Notes from New Orleans

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Steve Carlsen recently returned from a trip to New Orleans where he surveyed first-hand the damage resulting from Hurricane Katrina and the raw emotions of refugees returning to their ruined homes. This is from a letter he e-mailed to friends and family upon his return.

Tony & I spent last week traveling back & forth to New Orleans, working a few days there on behalf of the flood victims.

We completely gutted out two houses owned by the sweetest little old southern (and I do mean southern) ladies that I’ve ever met. It was a pretty emotional scene when they met us outside their houses that they hadn’t even been inside of for over five months.

Both ladies were at least 80 years old, and their accents were thicker than last week’s grits. We also cleaned out the volunteer camp supply trailer, which really needed work after months of groups going through it…

I’m not sure that we did a whole lot of good, and I have a lot of questions about what is going to happen down there, but at least we tried to do SOMETHING good for somebody, which was my #1 goal for the trip.  I really, really hope we did SOME good, but I felt a bit like Sisyphus. Also, our efforts were dwarfed by the enormity of the situation and the total lack of activity anywhere else within our sight. 

I’ve never seen anything like it—mile after mile of totally deserted city, with no animal, floral, or human life evident. Totally unbelievable. I got some short clips of video that perhaps I can share with you someday. Everything smelled terrible, and once you went in a house, it was completely disgusting. The worst situation I’ve ever seen, bar none. Total barf city—yuk!

We worked for four days out of a tent site camp, and I don’t think I got four hours of sleep the entire time we were there. The other people in the tent were snoring, farting, getting up at all times, and we were right next to the freeway as well. I also had two migraines, which didn’t help. I know that I’ve NEVER worked harder, or under more extreme conditions. We wore canister style respirators, biohazard suits and rubber gloves the entire time while swinging sledgehammers and carting out everything that made the house outside to the street to be picked up. By 9 a.m. each day, I was soaking wet with sweat, and covered in a fine layer of the nastiest dust mold you could imagine… And when I say everything, I mean EVERYTHING. We emptied the houses out to the 2 X 4 studs, then sprayed bleach to kill the omnipresent mold.

We worked mainly with a volunteer group from Menominee Falls, Wisconsin, which is near Milwaukee. All the volunteers in camp when we were there were from the North—19 from the U of M, 16 from Milwaukee, eight from Evansville, Indiana, another six from Robbinsdale, Mn., a few I don’t know from where, and at least a couple of truly homeless people who worked at the camp in exchange for room & board. I know this for a fact, because I spoke to them about it… Totally sad stories that these people served up to me—they were really down…

I don’t think that New Orleans is going to recover for a LONG, LONG time, and I’m kind of discouraged, based on what I saw in terms of damage and lack of progress five months after the fact. Most of the time, we were the only people in the neighborhoods at all. Then, we’d hear rumors about the infighting between various groups trying to decide what to do, while watching these hapless people try to get a grip on their lives without any of their belongings/home/neighborhood, and frankly, it was pretty bleak…

Anyway, that’s the recap of my very first major disaster recovery volunteer effort. Although it didn’t last as long as I initially planned, and cost me quite a bit of money to do it, I hope that Tony got the message that I was trying to demonstrate by participating, and that someday, he’ll look back on it as a worthwhile deal. I guess we could have stayed longer, but all the volunteers in camp were leaving, and we would have spent one-and-a-half days twiddling our thumbs, waiting for the next projects to start, (they don’t work Sundays) so I decided to leave. I am very happy to be home.

I don’t have any photos to share – I was too busy. I did get some snippets of video, which have to be seen to be believed. Perhaps I can copy them or something someday soon—but no promises. If you do see them, you will be shocked by the damage—trust me.