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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
“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.
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
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?