of the old-fashioned ghost stories where a stranger would materialize on a deserted road and ask for help with their car, or offer to fix yours, only to learn that they were long dead.

We laughed all the way to the IHOP and then scared ourselves silly on the way back to take this pic saying “what if its not there anymore”.


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