Hi everyone, this is Melissa Aust and this past weekend I took a very special trip. My good friend Keela asked if I would share my experience with you, so here I am.
Have you ever sat down to write something and wanted it to be really meaningful? Maybe it was a toast at a wedding, a speech to your fellow classmates or a eulogy at a funeral. Whatever it was, you probably sat there thinking about exactly what you wanted to say and how it would sound.
Well, I sit here typing this in that state. I hope that I can say something meaningful about this trip, and I hope I can provide you with something to remember.
You’re probably thinking, “So what’s this story?!”
So here I go…
On Aug. 29, 2005, the most devastating storm modern America has seen hit New Orleans, La.: Hurricane Katrina. On Sept. 26 of this year I made my first trip out there. Two years and 28 days after Katrina hit. No one mentions New Orleans on the news anymore and relief efforts seem to have died down. We live in the wealthiest nation in the world so all of this combined must mean that New Orleans is totally rebuilt, right?
Wrong. So wrong.
Five fellow (and amazingly fun) members of my church and myself landed at the Louis Armstrong Airport on Wednesday night. Since we had landed pretty late, it was difficult to see what was beyond the roads we drove on. The next day we would take that same drive but I would see it in a completely different way. Our first night we went to the famed Cafe Du Monde in the French Quarter. Nothing like a midnight beignet along the Mississippi River!
The next day we woke up bright and early and headed to a woman named Yvette’s house. As we drove along the road to her house I couldn’t believe what I saw. I had seen pictures of Katrina, watched documentaries, followed it on the news. I have to say it’s very surreal seeing all of it in person. You wouldn’t believe some of the devastation around the entire city. Mind you I’m saying this two years after the storm. When we arrived at Yvette’s home in Gentilly I was shocked to learn that almost her entire street still wasn’t moved back into their homes. Some of them couldn’t move back because of the sheer cost and others because of extenuating circumstances. For example, Yvette’s neighbors the Princes were an elderly couple. The husband had been ill before the storm and just after his wife was diagnosed with cancer. They weren’t a very wealthy couple to begin with so now moving in which seemed difficult before because of their income and old age became impossible.
Her neighborhood had FEMA trailers parked outside of most of the homes. We were able to go inside Yvette’s trailer. For one person it’s tight living space. Now imagine families of 4 and 5 living in them, with growing active kids. It’s hard to believe that an entire population of people have been surviving like this. Our group spent most of our trip working on Yvette’s home with her. I got to use power tools for the first time which was fun. On Friday our host took us on a tour around the entire city. We went to the east which was the very first part of the city to flood. We saw them tearing down several huge apartment buildings as we drove by. Again — two years later. We drove through Musicians Village which Habitat for Humanity has done an amazing job with. Our next stop was the ninth ward.
As we drove over the bridge we started to come towards a large field. Not until we got closer and our host told us did I realize that this was the lower 9th ward. Not an empty field, but the former place of people’s homes and livelihoods. As we drove up and down the streets we passed foundation after foundation. There were cement steps leading up to the front porches of a lot of the homes. What was crazy was that there were no homes once you walked up the steps. Probably over 90% of the houses had literally been picked up and swept away when the canal behind the community broke. There were a few FEMA trailers sprinkled around the area but not too many. It had taken so long for them to get water and power going for the trailers that most people had found alternative places to live. In fact a lot of people that were displaced are now living here in Denver. If you are reading this and you are one of those people, I am truly sorry for your loss and I am also so impressed that you have been able to start your life outside of the city you love.
I think there is an incredible lesson to be learned from those that survived Hurricane Katrina. I don’t think we should feel pity for them but instead we should step back and take a lesson from the way they have carried themselves. In the most adverse of times they survived. They were strong, they are strong. It takes a lot to start over; courage, strength, hope, faith, love, determination and so much more that is not tangible or describable.
Being in New Orleans didn’t make me sad; well, it did sadden me at many times, but instead it inspired me. The city’s ability to rebuild and revive is inspiring. New Orleans gave me so much more than I gave them. They gave me an appreciation for the blessings in my life that I might not have experienced otherwise. They taught me that there is nothing you can’t overcome. They showed me hope as I had never seen it before. What will I do to give back to the community that gave me so much? I actually do have a dream, a plan that I hope can come to fruition.
I would like to build a green space or a playground for the children of New Orleans. For the kids that are so affected by the PTSD from the storm. For the ones that are cooped up in their FEMA trailers with 6 other people. For the future that will be leading such a great city. It will take a lot of effort and time and resource and I’m not sure how I will pull it together but I know that if I really want to do this I can. It may take a year, maybe two, but all of that time and effort will be worth helping the generations of kids that will be able to benefit from something like that. There was not a single playground or greenspace in the entire city that I could find or see. Most of them are now FEMA trailer parks. So we will see where this dream heads.
In the mean time I hope that you keep New Orleans in your thoughts and if you pray, in your prayers. They still need people to come down and help rebuild. They still need people donating towards relief efforts. Hurricane Katrina may be over, but the effects of it will be around for a long time.
Those that have been to New Orleans since Katrina know that what I have written doesn’t even begin to fully encompass what it’s like down there. But I hope that it gives an insight to those that haven’t. Well Broncos fans, thanks for letting me share my story with you.