Today was our first day of what I anticipate to be one of the most influential, profound experiences of my life. In a few short hours I felt various emotions from immense sadness, to guilt and grief, as well as inspiration and undeniable happiness. The vibe of this city is indescribable in words – it sincerely is one of those places that you have to experience to truly understand its impact. With that said, spending one day here has left me wondering, “How can I live in this city? -because if 24 hours can make me feel this way, I never want this trip to end!”

Our day started with breakfast at IHop – Dion was a fantastically patient server! But as we sat there and ate our delicious meals, I couldn’t help but look around the restaurant at the smiling families in their ‘Sunday best’ and wonder, “Where were you when Katrina hit? Where have you been for the last 6 years? Was your home salvageable? Have you only recently returned? Where are the rest of your family and friends?” And as the day progressed, these questions were often reeling with each smiling, or otherwise, face we encountered. Our tour took us all around the city, from New Orleans City Park (which was massive and picturesque and warm) to the French Quarter (which was heartwarming and lively and enriching) to the Ninth Ward – which took all of us on an emotional roller coaster of disbelief and offered a renewed sense of not only what resiliency actually means, but what it looks like firsthand.

As we drove through the neighbourhoods, we saw children riding bikes and playing in the streets with smiles and innocent curiosity in yet another tour van driving through learning about their short and turbulent history. We saw “Make it Right” homes (the ones built on Brad Pitt’s supportive dollar), with amazing architecture using all recycled material – yet awkwardly placed in a neighbourhood where that style of home doesn’t quite fit, but they were beautiful nonetheless and are allowing families to return that otherwise would not have. Beside these bright and colourful houses lie empty lots, some still maintained and groomed, some grown over with weeds, some with cement pads that used to be someone’s floor, some that are abandoned with rotting walls and broken windows, and some with simply 3 or 4 stairs that lead to nowhere. The houses left in ruins, still marked with haunting Xs, paint the heartbreaking stories of loss and devastation and remain as a daily reminder of the trauma these people experienced. Yet again, right beside them are families coming back home, rebuilding, and reconnecting to their amazing communities. These houses lie within feet of the levees. As we stood next to the cement levee walls, I couldn’t help but imagine what it would have looked like, what it would have felt like to see that water rise above the levees and slaughter those homes.

We also saw the sad remnants of what used to be an active, plush, healthy bayou, and now all that remains are “Ghost trees,” which are literally grey stumps that poke through the water. There are pockets of optimism in the bayou, however, where platforms of wetlands grass have been replanted and will grow and spread and nourish the bayou to hopefully restore it to a hopeful partialĀ  health. I borrowed some stones from the path along the bayou to remind me of what I felt looking at those abandoned trees. Hopefully, one day I will return those stones to their fully restored home.

Today was a perfect day to start the trip and to grasp the importance of witnessing the absent political integrity that plagues the low-socioeconomic pockets of this city. The French Quarter is alive and buzzing with energy, while its less economically sound neighbour (the Lower Ninth Ward) struggles to rebuild and lives with the constant reminder of loss and devastation from the empty lots and missing houses that cannot be erased – because erasing the cement pads or tearing down the condemned homes would be like hitting the delete button on those that have not returned. It would erase the need for economic support and political attention. Those homes, whether empty lots or weakened walls, belong to people and those people belong at home. With the need for those lots to remain in devastation comes the inability to truly move forward from what has happened here. Katrina did not erase their lives, the lack of political will did – and continues to do so. These stories must be heard, shared, and experienced… and this is where our journey begins.

New Orleans, I am an open book with pages made of sponges to absorb your stories, your emotions, your resiliency and your hope. I will share what I have bore witness too. Bring on the next 2 weeks and together we’ll fill these pages and hopefully aid in eventually moving on to a new chapter where families are home and neighbourhoods are restored. (Sorry for the cheesy metaphors but its kind of just how I roll…)

That’s all for now folks. There is so much more to write, but I am emotionally exhausted and need to rejoin my group – which, by the way, is full of some really amazing, warm, and energetic, enthusiastic people who I feel honoured to share this experience with.

Until next blog,

Caitlin V.