Meaning of Home Sunday, May 26 2013 

I miss New Orleans soooooooooo much. It literally hurts to miss it this much.

 

miss new orleans

In my Homelessness in Canadian Society class that I taught at Ryerson University for several years, we played a “game” called the “Meaning of Home”. It was an interactive activity designed to get students thinking about the most important factors in defining home and what the loss of these factors (in the process of becoming homeless) might be like.

Having moved around so much in the past few years, and living in a bit of a tenuous housing situation now, I am starting to understand it in such a different way myself. June 2010-February 2012 I lived in Arabi, St. Bernard Parish (I arrived at the end of April but was staying with my students for the month of May). March 2012 to (technically) mid March 2013 I lived in Abita Springs, St.Tammany Parish. But, I spent a month (end of August to end of September) in a hotel in Metairie, and most of October 27 to March 17th in New Jersey in shelters, tents and hotels.

Moving back to Canada, I didn’t know where I would be staying. I planned to couch surf; crashing at my parents or friends until I found something more permanent. I lucked into a great condo for the summer through my PhD supervisor’s connections. It’s very much lacking in furniture but it has (now, thanks to the donations of friends) the basic amenities.

So I have a house (in a sense) but do I have a home? When I was in Louisiana, home usually meant Toronto. When I was in New Jersey I always had to clarify because “back home” could mean Toronto or Louisiana depending upon the topic of conversation. Now that I’m in Toronto, I miss my home/friends/networks/communities in Louisiana. A friend told me today that it was time for me to come back home to New Orleans, and a big part of me agreed with her.

There is also a part of me that I suspect revels in the rootlessness; I know that if I was in Louisiana last week, chances are I’d be in Oklahoma or Texas now helping with recovery efforts in those states. I miss the ability to pick up and go help people, especially because I get so fulfilled from doing that work. In Toronto I feel more stability, in NOLA I felt the freedom of the casual culture.

Of course, there are anchors here in Toronto. I’m dating two amazing guys who I’m very fond of and our connections grow stronger with each date; that couldn’t be maintained if I wasn’t here (at least not to the same degree). I have a fabulous job as Project Coordinator of the Canadian Homelessness Research Network. It’s temporary (til May 2014) but I’m sure there are ways to stay connected to their work after that. I’m back on campus at York University; I lectured twice last week, joined the Senate as a student senator for the Faculty of Environmental Studies, and am lecturing again this week. I’m closer to my family and friends, geographically anyways. I’ll get to go to PWAC@MagNet this year after missing it last year.

And yet, my soul is in New Orleans. There is something about that city that drew me in from the first day I set foot on the soil back in 2008. I miss it every day. There is an expression/picture that became really popular after Katrina that said “Roots Run Deep”. Indeed, in Floodlines, Jordan Flaherty explains that more people from New Orleans live their whole lives not just in the city (compared to other cities across the US) but in the same neighbourhood, often on the same block.

roots run deep

photo by Amanda Fotes

I don’t have those historical roots, but the graft took. I’ve grown into the city and into St. Bernard Parish. While I know I will visit, and hopefully soon, I don’t know when, or even if, I’ll ever be able to spend large chunks of time there again. So much of my heart is there though….

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Volunteering with the Red Cross Tuesday, Jun 5 2012 

I’ve been volunteering since I was a kid. I think the first time was with my dad when he did his shifts at the Smith Township library; later I did my own shifts. In elementary school I began organizing fundraisers and events to help feed children in Africa. From high school on volunteering was an important part of what I did in my life. I dedicate a significant amount of time  to volunteering every week; even here in the US (as I write this I have just finished a call-in to a board meeting with the Professional Writers Association of Canada where, as I finish my 7th year on the board this week, I serve as Past-President).

I volunteer with the Disaster Services arm of the American Red Cross.

I’m really enjoying my work with the American Red Cross. I’ve written before about my two experiences on bigger Disaster Relief Operations – in Vermont with Hurricane Irene last August/September and in Carencro (Lafayette), Louisiana this past march with the SWLA Flood. Most recently, I trained as an instructor in the disasters stream and have been doing some trainings prepping volunteers to be shelter volunteers if needed in the hurricane season.

Red Cross cot assembly

The shelter training participants at the New Roads library in Point Coupee around a Red Cross cot they learned to assemble (My training partner, Jonathan Hammett, Regional Partnership Manager for Southern Louisiana is in the red shirt).

Even though my Master’s degree I received in 2009 and the PhD I am undertaking now are technically in Environmental Studies, there was/is a huge focus on disasters in both of them. The courses I took at York University – through the Faculty of Environmental Studies and the Disaster and Emergency Management program have been incredibly helpful and useful as I learn more about the inner workings of a Disaster Relief Operation. I sat in on a planning meeting last week; the number of volunteers that will be required if a large hurricane hits is enormous. On top of that, you have to anticipate that some trained volunteers won’t be able to respond given their own life circumstances, so training must include 3x the number of people  you actually anticipate needing.

The most common disaster in the United States is the single home house fire (image source: American Red Cross).

Even outside of “wartime” ie when there isn’t a formal, large-scale disaster there is lots of work to be done. A standard disaster cycle is Preparedness, Mitigation, Response and Recovery. But once you have recovered, the system is right back into preparing and mitigating. What worked, what didn’t work, how many people need to be trained this year, what shelters will be needed, where will they be etc etc etc.

My other main function with the Red Cross right now is helping the South Louisiana Regional Partnerships Manager, Jonathan Hammett, with some of the preparedness work. Not only are we training volunteers, but we are in a constant recruitment mode to try to find more. We are also connecting with groups and organizations, especially churches, to secure spaces for a shelter. This involves meeting with an interested church, assessing their interest and capacity, then if they are supportive having a full evaluation of their space completed to ensure that it is safe and suitable. Finally, a partnerships agreement is signed. During an actual disaster, I’ll be a Community Partner Services Lead for the South-East Lousiana chapter which will include connecting with our partner groups and helping to mobilize them (Jonathan has the same role but will be based out of the Baton Rouge chapter). The Madisonville office where disaster operations will be based for the SELA reponse is less than a 15 minute drive from my place (though there are rooms for sleeping if required).

A little blurry but this is *why* I volunteer. The question asks “How did the Red Cross help you” and under “other” the client wrote “Smiles”. In a time of crisis, knowing that someone was there with a smile and support is the most important gift we can give our neighbours.

Will you consider being

“Ready When the Time Comes”

and become a Red Cross volunteer?

Ask me for details!!

Part 2 – DR404-12 SWLAFLD Saturday, Mar 17 2012 

Second day with the Red Cross up in Carencro, Louisiana. For some great photos of the flooding (to the extent that pictures of a disaster can be called great) see here and here for an article  and videos about people still trapped in their homes.

We were getting ready this morning to go out to a couple homes to do casework when one of the Damage Assessment Teams called in to report a neighbourhood in need of clean-up kits. So we loaded the car and headed out. Sure enough, there was extensive flooding. The street was on a hill so those at the bottom had more flooding than those at the top. One house had four feet; most had two-three feet.

We met Miss V. first. She lives closer to the top of the street. Her lawn was covered in clothes. They belonged to her neighbours. Many of them. She was washing clothes and helping out in cleaning as much as she could. I mentioned this to my bf Joey and he said something like “That’s the way we do it in Louisiana.” I knew that, but at the same time it’s so great to see it in action.

We went door to door, talking to folks and handing out the cleaning kits. At the bottom of the street we came across Miss C. She had incurred four feet  of water in her house and showed us some pictures. When the flooding came she evacuated grabbing only her purse, her dogs, the clothes she had on and her car keys. When she got to the top of the street she realized she couldn’t go any further. All the exit roads were blocked with flooding so she spent the day there.

But she told us that she’s lucky; she has flood insurance, most of her neighbours don’t. Yet, as she told us her story, and pictures of her houses –she and her husband have already gutted it four feet up all around the first floor– her eyes welled up several times. But at one point, she said “If I had a choice, I would sell. I don’t want to go through this again” and started crying. Yet, she also admitted that it’s been less than a week and that her feelings may change.

Later that day most of the houses on that street were declared as having major damage so we were able to go back to start providing financial assistance. We only had time to do two houses and went to Miss C.’s house first.  Red Cross, when a disaster meets certain criteria, is able to provide disaster-related emergency assistance in certain areas; for this disaster that includes clothing/shoes, food/groceries, storage containers and bedding.

As I mentioned yesterday, 91% of Red Cross spending is for humanitarian services and programs. The amount of funding isn’t huge; it is, after all, intended to be emergency assistance. Red Cross is very cognizant that their funding, as an NGO, is from individuals; “donated by the American public” is a catch-phrase I heard yesterday and found myself using a couple times today.  What strikes me about important in terms of Red Cross funding is that it doesn’t require a ton of hoops on the client’s part. Once the damage has been assessed and Red Cross has determined its level of involvement, casework can be done in 45 minutes to an hour. At the end of that time clients are given a special credit card. While some people in this flood may get insurance money down the road – it is just that, down the road. People need help now and Red Cross is there to help today.

Miss C. and her husband were so grateful for the assistance we were able to provide. One question that we ask at the end is “Would you state that the Red Cross has been able to meet all of your disaster-related emergency needs?” Miss C said “oh yes, it’s more than I imagined we could get.” And started crying again. She gave us each a long hug as we left to head to the neighbours, saying “Thank you. thank you so much.”

Tomorrow we go back to the same street to provide assistance to a few of her neighbours. Can’t wait!!

From the Red Cross website: “The American Red Cross is where people mobilize to help their neighbors—across the street, across the country, and across the world—in emergencies. Each year, in communities large and small, victims of some 70,000 disasters turn to neighbors familiar and new—the more than half a million volunteers and 35,000 employees of the Red Cross.”

DR 404-12 SWLAFLD Friday, Mar 16 2012 

Image

Goods removed from a home following the flood.

I’m in a hotel in Scott, Louisiana, a suburb of Lafayette. I drove up this morning to help with the latest disaster to hit Louisiana, what the American Red Cross is calling DR 404-12, (Disaster Relief) SWLAFLD (SouthWest Louisiana Flood). Heavy rains fell overnight Sunday into Monday morning. In some areas – especially in Carencro – there was up to 19 inches of rain and 7 feet of water on the streets. Interestingly enough, there has been very little media coverage about this in the New Orleans area (at least on TV) but supposedly CNN has been covering it. For a great summary please read this.

My last DR (in Vermont in Aug/Sept for Hurricane Irene) was extremely stressful. Already, after just a day of being here I feel like I have done more concrete work; admittedly shelters – especially on the night shift – are very low-key. But it was clear today to see how my contributions were valued and needed.

Today I drove up – left Abita Springs at 6am!! – in time for a morning orientation/update session for the Disaster Assessment and Client Casework volunteers. I spent the morning helping develop sample forms to assist with Client Casework (which starts tomorrow). I was also able to edit materials and double-check data for errors; my writing/editing skills are being put to good use. In the afternoon I attended the Client Casework Training and then organized all the materials and documents caseworkers will need.

Image

Flooded contents (and possibly vehicle).

It was also determined that I have amazing handwriting skills; really, I just did what my dad does which is to write in block print. It’s clear, easy to read and leaves very little room for confusion. But, nonetheless, I was asked to write up everything from the staffing flowchart to the sample forms to labels.

It was also noted — and my mom and bf should likely put down any drinks so as not to spew their contents in disbelief — that I am incredibly organized. Mom? Joey? Still with me? I think in part it comes from being able to see both the big picture and the little details at the same time. When you concentrate on just one aspect you tend to lose perspective.

Tomorrow I will be going out to do some client casework, and then depending upon demand will likely be doing data entry on Sunday.

Tonight we found out (and I only know because I am rooming with the Client Casework lead) that Red Cross National has approved funding so that Client Assistance Cards (CACs) can be provided to people with major damage (which is usually more than 36 inches of flooding) or those whose housing was completely destroyed. These funds can be used for food, bedding, storage containers, clothing, shoes, diapers etc.

In a future post I will share some thoughts about Environmental Justice and Disasters…but 7am comes very early (especially since my roommate is getting up at 530am!!!). I’ll leave you with an interesting tidbit from the ARC website: “An average of 91 cents of every dollar the Red Cross spends is invested in humanitarian services and programs. The Red Cross is not a government agency; it relies on donations of time, money, and blood to do its work.”

Image

Mylar balloons danced in the wind amongst the debris pulled from a trailer.

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.

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?
Nothing.
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.
Everyday.

Sign on the wall of St Charles Guesthouse

A Reflection After 2 Years — Isaac Coplan Thursday, Aug 4 2011 

A view from the mini-van mirror. Isaac is in the red shirt in the middle.

I was part of the 2009 group, the maiden voyage. Even after two years, I feel like NOLA is still with me, or maybe I’m with NOLA. When I’m walking around, and I see something I think of something that happened in NOLA. The other day I was having a discussion with a friend who I met in NOLA on the trip, Ahmad Taib. We decided that individually, our group had done a fair amount of work; however, the real change is coming through the dedication of Pascal Murphy and Tanya Gulliver who are amplifying the experience of our group through continuing the program. There is need for this to continue. Change, in this case really can start with a small experiment. This trip allowed me to be part of a group who cared about the world. I was dedicated to taking whatever actions I could to make things at least a little better. I was also motivated by curiosity and a desire to learn through experience; I invaded NOLA hungry to devour everyone’s information (and a few po’ boy sandwiches along the way).

The 416/647/905 to the 504 boy band – Isaac, Said and Chris.

There have been a lot of questions in my mind in the last two years about the volun-tourism industry. There is significant evidence that shows that in some circumstances, NGOs can bypass state plans and enforce top-down agendas on communities. However, what we did in New Orleans was very different. We were rebuilding houses that had stood there before the hurricane. A Hurricane that SHOULDN’T have done the damage it did. I didn’t arrive in New Orleans with answers, I arrived with questions.

In a strange way, if there had not been a Katrina I would not have met so many people. I would not have had the opportunity to go and work in the Lower Ninth Ward. Since I do believe in the ripple effect, I can say that Katrina has also changed my life. In response to the storm, I was part of a group of students and professors who share a similar compassion for the world.

Isaac and pals work on a house in the Lower Ninth Ward, May 2009. Left to right: Isaac, Chris, Said, Kevn and Ahmed.

I will be returning to New Orleans, Louisiana.

There, I said it publicly, no take-backs.

Ola’s on the way! Thursday, May 12 2011 

The day is nearing and there’s so much to do still! Well what needs to be done here is nothing in comparison to the work we have coming up. I can’t wait to get my hands dirty and work with everyone. I hope that what we do makes a great difference in someone’s life and that it inspires others to help those suffering, even if the suffering is not close to home. Although the reasons for this trip are due to the serious nature of disasters that struck the city and state, I know we are all seriously determined to make the biggest impact that we can as well. And maybe the impact we have as well that of past and future volunteers will someday outshine the disaster itself.

We will find many ways to make this trip as successful, life-changing and fun as possible. With the amazing group of students that are coming along we are definitely on the right track to making this a memorable two weeks. From demolition to dry-wall and flooring, the possibilities are truly endless. Maybe I should practice some demo before I leave.. just kidding. Although maybe some weight training would have prepared me for the coming days.

The next two weeks are going to go by in a blur and my goal is to soak in as much as possible and not let any opportunity pass by. This trip is a wonderful opportunity I am so grateful that Pascal and Tanya allowed me the opportunity to be a part of it. All of the anticipation and day dreaming will come to an end in 2 days and then a new journey begins. I cannot wait and see you all there!

P.S-My pre-NOLA departure planning so far has included finding all the places close to us that “Diners Drive-in’s and Dives” has visited and attempting to prepare my iPod for the amount of energy and motivation it will be providing us for the next two weeks.

See you in the Big Easy !

-Ola

Pics in my life… Wednesday, Mar 30 2011 

Just some random pictures from the last couple weeks….

A sunset on the Domino sugar factory near my house

Domino Sugar factory sunset

Speaking of sugar, the cake my friend Sam made for a party…

Peeps Easter cake

So, we had a little storm…with several tornados and lots of power outages and flooding. There was thunder and lightning solidly from 7pm til midnight or so, and then again at about 5am.

Storm warnings

House markings on the second floor of an apartment complex (quad) on the street next to mine. The number at the top is the date (September 10th) that the building was searched after Hurricane Katrina. The writing on the left is the code for the search team that went through this unit. The number on the bottom is the number of dead bodies inside the the building. Yes, that is an 8. An 8.

house markings

Support the NOLA students Wednesday, Mar 23 2011 

Interested in what my students are doing? Want to help out? Ryerson issues charitable receipts for amounts over $20.

(Americans who wish to donate should support the St. Bernard Project directly).

To make an online donation to the entire group please see the following steps:

1. Go To
http://www.ryerson.ca/supporting/onlinegiving

2. Go down the section that states

Step 1: Gift Information
Your gift may be designated for use in multiple areas. Choose the designations for your gift by clicking on the link below.

Choose Gift Designation

Click here to choose the designation(s) for your gift
(Click the bolded line above that takes you into a fund destination tree)

3. This brings you to the Fund Selection Page
You will see that New Orleans Community Services Trip has been added as a direct link to select to make a gift.

Click New Orleans …. and make the gift. Help us rebuild!!

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