Day 1 of my Katrina 6th Anniversary Project Wednesday, Aug 31 2011 

Left home today at 5am Central after packing and repacking all night. I was underweight (not what I expected) so now I suspect I have left critical stuff at home. Ah well, will see what happens.

I flew to Hartford, CT (via DC) and then met up with a few other volunteers at the Avis rental centre. We took two cars and headed off, convoy style to Southbridge MA. The woman, Margaret, that I travelled with is 74 and is on her 51st mission; in 8 years. Yeah, she doesn’t spend much time at home.

She and I are both assigned to Mass Care (shelters/feeding) but when we arrived at the headquarters in Southbridge today we were told that we will probably be shipped off to Vermont tomorrow. Not sure where exactly we will be going but the flooded roads — including three historic, covered bridges that have been washed away — will make it very difficult. We will be making a long detour west, through NY state and then into Vermont.

I found this video showing the types of flooding that occurred in Vermont this weekend.


NEW ORLEANS! I’m gonna blog the crap outa y’all! Monday, Aug 29 2011 

Rebuilding the City

Hey Everyone!

Hope everyone is well! As some of you may know, I have been back in New Orleans since Aug. 19th and will be staying here until the 31st. I must say it has been another roller coaster ride of experiences and emotions as I get pulled deeper into the vibes and rhythms of the city. But I am going to keep this short and sweet…for now ūüėČ Just wanted to get everyone excited by letting y’all know y’all have 10 blogs coming from me over the next few weeks on my adventure here and different things I have come across. I will definitely be writing a blog about Robert Christy’s welcoming home party as well as topics including “Neighborland”, The New Orleans Healing Centre Grand Opening, and a brief look into the interviews I did with some citizens. If anyone would like to see any specific topics PLEASE let me know and I will get them in there! ‚̧ And everyone please comment and share what you think about what I have to say and share it with friends. The more help everyone gives me with this series of blogs, the better my next set will be from my next visit!

Bryan McGill (5th Year Environmental Studies Student @ York University, Toronto)

My Katrina Anniversary Project Saturday, Aug 27 2011 

I’m heading to the East Coast on Monday or Tuesday to work with the American Red Cross response to Hurricane Irene. Not sure where I’ll be placed yet or any real details beyond the fact that I’ll be working as a Shelter Supervisor. Wish me luck…

Community, Schmunity: a look at New Orleans 2 years later Thursday, Aug 25 2011 

A reflection from Jessica Hambleton:

When I registered for the CINT912 course back in 2009, I had no idea that the adventure I was embarking on would profoundly change my life. I had visited Flanders Fields as a child and had visited Ground Zero a few years ago but as devastating as those situations were, neither of them inspired me quite like my experience in NOLA almost two and a half years ago.

Jessica and Joy at the 2009 Jazz Fest

Although the above two tragedies were in fact tragedies, there was a sharp difference between those two events and hurricane Katrina: they had the support of their government during the aftermath.¬† It was saddening to read and watch the devastation prior to arriving in NOLA but it was a whole other level of sad upon arriving.¬† The first home we came to was owned by a lovely woman named Rebecca who had everyone in tears as she was sharing her story and her joy at finally having her home insulated and started towards rebuilding.¬† What I began to notice was that even though the stories were emotional for all of us, the residents of New Orleans had this spunk about them that was undeniable.¬† It wasn’t until our second week of the trip that I realized what that spunk was: determination.¬† By the time the second week rolled around I was amazed at the sense of community that I was seeing all around.¬† Even though the city, state and federal government was continuing to let them down, the citizens of New Orleans didn’t let that stop them from reconstructing the city that they loved.¬† Now don’t get me wrong, they were definitely bitter, and understandably so, but their collaboration and progress they achieved was not only outstanding but also had the added bonus of a ‘screw you we don’t need you’ to all three levels of government.

Jessica digging a community garden in Mid-City

The way the members of the community had come together to change their city was unlike anything I had not only ever experienced but that I had even ever read about.¬† It was absolutely inspiring.¬† People who may not have ever talked to each other had Katrina not have hit the city, were now on committees, executive boards, part of community organizations together and changing what was happening in their city, and all without any government help.¬† It is a committment that was creating successful change. I can only hope that this inspiration can penetrate others’ visions and remind them that anything is possible, literally.

2 years later – Reflections from Chris Monday, Aug 22 2011 

In May 2009 my group was the initial group to go to New Orleans to help with the rebuild, and there isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t think about our experience there. It’s been 2 years and I still can’t get it out of my mind. Do I want to get it out of my mind? NEVER!! But it‚Äôs also sad to think about New Orleans because the time spent there can never be duplicated. I think everyone whoever’s been there as a class can resonate with this feeling.

We were there to rebuild homes and that’s what we did. I can remember the first house we did, and we polished that off in a day, when it was supposed to take two. It was a lot of hard work, but it was also a lot of fun. We were rewarded with a lovely lunch (who remembers that carrot cake yum!!!) I can remember the demolition crew and us killing ourselves in the sweltering heat, but it was all worth it for that final moment when the shed came down.

Jeanette's first wall - 4 years after the storm. Shown (L-R) Jeanette, India, Lily, Chris, FM

The damage that we witnessed 4 years after Katrina was insane, I don’t think any of us believed it would still be that bad, and I think that was a motivating factor that kept us pushing, day in and day out. It still baffles me how a country such as the United States could abandon its own. The images that I witnessed on tv when the disaster was taking place, only hit me harder when visiting the same places that were destroyed.

Fong-Ming, Rojyan and Chris planting trees to aid in wetlands redevelopment.

I may not see or talk to anyone as much as I would like, other than randomly seeing Ahmed or Said downtown, but we’re still a family. Our second mom Tanya had it pretty rough, in those days there was no Pascal so she had to deal with all of us, and we stressed her out (you know what I’m referring to). But for her to put together this brilliant idea still amazes me. In many ways, the tragedy of Katrina brought together a group of people who may have never met before to accomplish so much.

Reflecting & Remembering. Friday, Aug 19 2011 

There’s not much in the news these days about New Orleans, but that doesn’t mean the city has fully recovered from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Almost six years later, much rebuilding is still left to be done. Progress is being made, but not fast enough.

It has been a bit over a year since my trip to New Orleans. The memories are still pretty clear in my mind, but for the days I don’t remember, I have my journal to look back on to relive the moments. During my time there, we worked on several projects: demolishing a school, insulating houses, helping the homeless shelter, painting, sanding and mudding walls. Along with the sweaty and tiring days, came new skills, toned arms, and a mix of emotions. Joy because something was being done to help these people, but sadness because not enough was being done. Anger and frustration because aid is not being maximized, but satisfaction knowing that a step is being made in the right direction.

Now as I sit at home a bit over a year after my trip, I wonder how the families of the homes I worked on are doing. Through Facebook, I got to follow the progress of one of the homes (The Pacaccio Family) that I worked on. And it was a great feeling seeing how the house had progressed even after we had left and finding out that the family had moved in! 

When we left...

After we left another group came to work on the house...

Welcome HOME!

I am honoured to have been a part of this experience and I applaud all the hard work and time that Tanya and Pascal have put into this course because without them there would be no Toronto 2 NOLA. My hope for New Orleans is that when I return in the future, it will be able to revive its natural charm and character. I believe that this is possible because the spirit of its people are always so high and bright, even amongst the worst of times.

Toronto 2 NOLA 2010!

New Orleans: A collection of photos Tuesday, Aug 16 2011 

I’ve been back to New Orleans now 3 times since my first trip down in 2009, with one more visit planned for the end of the month. I still can’t explain what it is about the city that gets under your skin and refuses to leave your head, but it has to be something about the character and personality of New Orleans, the spirit and¬†resilience¬†of its inhabitants. As a volunteer, I’ve had the incredible opportunity to meet people from all over the world who are just as baffled as me. How can this place seem so much like home? How can spending any amount of time here change your life so completely? In all honesty, if I could, I would pack up and move there for good.

I last spent months at a time living in the Lower Ninth Ward, but with every visit, no matter the¬†length, I am still as completely captivated by the neighbourhood as I was the first time I stayed there. There is a quiet, eerie beauty. With every intersection, another empty lot. Around every corner, another house sitting abandoned. But the pace of change surprises me. A year after my first visit, a small community has popped up with more houses than empty lots at one intersection. Granted, the recovery is soon entering it’s 7th year, and with the anniversary of Katrina looming around the corner most residents of the city should¬†be home. This isn’t the case, so I try to see every individual homecoming as a small victory. People haven’t given up trying to come home yet, and I can’t help but feel optimistic.


Claiborne Bridge

Spray paint and storm walls



Florida Ave.



Florida Projects

This is a series of photos taken since 2009, mostly in or around the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish.
© Amanda Fotes 

Do You Know What It Means? Monday, Aug 15 2011 

A two year out reflection from Stephanie – one of the 2009 NOLA students.

post-installation - Stephanie cleaning

Stephanie Cleaning post-insulation installation. Her favourite job.

This is my attempt to fully articulate¬† the impact New Orleans has had on me. First of all, I’ll start by admitting that going to New Orleans was tough, but coming back was a lot tougher. Preparing for this trip took more courage than I ever imagined and I really had to step outside of my comfort zone in order to pursue this two week journey. I went back and forth debating whether or not I could actually go through with it until one day I bought a plane ticket and locked myself in… No regrets since that day.

I’ll begin by saying that I have extreme anxiety when it comes to flying and I’ll never forget my traumatizing¬†experience flying home from NOLA. It was a small plane, a lot of turbulence, and we went through a thunder-storm.

Royjan, Stephanie and Jo land in Buffalo

Royjan, Stephanie and Jo land in Buffalo after an eventful plane ride

I cried a lot that day, but when I sat down and reflected on that experience, I felt selfish. How could I possibly feel traumatized traveling by something that is way safer than being in a car? How could these irrational feelings actually compare to the devastation, physical and emotional trauma the residents of New Orleans almost 6 years ago? How could anything I’ve ever been through compare to the pain and suffering thousands of people endured at this time?

So what do you say to someone you meet in New Orleans?
You listen.
You listen to the individual experiences people have prior to Katrina, during Katrina and their ongoing struggle to maintain the bright spirits that they have today.
You listen to the stories of strength, hope as well as what it takes to truly survive something so catastrophic.
You listen to how they were able to overcome obstacles that many of us will never have to experience in our lifetime.

You might even wonder how they can possibly be the most optimistic people you will ever meet.

Prior to leaving for New Orleans, I remember looking at as much footage as possible in order to prepare myself for what was to come.
Nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. I remember thinking that after 4 years, every single house should have been inspected and at least well on their way to repair. There was an overwhelming amount of houses that had not been searched, or had been searched, but abandoned. One of the most intense moments for me personally was to see a yellow sided house that read, “Lisa + Donnie R OK” in person. This is an image that came up in several types of media and at this moment, I was actually standing in front of the house. It was so surreal.

One of the first days that our group was in New Orleans, we were touring around, taking in the scenery and I can’t even count how many people offered to grill us something on the barbecue or drive us where we needed to go. On our first day of work, we met a lovely lady that was rebuilding her house.

Prepping for insulation work...L to R: Ahmed, Chris, Stephanie, Tanya, Kealey and AmeriCorps guy

She was STILL living in a FEMA trailer and while we were putting up insulation in her house, she made us nine different Louisiana dishes (from her trailer). We definitely did not ask¬† her to do this for us, but we were grateful that she did. I know that it exposed me to many dishes that I might not have been able to experience and it allowed me to fully understand what Southern hospitality was…first hand!

Miss Rebecca's meal for the students

MIss Rebecca's meal...

Over the course of two weeks, I met so many people who were willing to share their stories with me and I brought them home to my family and friends. For the first two months after coming home, all I did was talk about New Orleans. Over 2 years has gone by and it’s still a regular topic of conversation.

Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?
I do.

Sign on the wall of St Charles Guesthouse

Love2NOLA Friday, Aug 12 2011 

I’m launching a new blog Love2NOLA. This blog will feature updates about the more touristy side of New Orlean: food, hotels, tourist events, attractions, music etc. There are a few posts up already with many more coming soon. Today’s post is about a great NOLA-based musician Mark Growden.



Check out the blog and subscribe!


RIP Wendy Babcock Wednesday, Aug 10 2011 

This is another NOLA to Toronto post. While I don’t always miss TO, there is nowhere I would rather be at this moment. My friend, Wendy Babcock, was found dead at her home yesterday; an apparent suicide. Wendy’s loss hurts; all death does but this is the second suicide in my circle in the past 13 months. My ex-wife Tricia killed herself last July. Suicide, post-Katrina is New Orleans; most people I have met know one or more people who have taken their own life.

In November 2009, CBC profiled Wendy on the show Connect With Mark Kelley. View the video here.

Wendy had, by all accounts, a horrible childhood. She was abused by her parents, lived in a group home, became a ward of Children’s Aid Society, aged out of care, dropped out of high school, became a child sex trade worker (her client list included a very well-known current Toronto politician, lawyers, doctors, police officers etc). She had a child as a teen who was taken away and whom she never stopped fighting for. Her friend and roommate Lien Pham was murdered in October 2003.

She also had an incredible life. She became an activist for the rights of sex workers. She won the first Public Health Champion award from the City of Toronto in 2008 for her activist worker including “co-initiating a partnership with the Toronto Police Services to ensure that sex workers can report incidents of assault without fear of persecution or prosecution, and being a member of the advisory group to the Special Victims Unit.”

She earned a diploma from George Brown College’s program for counselling and advocacy for assaulted women and children. She worked at Street Health for a number of years as a harm reduction worker. She helped found numerous groups including the Bad Date Coalition, the Safer Stroll Project, Sherbourne Health Bus Sex Workers Stop, Regent Park Community Health Centre’s Sex Worker Drop In, and self defense training for sex workers.

Despite dropping out of high school at 16, in the fall of 2009 she started law school at Osgoode Hall, York University. Osgoode’s building, and the building the Faculty of Environmental Studies is in, are right next door to each other. We often saw each other on campus during her first year. She would sometimes catch a ride downtown with me after school so that I could take advantage of the HOV (high occupancy vehicle) lanes and she could save herself a long bus ride.

In November 2009, her friends threw her a fundraising party at Goodhandy’s. I emceed the event which brought together a host of sex positive performances to help cover the $18,000 she needed for school. The party didn’t raise that much, but it did a great job at raising Wendy’s spirits and publicizing her story.

I heard from Wendy recently, as did many others in our mutual circle. I was shocked to hear the news of her passing last night. I spent a lot of time crying last night and today, thinking about her. She really was a bright light in the world. Someone who fought back against all the crap that was thrown her way and who seemed to be making progress against her demons.  I want to talk more about anxiety, depression and suicide – especially the way it manifests in New Orleans – but today I just want to honour Wendy. I am grateful to have known her for the past 6 years or so.

RIP Wendy Babcock – you are  loved and already missed. xoxo

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