This is Hallie’s travelog from her journey down to New Orleans to help victims of the hurricanes this fall.
Friday 11/19/05: The countryside is seriously buccolic and a weird contrast with the tractor trailors barreling by. Exemplified by a ghastly accident on Route 78. For miles we watched a dark curl of smoke in the distance. When we crawled by it we saw a huge tractor trailor with its cab melting down and its trailor on fire. There must have been several vehicals involved and one of them a horse trailor, because in the middle of the road were four blanketed horses munching on hay.
We drove through what is reputedly the prettiest part of the trip in the dark, so I’ve no report on Route 81 in Virginia except to say that after dark the trucks drive even faster and the rush of air against the wooden box on the back of our truck caused our vehicle to rock in a very scarey way. There are numerous signs along this roadway saying, “Traffic speed controlled by aircraft”, which gave me the image of speeders being machine gunned by guys in helicopters.
We left home at 11:17 am and reached Salem, Virginia (just past Roanoke) at 8:30 pm and ate dinner at Burger King, something unusual for us. They serve salads in bowls with lids on them and each bowl has a label with the maker’s signature on it. Mine was made by someone named “Pitbull”. Hmmmm. We slept in a Quality Inn for $66.00 a night with a great breakfast included. We hope to spend the night in Birmingham or beyond and Phil has extracted a promise from me not to sing “Sweet Home, Alabama” more than five or ten times. But the skies really are all blue. Hope all is well at home.
Thansgiving Day, Thursday 11/24/05: If our trip to New Orleans were a movie, along about Tuskaloosa the background music would have begun to be slightly ominous. Saturday was a pleasant drive through rolling farmland and then the odd Tennessee mountains. We learned a couple of things. Among them, don’t stop in Calhoun, Tennessee. New Jersey in its heyday could not beat it for smell.
The second. Don’t spend the night in Tuscaloosa after a home game if you want to sleep. Tuscaloosa is a football based economy and win or loose there’s all night excitement after the game. On Sunday, shortly after a terrifying experience trying to pass a house at 80 miles an hour (the house was travelling at 70 and taking up most of the road), we began to realize that all the road construction we were seeing was not construction, but clean-up.
At around eighty miles north of New Orleans it became clear that trees had fallen across the highway in huge numbers and the clean-up was still going on. Half the trees were either uprooted or split somewhere along the trunk, and all had fallen in the same direction. Then came the houses, block after block of ruined homes, roofless, windowless with fallen trees still resting on them. I wanted to cry. That was just the beginning.
Friday 11/25/05: Route ten into New Orleans is packed with traffic as are a great number of the roadways. Bridges are only partially repaired, crowding two lanes of traffic into one and roads are still blocked in places. The result is that, though only half of the city’s residents have returned, it feels as if they’re all back. Cars are abandoned along roadways beginning well before the city and at least one is still hanging off the end of a dock. Auto dealerships sit with lots full of cars coated with mud.
We made our way with some confusion to Archbishop Shaw High School in Marrero, a less severely damaged suburb of the City. Here trees were uprooted and roofs were damaged. Power was down for several weeks. The school has been cleaned up and repaired and is one of the few in business. (Only one public school in New Orleans is open.) We were met by Father Steve and Father Jim. Jim runs the school and Steve runs the youth ministry which was working for the week in the City.
Thirty college students were there from Massachussets, New York and Florida to help with clean-up and rebuilding. They had already unloaded a van which arrived before us and quickly formed a human chain to unload ours. Then we all emptied a huge box truck. Supplies came from New York and New Jersey. There were cleaning and painting supplies, gardening tools, construction materials and diapers, and food.
The plan was to break up into small groups and go to various areas throughout the city. For Thanksgiving, they would distribute more than two hundred and eighty baskets of food and prepare a Thanksgiving dinner for the needy. After unloading, we were officially introduced, welcomed and thanked and shown to our quarters in the Priest’s residence. It sometimes pays to be an old fart. We had a great bed, access to food and beer and showers, while the kids slept on the floor of the auditorium.
Around five-thirty we headed to Westwego (according to locals, the only town with a name that is a complete sentence) and celebrated Mass together. Then, the highlight of our visit, all of us went to a Cajun crab boil at a neighbor’s home. It took a lot of guts to bring that number of people into a barely repaired home and we were both grateful and stuffed. We returned to the residence early and were entertained by one of the students who managed to get locked into the ladies room. How many priests does it take to get a girl out of a bathroom? One, because he’s smart enough to find someone else who knows what to do. All of us retired and slept like logs.
Monday 11/28/05: Looks Like a Spielberg Film
There are three sights in New Orleans that stay with me. First was not far from the French Quarter. It was a church that had had water to the height of the door and its cleanup was nearly complete. We walked inside to see light pouring through the stained glass windows onto a glistening marble floor and nothing else, no pews, no statues, no candles, no ornament. It was both lovely and horrible in its emptiness.
The second sight was the home of an artist, not too far from the church. Inside was a jumble of mildewed clothing and furniture. The carpeting had bubbled and was peculiar to walk on. I had to pick my way through furniture that had floated around the room and clothing that had landed in heaps. All was rotted and ruined. The walls were patterned in a black mold and worst of all, her paintings lay rotting around the room.
Third was a neighborhood devoid of color. Devoid of color because it had been in water above the rooftops for three weeks and almost every plant had died. The lawns were black, the hedges and foundation plantings brown and shriveled. Cars, grey from the mud covering them were piled on fences or on one another and uprooted trees lay on cars and homes.
The scale of the damage is incomprehensible. People with insurance might be able to rebuild, but there are neighborhoods without insurance. And even those who rebuild, rebuild in communities which are altered beyond recognition. I spent hours looking at the devastation and it seemed to me that beyond the physical damage is an emotional toll that may never heal. People in New Orleans and Mississippi need not just financial aid and physical help, but they need comfort and emotional support. I hope we can find a way to give it.