For months I had emailed and called agencies seeing if I could volunteer for the Katrina Relief efforts. None of the organizations answered my queries, except for one generic mass email I received from Habitat for Humanity. So instead I had a friend of mine, Jay Melder who lives in Baton Rouge, make some calls. He, of course, living there, was much more successful. Understandably, several of the organizations in Louisiana are too busy to respond to a faceless email from the Midwest. They need people that are in the immediate vicinity. I wasn’t. So I figured if I went on my own I would be there and it would be tough to turn me away. Such was the case.
As soon as my flight got in, I called Volunteer Baton Rouge and they gave me several numbers to call. The first was the Salvation Army, but they were fully staffed with volunteers for a job that involved packing lunches. I tried the next number”Catholic Community Services. They were interested. The job was a dream job for a volunteer, especially one who used to fantasize about working at Santa’s Workshop in the North Pole back when he was a preteen. The job: organize and deliver presents to Baton Rouge’s poor and displaced children from New Orleans.
Normally Baton Rouge’s population is roughly 225,000 and New Orleans’ population is about 500,000. Post-Katrina, those numbers have shifted significantly. Although estimates are somewhat vague, it is guesstimated that New Orleans has shrunk to only 60,000 to 100,000 occupants and Baton Rouge has just about doubled in size with the 200,000 displaced that have filled its hotels, motels, shelters, and friend and family homes. It is almost as if the cities have swapped populations. A goal of Catholic Community Services was to get gifts to the children of those displaced families.
A garage-like storage space on the fittingly named Laurel Street served as the headquarters where maternal Louisianan Mrs. Clauses wrapped gifts while young LSU-type men hauled sacks full of toys like in-shape Santas. The responses from the mothers that walked in to collect their gifts ran from polite smiles to Oprah-level tears.
It wasn’t until a trip down to New Orleans though that the full impact of what had happened set in. Leaving Baton Rouge, the amount of damage very slowly increased with the amount of miles driven. Within a few minutes roof damage appeared, bright blue roofs from the temporary tarp covering its holes. Sometimes the damage was from wind, but my friend said it was also occasionally from trapped homeowners trying to ax or chainsaw themselves out either from the inside or by FEMA rescuers from the outside. Business building windows were polka-dotted with wooden rectangles.
My buddy took me to Lakeview, one of the two hardest hit areas of the city (the other being the Ninth Ward), where”from 150 miles per hour wind speeds, rescue attempts, and looting”little glass was left in windows. Driving by Mount Carmel High School and going down Louis XIV Street the feeling was of a housing graveyard. Each building is cycloptically tagged with large black insignia, codes used by Louisiana State troopers, sometimes understandable such as “Dog DOA under house” and “3 cats DOA,” but most often indecipherably cryptic.
John Melder, Jay’s brother, said from the backseat, “I don’t know what the code is for dead body.” The estimated death toll is over a thousand and the believability of those numbers becomes apparent when the otherworldly sites are taken in. A thick four-foot section of a tree is crashed through a car’s windshield. A playground set sits impaled on a fence. A house by the shore slants at a thirty-degree angle. And, perhaps oddest of all and most awakening, a boat sits perched in a tree.
The headache-inducing smell of toxins and dust and the constant beeping and grinding of bulldozers remind how devastated New Orleans was, but it is the visual shock of row after row of street after street of house after house awaiting gutting, a further gutting from the first one that Katrina gave it, that creates a nausea in the viewer that has nothing to do with the air pollution. The true guts though are the tenacity of the painter I saw redoing his house and another not-too-distant neighbor who had a truckload of siding roll up with a group of athletic energetic boys waiting to unload it that lets one know that New Orleans is ready for a strong comeback.
Some of us might want to assist in that comeback; although not a lot of us have the time to volunteer in Louisiana, to get to see the motivating and stirring sights, but money is something all of us can send, and even small amounts can help in the massive reconstruction efforts.
For those of us who do have the time though, rather than participate in the debauchery of Mardi Gras, travelers can consider getting involved with Volunteer Baton Rouge (www.volunteerbatonrouge.org) as a necessary follow-up step to the dedication we have already witnessed from Chicago and Forest Park’s firemen and policemen who have given their services in 2005 to assisting our brothers and sisters down south.