“The Most Hopeful Spot in New Orleans:”
Emory Cares International Service Day includes
Habitat for Humanity build in the Upper Ninth Ward
Standing on the back of a pick-up truck so he can be heard, New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity Executive Director Jim Pate 69OX 71C addresses a group of Emory volunteers gathered this chilly morning in the Upper Ninth Ward to work on Musicians’ Village—a group of brightly colored homes emerging from the empty field behind him like tropical flowers.
“A lot of people call this the most hopeful spot in New Orleans. It’s the last stop on ‘disaster tours,’ because people want to see rebuilding,” said Pate, who has worked with Habitat in New Orleans for seven years but is facing his largest challenge yet in the rebuilding of areas devastated by Katrina. “The greatest gift you’re bringing is yourself. It’s tough living here. The streets are torn up, lights don’t work, we’re worried we’re going to be forgotten. Your coming here is a spiritual uplift. All we ask is that you go home and tell everyone the job’s not done yet.”
Musicians’ Village, conceived by musicians Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marsalis, served as the signature event of the Emory Cares International Service Day on November 11, although projects took place around the world.
Nearly a thousand Emory alumni in twenty-eight cities participated in the fourth-annual service day, at locations ranging from an urban farm in Birmingham to a home for disabled men in South Korea. Alumni cleaned up parks in Atlanta, Chicago, and Los Angeles, and volunteered at food banks in Miami, Boston, and Orlando.
In New Orleans, a group of about seventy Emory alumni, students, and employees (fifty of whom came by chartered bus from Atlanta) volunteered to work on the Habitat homes, which are sold to low-income families and individuals at no profit and come with interest-free mortgages. President Jim Wagner and his wife, Debbie, and Emory Alumni Board President Walker Ray 65M and his wife, Nancy, were among the volunteers who painted, hammered, drilled, sawed, and shingled alongside residents, who are required to perform 350 “sweat equity” hours on their Habitat homes.
The area surrounding the village is a mixture of homes that have been abandoned or destroyed or are being rebuilt—some with FEMA trailers in their front yards. While ruined possessions are still stacked in front of many of the houses, there are signs that the area is coming back to life, from kids on bicycles to a neighborhood barber giving sidewalk haircuts.
Volunteer Cindy Edwards, mother of Emory College junior Laura Edwards 08C, and Laura’s older sister, Emily, drove to the site to help paint. “We’re from New Orleans, but our house was fine; we were fortunate. Since we don’t have to work on our own house, we wanted to work on someone else’s.” With nearly 80 percent of the city affected, Emily adds, “anyone who wasn’t a direct victim suffers from Katrina survivor’s guilt. I think it will be a ten-year process to rebuild. You just think about all those elderly people who lost a whole life full of memories in their homes.”
Rebuilding a life in New Orleans, where she was born and raised, is the goal for Musicians’ Village resident Annette Corneiago. “I rode out the storm,” she says, “but the day the levee broke was the day we left our house. The hotel at the French Quarter where I work took us in [employees and their families]. It was a beautiful day, the day after the storm, but all along, water was pouring into the city.”
An older musician and Navy veteran who lost his home in the flooding, Peter “Chuck” Badie busily refurbished a dining room chair—one of the few possessions he has left—on his new front porch steps. “I’ve lived five different places since the storm, and I’m tired,” he said simply. “They say New Orleans is back, but what they mean is that the French Quarter is back, the Garden District is back. New Orleans is not back.”
The Lower Ninth Ward is where all the destruction remains, says Badie, who was in a silk shirt preparing to go to church when the flooding hit. “I was born and raised in the city,” he says. “Neighbors I’ve known my whole life, people I’d look out my door and say hey to, they’re all gone.”
Badie had stored his instruments at the club where he plays or they would have been lost as well, along with his livelihood. He chose to have his new Habitat home painted white with green trim—“the color of my home that I lost.”
At a reception for Emory alumni, held at the historic Napoleon House the evening before the build, nearly a hundred people gathered to enjoy a sense of camaraderie. Alumni who experienced the storm and flooding shared stories of momentous loss and moments of inspiration with spellbound visitors.
Marcus Black 75M 80MR, a medical doctor at East Jefferson General Hospital in Jefferson Parish, stayed through the evacuation and was at the hospital for thirteen days straight. “Basically, I was on call, and you do what you need to do,” Black said. “We had our own power system, our own generators—we were built to be self-sufficient. There were employees, employees’ families, patients, and anyone who could make it there by boat or on foot. We ended up as our own little city.”
Working throughout the crisis, Black said, were thirty doctors and nurses and “a whole army surrounding us” after the National Guard came in. “We were in the clamp-down zone. We literally had Black Hawks above circling us, and Humvees with machine guns out front. That’s when I thought, ‘This is real.’ ”
Although they had to ration food and drugs, Black is proud that “we never lost a patient, and we never shut down.”
Brave and generous acts abounded, he says: One pharmacist gave them not only all the medicines they needed from his store, but also all the toys, for children at the hospital. Another doctor and his son checked the nursing home next to the hospital and found residents trapped in their beds, scared, dirty, and hungry, and spent hours feeding and cleaning them.
Eban Walters 98C, whose family is from New Orleans, had just come in for a visit the Friday before the storm. “My flight back was cancelled,” he says, “so I commandeered my rental car, picked up two of my cousins, and drove eighteen hours to get to Houston on rural country roads.”
Walters, who is a postdoc in child clinical psychology and public policy, moved back after the storm. “I’d always planned to move back someday, and it was so good to be home. But it’s frustrating that everything is taking so long,” he says. “Don’t take for granted the little things—people you see at church, neighbors. You don’t realize how important community is until it’s gone.”
Brittany Olson 03C 05L had also returned home to New Orleans to go to Tulane University Law School, after finishing her undergraduate degree at Emory. With the storm bearing down, “we all—five adults and ten cats—evacuated to Pensacola,” she says. “I actually flew to Atlanta, went to the Emory admissions office, and said ‘What do I do?’ I didn’t even know if they were accepting students.”
Olson attended Emory law school for a semester, but returned to Tulane to get a JD and MBA.
“Everyone I knew had some damage. It was strange at first, like you didn’t want to have fun. But then after a month or so, it felt normal,” she says. “People are coming back and rebuilding. Lots of my friends’ families are in trailers. It’s hard to live here, but you get used to it.”
Indeed, University of New Orleans Associate Provost Dennis McSeverney 71G 72G is still living in a “candominium,” as he calls his silver trailer in a park of four hundred others at the university. “It’s a weird way to live, in an eight-foot-by-thirty-foot space, and yet, I’m lucky,” he says. “Since the storm, I’ve been uplifted by people around the country. It’s especially touching for the Emory community to reach out this way.”
Emory College sophomore Maria Town 09C, whose entire family is from New Orleans, was moving into Emory just as Katrina was hitting her hometown. “My mom was actually driving back into Louisiana from taking me to Atlanta,” she says. “Power was out for months, I couldn’t talk to my family. My grandmother died, and no one could let me know.”
Town returned last summer to work with U.S. Representative Bobby Jindal from Louisiana, assisting in getting FEMA trailers and other assistance for residents. “I wasn’t here for the initial hardship,” Town says, “but I spent all summer hearing from people who needed help.”
Hurricane Katrina, says Lesli Cleveland 90OX 92C, was a devastating experience. “Being from New Orleans, it’s a part of your soul. The people are wonderful, the music, the vibe that city has. It’s like nothing you’ve ever felt,” she says. “And now, so few parts of the city are thriving. Neighborhoods filled with aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, and grandchildren are just gone. But in Musicians’ Village, homeowners have already started planting flowers and bushes in their yards. There’s more work to be done, but seeing what has begun meant a lot to me.”—M.J.L.
A complete list of Emory Cares projects can be found at www.alumni.emory.edu/news/emory-cares.