The mold comes in a variety of colors. White, black, dark brown and all shades of green. The white variety is puffier and cloud-like, beautiful really, as it takes over objects like paperback books on a bookshelf. Stuck all along beneath the engulfed object is a hard white coating, something that looks like baby powder met with water. Black and green mold are all along the walls and cover every object in the room, and whatever the mold did not take, rust and stains did. Objects that had any crevices still spilled out old floodwater.
On October 5, 2005, I found myself gutting a church in New Orleans in the mid-city district, where the water rose over 5 feet. No one had entered the building for the five weeks since the flooding. The dirty water line, that ran through everything in the neighborhood, came right up to the tetnus shot on my shoulder.
I had ended up with a group of evangelical Christians, from the Tammany Oaks Church of Christ in Mandeville, 35 miles away. We were volunteers from all over the country, different states, and different denominations. I am certain I was the only Jewish one though, wearing a bright yellow t-shirt that said “Disaster Relief” and the church’s logo on it.
We had come to clean out The Church of Christ on Banks St. and Carrolton, in New Orleans. The National Army Guard escorted us from the French Quarter, driving into this neighborhood with an impossible amount of garbage lining each street. Garbage: crushed and moldy furniture, refrigerators, air conditioners, thousands of trash bags and fittingly, broken strands of Mardi Gras beads everywhere. The New York Times reports there is 22 million tons of waste, according to state officials. That is more trash than any American city produces in a year, and this figure does not even include all the appliances, cars or entire homes that will be completely demolished. It is still enough to fill the Empire State Building 40 times over. (New York Times, Oct 16)
Every parked car had been submerged. One had tipped over neatly on its side right on the curb in front of a house. All the trees that were not knocked over by the storm, had drowned. To my eye, there was nothing green still growing, no birds, no life. The spray painted fronts of houses looked just like they did on CNN, listing how many survivors, date checked, any animals found, etc. One went into detail, about a suspected cat hiding beneath the house.
I ended up volunteering with the Church of Christ after my Baton Rouge plan took another turn. I had originally intended to work with evacuees in shelters, and most of them were in Baton Rouge. Housing turned out to be impossible however. There were no hotel rooms for 400 miles around Baton Rouge.
Thanks to a personal connection, I was able to stay with a family from Covington, whose home was partially destroyed. They had rented a house in nearby Mandeville. These areas are suburbs of New Orleans, about 30 miles away. They welcomed me to stay with them for a few days in the midst of all this displacement. I got a lead on a local church that needed volunteers, and spent the first day organizing food donations. The next morning, I opted for something more glamorous.
“Let’s show those who need our help the most, how Jesus shows up in their lives today!” said the cheery fellow leading the morning devotional meeting, at 7:30 am.
I nodded eagerly, tried to assure myself that Jesus would also make sure we didn’t get sick. I am not germ phobic, conscious of sick buildings, or particularly sensitive to noxious odors, having lived through several summertime garbage strikes in NYC. I even personally removed asbestos from a barn exterior, handled it and disposed of it not too long ago. But what I had researched about the toxicity issues in post–Katrina New Orleans were of a different order entirely. What I’d read convinced me I didn’t want to go to New Orleans at all – I just wanted to help evacuees in surrounding areas.
No doubt, Jesus wanted me to go though, because here we were, a well-organized group of about ten people, heading straight for the belly of the beast. We first went to the French Quarter, which had it’s share of destruction and stank to high heaven. We helped a young couple move out of their home. It was a beautiful day, and the neighborhood, while desolate and dirty, was reassuringly intact. Sure, they can get this all back together, I thought to myself.
Then we went to mid-city, which more resembled a post-apocalyptic movie set. When we arrived, stunned already by the scenery on the way, members of a group already there shook their heads and warned me: It’s BAD in there! It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. You better suit up.” That meant long pants, long sleeves, work boots, plastic gloves underneath work gloves AND a protective white Tyvek suit on top of all that – the kind that even goes over your shoes and includes a hood! It was about 93 degrees that day. The creepiest part was the ventilator mask. Not one of those flimsy white paper things I trusted as protection from asbestos. These are gray heavy things with disposable filters that you have to learn how to breathe through! We were not allowed inside the structure without one.
Our orders were to throw out everything. They had removed the pews already. Moldy, stinking fabric-covered benches. This was not just a church, but also a large community center. There were youth activity rooms, a nursery, several offices, a large kitchen and an outdoor playground. All in all, about ten rooms. The floors were all still sopping wet. It was impossible to tell what color they used to be. There was no electricity, nor windows that would provide daylight or air inside. A colorful and friendly sign at the exit advised us to turn all the lights off to save God’s energy. We used generators to power lights on a few rooms at a time. The men slaughtered the rotting wood furniture, mostly endless bookcases. They dragged out dripping carpeting, in large pieces and sofas that belonged on horror movie sets. They teamed up to remove the appliances, like the refrigerator. Everyone was talking about this most horrid task of all, the stench from the refrigerators: imagine food that has been rotting for 5 weeks, in that heat, and the scrambling maggots everywhere.
Everything inside a structure like this is considered contaminated. The authorities even warn against opening tin cans. If we accidentally came in contact with an object, or the water, we had to use disinfectant right away. You couldn’t win: the water did seem to soak through both the work gloves and the plastic ones no matter what.
I and other women rolled wheelbarrows out- one after another, filled with a surreal variety of flood-soaked, destroyed objects. I threw out bank statements, the pastor’s weekly reports, the administrative records from two filing cabinets, a basketball, microphones, music stands, vases, a VHS tape of Jesus Christ Superstar, the collection of big black letters of the alphabet used to post information about the upcoming sermons, a rusted gumball machine, and of course, a full storage bucket of still shiny multi-colored Mardi Gras beads.
The books! All soaked and then dried stuck together up to five feet high on the shelves! We had to take a shovel to them to whack them apart. How many Holy Bibles, how many books on Jesus’ teachings? I threw out at least five dozen. Children’s bible study, Noah’s Ark coloring books. Inspiring titles I remember seeing in my wheelbarrow were: “How To Get Your Husband to Talk to You“ and “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff- And It’s All Small Stuff.”
I was thinking, this is the most disgusting, most intense and memorable thing I have ever done, but you couldn’t get me to do it tomorrow, or even come back to New Orleans anytime soon for lunch. How are they going to pay people enough to DO this for every place that needs it? You can’t see, you can’t breathe, you need a break after every 10 minutes of being inside. Each room takes several people the better part of a day- and that’s with no attachment to the objects whatsoever, with no intent on recovering anything. What would this job pay per hour? Can you just call up your local contractor and hire some strong young guys, the ones who do demolition clean-up otherwise? Aren’t they booked up for say, the next 10 years already? How many days in a row can you try to breathe through this damned uncomfortable mask?
I saw some able-bodied homeowners doing similar clean up themselves in the area, but what about those who aren’t young, strong and who can’t pay anything? We hadn’t even begun tearing out the moldy sheetrock. It’s all falling off anyway, if you backed into it with the sharp edge of an object it obligingly poked right through with zero resistance, like wet bread. But to carry all that out…and who is going to remove the garbage?
We had filled up two large containers and were now emptying piles onto the sidewalk, already brimming with contaminated trash on every block. I hear there are entire landfills that were submerged with the toxic floodwater, so even the OLD garbage- of a decade or more- is now a toxic problem, sitting there, still wet.
When it was time to eat, most of us couldn’t. Everyone had a splitting headache, whether it was the mold, the heat or the mask - I don’t know. We took frequent water and air breaks, but even the air makes you lose your appetite. I was inside a home that had been cleaned and freshly repainted, but somehow you just couldn’t imagine sitting down and enjoying breakfast in there either. Nice try. The whole place simply feels poisoned.
Most of us brought a change of clothes and ceremoniously threw away everything we had been wearing under the protective suit. Back in Mandeville, even after a local fitness club offered us a complimentary soak in a hot tub and a shower – we still didn’t feel clean. One fellow didn’t want his hands to touch anything he ate for the whole following day.
It is in our nature, the desire to rebuild. To be reunited with that which is comforting and familiar, and to secure the core need of our identity. From there you have stability, from there you can withstand the shock, pain and difficulty of starting over. As Mayor Nagin proudly drank tap water that somehow passed safety tests that week, it is clear there is great emotional, social, and political energy behind rebuilding New Orleans.
Of the 20 evacuees I met, none were planning to go back. They all wanted to. Once they saw the destruction of their homes, they decided to make do somewhere else for awhile. I drove to Baton Rouge the next day, when a very kind woman responded to my Craigslist post begging for housing. Since I was there to volunteer in shelters, she refused to take any rent from me. This is the spirit down there: everyone who isn’t personally devastated is helping who ever they can, even helping volunteers. She had also taken in a few extra cats and dogs from an evacuee family, which together with her own totaled 12 cats and 11 dogs! She lives in St. Gabriel’s parish, at the edge of Baton Rouge, which is where the morgue is buckling under with the corpse load, until identifications are complete.
I worked in four different churches that doubled as shelters in four days. Criss-crossing Baton Rouge several times over in my rental car, I had only one radio station on the whole time: United Broadcasters of New Orleans. This group had banded together and formed a 24/ 7 hotline for non-stop Katrina information of all kinds. There were call-in shows that delivered vital, up to the minute information: which areas were letting residents into the city today, what are they finding?, updated information on Red Cross donation sites, info on FEMA trailers, FEMA checks, alternate phone lines for help, safety and health issues, coverage of the Mayor’s press conferences, coverage of the small business owner’s seminar right in New Orleans, insurance experts answering questions, child psychologists answering questions, companies hiring, and compelling public service announcements.
“Make sure that you do not touch any exposed wires if entering your home for the first time since the disaster. Contact a licensed electrician if you are unsure. If you see someone that appears to have been electrocuted, do not touch them until you are sure that they are not in contact with the electrical source. This message is brought to you by the CDC.”
The first New Orleanian I spoke with was only 6 years old. She asked me where I was from, and I told her I was from New York. “Did you ee-vak-u-aate?” she asked compassionately.
I met a woman who had been on the bridge at Interstate 10 and was rescued by helicopter. She was looking for a job in Baton Rouge. I met people who had been at the Convention Center who didn’t want to talk about it. I met a woman with five children who had been at a hotel since the disaster, and still found time to volunteer at the Baptist church- though she herself was Catholic. She was giving me the lowdown on how to handle incoming calls for information people might be calling about: FEMA numbers, Red Cross numbers, housing authorities, where to get free food and clothing and job hunting assistance.
I asked if she had been home yet, and she had, the day before. “I saw nothing but mold everywhere. Completely covered. Everything boarded up inside for all this time with the heat! If they had only let us in to open the windows! Everything wouldn’t be impossibly ruined…I mean it is just impossible now. I’m one of the ones who wanted to go back, I told my husband, Honey: we going back soon as we can. We’re from New Orleans! But when I saw my house! And I saw my poodle- nothing but a moldy ball of fur. So sad. It was unbelievable. You know that TV show- we’ve been joking about this- that show “How Clean Is Your House?” How about they send a crew over here! ” and she laughed, and went to pick up her children from the school bus, back to the hotel.
A local social worker had been helping serve lunch every day since the disaster, on her own lunch break. “We have people in here that were, you know, maybe just doing alright to begin with. They had personal problems. Back home, before all this, they were keeping it together. Maybe they even held down a job. I’m thinking of at least three people that we’ve had to hospitalize for…well, they fell apart. They’re losing it. They can’t cope.”
The staff at the shelters I visited were all actively engaged in helping people get life back on track. It’s maddening in the best of circumstances to get claims settled with an insurance agency, or to pick up after a great loss of any kind. Add to that – it’s almost impossible to get through on the phone lines to FEMA, the Red Cross or your insurance agent. Assuming you do get through, where can they call you back? The evacuees didn’t come here with cell phones and wi-fi ready laptops. Messages may be left at the shelter, but what if you’re out looking for a job in the daytime? And how to coordinate assessing the damage? Many areas were off limits until well into October. Do you have photos of the damage? For those without flood insurance: how do you separate flood damage from hurricane damage? If seven trees fall on your roof and it rains all over your stuff during five weeks, there’s plenty of water damage — so how do they differentiate water damage from flood damage? What will FEMA cover, what will your insurance cover? How can you make a list of everything that was destroyed?
“I had all the “Rocky” movies! All kinds of movies, “ Gone with the Wind”, “Goodfellas”…good movies…put down 300 VHS tapes!”
Tony, a very lively 86-year old trumpet player from New Orleans was sitting with a social worker from the Red Cross and his wife Anna, 89. They were getting some help filling out an insurance form. On Saturday afternoon they painstakingly went over each item in their home of 39 years, in the Ninth Ward. They had been married for 62 years. I only heard snippets of the conversation. They would discuss something for five minutes, looking up at her when they arrived at consensus, saying something like: “Put down three decorative lamps from the living room!” Then Anna would remember another lamp, in another room, and they would discuss it’s descriptive features. This went on for hours.
Tony told me he came up with Louis Armstrong, and they were tight. He told me the city was running out of good places to play jazz - ”It’s all rap today! I don’t understand a thing!” He also told me how both his horns had floated from the back bedroom out to the kitchen, came out of their cases, and were filled with the toxic muck. He wasn’t worried about his instruments, they could be cleaned out.
He had other problems. In the destruction, their home had changed appearance so drastically that Anna, having lived there for 39 years, didn’t know which way was the exit when she was inside for twelve minutes. Tony was inside for 30 minutes, and got sick from it. The appliances and furniture had settled in entirely different locations than they last saw them. Anna told me that she couldn’t find any of the things she had hoped to recover. Their belongings have been completely wiped out — everything.
They had just made the visit to New Orleans and were still in shock about their neighbor. They saw the son of an elderly woman neighbor crying outside.
“What’s the matter?” Tony recalled asking. “How’s your mother?”
“She’s in there- you can go have a look if you want. She drowned. She was in here the whole time.”
“Good for nothing sons! “ Tony was furious. How could her THREE sons let her stay there in the first place! They both told me this story separately in exactly the same way. I know it haunted them. They kept pointing out that another neighbor, whom they were much more concerned about, had been fine. But this woman with three sons…
Tony might have been the only evacuee I met who would have gone back if he could have convinced his wife. She was concerned, not for the overwhelming effort of rebuilding their home, not for toxicity issues in the area, but for the levees that are not being rebuilt to withstand a category 5 hurricane.
“What do you care about that!?” says Tony. “We’ll be in the graveyard by then!” No, Anna insisted. She would live in fear of this happening again in her lifetime.
Tony and Anna didn’t know where they were going, or for how long, and with what end in mind. They don’t know if or how much they will be reimbursed for the destruction, or how long that process will take. They had been at this shelter for eight days. Prior to that, they had stayed with friends but started to feel they were in the way after a few weeks. Tony asked me several times to dial a number of a neighbor he was trying to reach on the shelter’s kitchen phone. It had become a formality. He didn’t expect an answer, because he had been trying for weeks with no answer. “Just try dialing this, would you? I’m having trouble seeing the number. He’s got to answer eventually.” Then we tried the neighbor’s cell phone, no answer. Another mystery. Another question unanswered.
How will hundreds of thousands of people deal with this devastating swirl of uncertainty surrounding everything? To go back or not involves a cruel mosaic of questions — mostly unanswerable. Will your neighbors come back? Your job may be there – will all the jobs your family depends on? Will the companies that your company does business with return? Will the city function again? Will there be enough of a tax base? Is it really safe to drink the water? How much do we know about the airborne toxicity? Can we trust the authorities to get the truth out on the environmental hazards? Can they give reliable estimates on longer-term health issues? Will the food chain survive? Will it ever be safe to eat tomatoes from the garden? Will you ever again make Crawfish Etouffe from local crawfish? Will the musicians come back? Will the tourists come back? Will New Orleans, really, – come back?
It takes a very strong and resilient family to manage this fracture, whether they stay or settle elsewhere. The glass is forever cracked. An unexpected and unwanted move to another environment tends to create a horrific split you live with forever. Part of you dies with that cut. It is a severe shock and your identity forks off in two. Even if it was “ultimately a good move“, some part of the psyche keeps trying to stitch the rip in the fabric. Forever. Like worms that become two worms if you cut them in half, you may end up with two identities that keep on living: before the split and after the split. The displacement does damage in different ways, depending on your age in life, but it is always a direct hit to the solar plexus of your identity.
Just imagine if the twenty people closest to you had to start over completely in every aspect of their lives. Moving, losing your job and grieving are three things at the top of the list of acute psychological stresses, as measured by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Having all three happen at once- plus the complete financial collapse of entire communities, devastating EVERYONE in the immediate surroundings is a trauma that we have only barely begun to imagine. How is it that it’s already become a fading news topic in the Northeast, the media serving up feel-good headlines like: “New Orleans Children Seeing Snow For The First Time.”
This is America’s new diaspora. Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, says: “The term diaspora is used to refer to any people or ethnic population forced or induced to leave their traditional ethnic homelands, being dispersed throughout other parts of the world, and the ensuing developments in their dispersal and culture. Originally, the term Diaspora was used to refer specifically to the populations of Jews exiled from Judea in 586 B.C.”
There is a list of Notable Diasporas in history, and the entry concludes with these words:
“There is much talk currently (after Hurricane Katrina in 2005) of a New Orleans or US Gulf Coast diaspora, but only time will tell how significant a number of those evacuees will indeed not return.”
We’re still in the grace period, we’re still in shock. People are still making do in churches, shelters, hotels, staying with friends and family, living out of suitcases. No matter what that final number of returning evacuees ends up being – the social, cultural and emotional stuff-collectively and individually- will take a lot longer to get squared away than all that moldy garbage.
I took one Mardi Gras strand of each color, from the stash I found at the church. They’re still in the thick black garbage bag that I first put them in, still untouched and unwashed. They remind me of that day, of Pre-Katrina Crescent City, and that people as far away as Asia, in manufacturing plants for plastic trinkets are asking themselves: Is New Orleans coming back?