Still dodging debris |

Still dodging debris

Valisa Higman
Valisa Higman/Special to the DailyTwo volunteers, Jennie and John, rested after gutting a house.

NEW ORLEANS ” Five miles to the Quarter ” five miles of houses without roofs, roofs without houses, lives strewn along the roadside.

It is hard to imagine, even here where I am surrounded by it.

In these flatlands there is no way to get a vantage point from which to see the scope of the destruction, so instead you see each house like a postcard picture, stark and poignant in itself, but so much more so when you consider that there are thousands just like it.

There are some I will never forget: A house that floated to the very edge of the road so you feel as if you’ll slam into its side as you descend from the bridge; or the tree with a water line burned into it, the top scorched and the bottom 10 feet left untouched.

Sometimes it’s not even worth going out. You want to escape for a moment, but instead you come face to face with the reality of Katrina’s wrath.

We take pictures to show the world. We send them out, like cries for help, but the only answers we get is our president in the French Quarter saying it looks just fine.

“Go east, Mr. President,” we plead, but he strolls down Bourbon Street smiling. “Go east,” we repeat, and the papers say this story is over. We are only five miles from the Quarter, only five miles, and no one cares ” as long as the world can drink their hand grenades and hurricanes, they would rather forget about our hurricane.

It’s clear when you ride through the mess of twisted homes, that this is so much bigger than we had ever planned for. This is almost nine months after, and still you dodge debris on dark and lonely streets.

Katrina’s magnitude magnified America’s need for a more diverse disaster response. The feeling that diversity is still needed has kept me down here. Frankly, I don’t feel that disaster relief should be a business, or a campaign issue.

I have been lucky enough to fall in with a group of people with the motivation and the know-how to create a new kind of disaster relief.

When you come into our camp you see what’s been missing. You see survivors and volunteers mingling in the dining are. You see fresh carrots, organic milk, and smoked chicken. You see sunflowers planted around the port-a-potties, and hearts painted on the signs.

People feed as much off the ambiance as they do the food. A woman looked at me one day and said, “You know what you guys are doing here? You’re preventing suicide.”

They come here for some reprieve from their struggles. Our kitchen has become a bright oasis in this bleak and torn landscape. And it isn’t just the flowers and the pretty signs, it’s the volunteers. Everyone feels free to express themselves.

I find myself smiling while I work, and that kind of light-heartedness spreads. Serving lunch a few days ago, an elderly resident offered me his plate and grinned. He said, “I don’t get to smile much these days, but I get here and I just can’t stop.”

There is so much hurt down here. It isn’t just a monetary loss. People have lost their sense of stability. With whole neighborhoods abandoned, people have lost their entire support network, including schools, churches and friends.

I know it’s hard to comprehend what these people are going through, but I hope that everyone can set down this paper and think about it for one moment.

Imagine your home destroyed; everyone you know scattered to various corners of the country. You have no car, no job, nothing.

You would be lucky if you didn’t lose someone close to you, if you didn’t suffer from any number of maladies due to exposure to flood water or mold.

These are the people of St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, and they just need to be remembered. Also remember that you can help. Volunteer. Learn more. Lend your support to any number of organizations that continue to serve these areas.

For more information on our style of disaster relief here at Emergency Communities see our Web site:

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