Lauren C. Ostberg's 2006 New Orleans Spring Break Journal
Kenyon students return to New Orleans to continue Katrina cleanup More...
Some sixty Kenyon students boarded a bus March 12 to spend part of their spring break helping to clean up the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Among them was Lauren C. Ostberg, Class of 2007, an English major from Maumee, Ohio. An intern in the Office of Public Affairs at Kenyon, Lauren kept the following journal of her experiences in New Orleans over spring break. (Pictured: Lauren C. Ostberg (right) and Lauren Katz, a Kenyon student)
- Sunday, March 12
- Monday, March 13
- Tuesday, March 14
- Wednesday, March 15
- Thursday, March 16
- Friday, March 17
- Saturday, March 18
On the application for this trip, they asked us if we had any "demolition experience" and included "chainsaw" in the list of things to bring. Fuse that with the MTV spring-breaker stereotype, and I had a vision of a photograph labeled "Spring Break 2006!" with a group of Kenyon students dressed in bikinis and wielding chain saws. I need to make this happen.
We (I think there were fifty of us) spent nearly twenty hours on the bus. Between the loud movies and my fear of drooling on my seatmate's shoulder, I didn't find it particularly comfortable.
The epic ride ended at 11:30 p.m., when we stumbled into the New Orleans FEMA base camp (a surprise, as I thought we'd be sleeping in a church). Kate, the coordinator, was obviously tired of giving her little speech. She warned us not to walk beyond the camp's gates because this was "a bad neighborhood," belabored the point that we should wear our tags at all times, distributed maps and pointed out the necessities: dining hall, shower, and finally, sleeping quarters. I was half-asleep through orientation, and, assuming that one of the other Kenyon students was paying attention and would guide me around the camp or the worksite, I made little effort to orient myself.
I was assigned to Tent 4. I was expecting a tent, not necessarily the kind you pitch for a weekend. Maybe a platform tent, like the one I'd slept in with the Girl Scouts. Bunk beds. Twelve people, at most. Tent 4 had glass-front doors and more square feet than any middle-class home I'd ever encountered. We searched for empty cots in a room with three hundred of them. There were fewer than a dozen available.
There are 1,500 other people at this base camp. The air smells like summer. I worry about hepatitis. All stories tell themselves, eventually.
Now that I've slept, I can be less vague. I feel like I'm in the army. I've got the cot, the standard-issue too-rough, too-thin blanket, and the company of three hundred other bedfellows and more than one thousand people here for the same reason. I had planned to wake up at 6:30 a.m., but a group of not-so-quiet Kentuckians moved at 5:30 a.m. Grrr.
The house we gutted today was the first on its block, the homeowner told us. His father built it in '54. He's been living somewhere else (Texas?) and working. The rest of his family-his wife and children, I think-are currently living in Georgia. He said it's hard being separated from his family. Some people don't think New Orleans needs to be rebuilt. He's not sure the neighbors are coming back.
There's a trailer, provided by FEMA, in front of their house, and his mother wandered out while he was telling us what needed to be done to the house. She was still in her pajamas, and seemed a bit baffled to see us. She told him something had gone wrong with the trailer. She said it's hard living in a trailer, because something's always going wrong.
They'd already taken a week to clear all of the furniture out of the house. "Momma" stayed in her pajamas and helped us pull a radiator out of the windows. My favorite part-everyone's favorite part, I think-was breaking through the walls with crowbars. The drywall was moldy, so we wore masks. Some people seemed to like breaking through the ceiling, but the insulation was a pain; most people got fiberglass in their arms. Others put drywall and debris in wheelbarrows and dumped it on the curb. The homeowner turned his T-shirt into a turban and helped us tear out the support beams between rooms.
We worked until 4:00 p.m., and we left only the outer walls, the roof, the studs, and some particularly stubborn tile floors. The pile outside was larger than our tour bus. At first, we'd put the insulation in bags, so it wouldn't blow (asbestos?) around the neighborhood or be unwieldy for Dumpsters. Then we ran out of bags. It rained, though, which made the top centimeter of insulation heavy, so maybe it's all right.
The homeowner told us that Bourbon Street was "off the hook, anytime!" so, after showers and a surprisingly digestible dinner, ten or more of us Kenyonites crammed ourselves into two cabs and headed into the Big Easy. We found jazz, "jungle juice," and men offering "five dollaz" for a quick flash.
We stopped in a few touristy places. Mardi Gras beads are available in abundance, and there's a host of voodoo shops, which I didn't expect. Hurricane Katrina seems to be the latest marketing scheme. There were a slew of T-shirts targeted toward volunteers-"Katrina relief effort crew" in solid black letters on an orange shirt. Some criticize the relief effort: "NOPD-Not Our Problem, Dude." Others try to put a humorous spin on the event: "Katrina gave me a blow job I'll never forget!" One billboard advertised a rum factory as "the only thing worth rebuilding," which struck me as a particularly insensitive campaign. The Hurricane Inn, a bar, was bustling, and the Hurricane, an alcoholic beverage, was available and well-advertised.
On a personal note, tonight was a surprisingly good time. It was a Monday night, and they carded (most of us were underage), so we couldn't get into the bars. Instead, we puffed on Cuban cigars and stood in front of a jazz club and danced in the street. It felt a little fake, but good. And sultry. A nearby couple seemed to agree, and I tried to live vicariously through them as they stood too close and perspired on each other
The cab driver didn't know how to get back to the camp ("Which camp?" he asked. Aren't they supposed to know these things?), but someone more observant than I directed us back.
Today I hit my head. But more on that in a minute.
The homeowner's name was Herbert. He didn't leave when the flood came. He was fine during the last hurricane-Betsy?-and ended up with only a foot of water in the house. This time, the water went up eight feet in the first hour. He hid in the attic until a boat rescued him. I liked clearing out his cabinets and seeing his old records, or the sugar-free candy that I took to be evidence of old-age diabetes. Eventually, he asked me if I'd bring down a lamp from the attic, one of the only things he wanted to salvage. I tried to take it down the ladder, but it was heavy, so I had to use both hands, and I ended up falling onto the concrete. The lamp was packaged, so it might be all right, but the powers-that-be-decided that I needed to go to the ER.
Katie, a volunteer coordinator, had some friends in med school. (They had gone to Tulane, and now have to commute to Houston. But they hate Houston so much that they just drive up there once every three weeks to take their tests.) She called them, because hospitals all over the city have been wrecked/overfull, so the big gossip in the medical community is about which MASH/ER unit had the longest lines last week, and, consequently, the shortest lines this week. But if everyone thinks like this, then it won't work. Anyway, based on their information, we decided to go to "Charity Hospital," an ER unit in the middle of a former Lord and Taylor department store. I hoped that they'd still have some clothes out (spring break, woohoo, but I don't actually own a bikini), but I had to settle for the skeleton of a department store-mirrored pillars, an escalator, etc. The triage woman asked me four questions that had nothing to do with my injury, and then asked me to rate my pain on a scale of 0 to 10, 0 being "no pain" and 10 being "more pain than you could possible imagine." I said "4." We (Matt, who drove, and my friend Lauren, who accompanied me) waited six hours. They got me an ice pack and helped me contact my insurance agency without having to call my parents. Stellar.
I listened to the complaints of people around me; the curtains and tent walls don't offer much privacy. One had scheduled a colonoscopy before the hurricane and wanted to know when he could get that. They told him to go to Baton Rouge if he needed one in the next year. Everyone, even the woman who had "chronic" pelvic issues, mentioned the hurricane during their exam. I went back to the base with some Motrin and a bump on my head.
Claire owned the first home. I liked her for her possessions. She was a minimalist in terms of furniture (easy to carry out) and used wicker chairs that didn't absorb water and reminded me of my doll house. She also had a predilection for Betty Boop, which I found charmingly offputting. She didn't want us to gut her house (basically, strip it down to walls, roof, and studs), which indicated some denial. She said she "might" rebuild or renovate, and either way, she can't keep moldy walls.
The second house was two stories, a duplex, and I spent the better part of a day putting perfectly good toys and clothes and Bible-study materials into trash bags. The contents were inevitably too heavy, and the bags often ripped as we threw them out the window. I guess we decided that tomorrow, we'll push the walls/ceiling/debris from the upper floor down the stairs, because otherwise we'll have to drag them from the front lawn.
There was only wind damage on the second floor-ceilings blown down, some general disorganization that turned to mold after six months of exposure to the weather. Parts of the roof were gone, so light came through the rafters, and I made the angel sound (Woo-oo-ooh!).
We found some stuff-mostly photo albums-and set it aside for the homeowner, but we're not sure if he'll be back or if this pile will end up in the Dumpster. It was a family with two young daughters and a (late) pet goldfish I found in the bathroom. (Someone found a dead cat in Claire's hallway, but it looked too deflated to upset me). Apparently, the guy was a minister, and he had some pretty hilarious televangelist materials that I looked through. Our bus driver always picked the Mardi Gras beads out of the piles out front.
My face is breaking out because the mask forces a circle of sweat on my face, and I have stomach cramps, but on the whole, I feel pretty okay and worthwhile.
I didn't know the names of today's homeowners. I didn't see them. The first house needed everything hauled out; the second one had just been gutted and needed the rubble cleared. It took us awhile to find the second house, because we got the street name wrong. We asked a nearby resident where Flake Street was (two blocks away, we'd been assured), and he told us it was three miles out. "Should I put you in my pickup?" We declined, and figured it out about twenty minutes later. We carried our self-heating lunches (the same ones the army gets in Iraq, so I hear) with us. They make better entertainment than they do food.
We put the insulation in plastic bags, following my passionate speech about asbestos. "We shouldn't be adding to the poisons blowing around the neighborhood, even if it's incidental and it would be more efficient to just haul it out." Etc. Andy told me that most asbestos is in walls and floors, not ceiling insulation. Hmm. Kirsten calls this kind of insulation "poisonous snow." It was brown and loose. We prefer the pink stuff.
Chaz found an unbroken wall and offered me-and everyone else-a chance to hit it with the sledgehammer. I preferred the crowbar, but I laid into the sheetrock three times anyway. These walls weren't drywall, but plaster. There was a house the other team worked on yesterday that had tons of chicken wire behind the sheetrock. I'm considering building a home that would be easy to gut-drywall, no tile, pink insulation, one-story, etc.-but someone more proactive suggested I focus on building a flood-proof home instead. Hmm.
We had yet another bathroom adventure today. We drink a lot of water, and work for seven hours straight, so holding it is not exactly an option. We walked down the block, and asked some guys at the corner where the closest port-a-potty was. They told us their plumbing still worked, but they didn't have any walls. Flushing toilets were a pretty exciting prospect, and bizarrely, there were two toilets (previously separated by a wall) sitting side-by-side, so we could pass each other toilet paper as we politely stared straight ahead, through the non-existent walls. The men out front promised they would avert their eyes, and, as far as I could see, there was no one in the street. It was a strange bonding experience.
Gutting the homes is more construction work than something personal. People find this work depressing, and I guess if you think about it, it is. I don't. I like looking through the belongings, thinking about what kind of people the owners are. When they show up and cry, I'm uncomfortable. I appreciate the thanks but try to edge away from the hugs.
After the houses, we went on a tour of the city. We saw one of the levee breaches, the break that caused the flood that wrecked the homes we'd been working on, miles and hours away. (Traffic in New Orleans is always bad, because it still seems to be crowded and the streetlights are not all working). The soil beneath the concrete and steel barriers had been eroding for years. When the hurricane rain came, the water came underneath the wall and either broke it or threw it into nearby houses. We stood in a line and took pictures.
Then we moved to a neighborhood in the south ward that had been hit by a tornado a month ago. These homes were much bigger, and that made me feel a little better about all of the supposed class discrimination in the Katrina aftermath. The water did not discriminate. Most of the houses were labeled with signs announcing "Private property" or "Keep out," but the tornado had ripped away walls, and one (timber?) home had collapsed against its brick neighbor. Most of these people will not return. Their homes are right by the water, and the state might take over this land to repair/extend the levy.
Dan, another volunteer coordinator who was guiding our tour, told us they're fixing the breaches near "important" neighborhoods, but reconstruction is only 45 percent complete. FEMA mailed recompense checks to these home addresses. Of course, no one was there. "Why'd they do that?" someone asked Dan. "Because FEMA's a bunch of ****-ups," he responded. Dan's been here for several months.
Later, on the bus, Lauren and I discussed the little moments that really upset us. She had trouble clearing out the minister's daughters' belongings when she thought they might be dead. Also, the stuff in the attic at today's house was salvageable, and it was hard to see stuff that was salvageable (and probably less important) stay while the newer, more intimate stuff (photo albums) was destroyed.
I was tired, so tonight, I did laundry, took a walk, and had a nice talk about academic anxiety. I also wrote a few letters. The port-a-potties no longer faze me, but I think that just means I'm getting used to holding my breath. That helps inside the houses, too.
Today's house was unremarkable, but the homeowner, Marigold, was notably generous. She's been living in Atlanta. She didn't want us to break down the doors (though it would've meant starting a half hour earlier) or to break the garage ceiling (she was afraid we'd break the garage-door-opening mechanism), because she didn't want anyone else to break into her house. She bought us some snack packs and some candy, and promised fried chicken, which was ridiculously exciting. She kept saying it was the least she could do, and we continued to be disproportionately grateful. We thanked her profusely and sincerely, and I think it had to be confusing. She kept reminding us that we were helping her an insane amount, that she was grateful. But we were, too, and no one felt compelled to squabble about it. Everyone was briefly fortunate.
I got plaster in my eye. Marigold's friend that was supposed to bring us fried chicken got into a car accident. Everyone seemed to forget this when Marigold brought us our KFC. Matt found an ice cream truck at the other site, bought everyone ice cream, and persuaded the driver to come over and give the rest of us ice cream, too. The driver, an Israeli who came to New Orleans "to help!" (by driving an ice cream truck?), let Matt drive, and he toyed with the music. The driver kept asking us if any of us were Jewish.
Dan (the volunteer coordinator) came by and asked us if we were enjoying our spring break. One freshman said, "Yeah, it's so much fun!" but someone else responded, "I don't find joy in putting people's lives out on the curb." Lauren and I discussed altruism on our trip to the port-a-potty. We decided it's okay to be happy while you're helping people, even if it seems selfish.
After the bus ride home and warm showers (though I heard cold ones help get the fiberglass out of your arms) we headed to the French Quarter to have coffee and fancy doughnut things at the famous Café du Monde. I find it funny that I'm inspired to dine somewhere "because it's famous," even when I've never heard of it before. The coffee was good, though; the company was lovely; and our waiter was quirky, vaguely incompetent, and reasonably attractive, so it was a worthwhile adventure.
It was also St. Patrick's Day, and a parade of midget cars passed by. There were bagpipes, which I found particularly exciting, even though I had learned in Ireland that bagpipes are Scottish and the Uilleann pipes are Irish. After we left the café, we found the parade again, and they were throwing things-candy, we assumed. Not so. Laine caught a pickle. Ridiculous.
We walked around Bourbon Street, and it wasn't as raucous as I'd expected. People really did throw beads from balconies, and it took only an outstretched hand, not a quick exposure of flesh, to inspire them to throw more. We got into the European Jazz bar, but we stayed for only an hour, because everyone was tired. As I am now. We're leaving at 6:30 tomorrow morning. Ugh.
Despite the fact that I didn't get the chainsaw/bikini picture, it was still a quality week. I've written more and felt better-more relaxed, happier, more accomplished, more REAL-than I have in a very long time. I'm looking forward to sleeping in a real bed and using flushing toilets, but I'm not so crazy about that poli sci paper I didn't get done. Whatever. There's plenty of time for that, and besides, it's still technically spring break. This bus ride feels like it might go on forever, and I'm okay with that.