November 27 , 2006
Picking up the pieces
Eric Rangus is director of communications for the Association of Emory Alumni.
Despite everything Hurricane Katrina, a busted levee, and more than a week submerged in putrid floodwaters could dish out, the house at thirty-four-oh-something St. Claude Ave., New Orleans, Louisiana 70117, still stands. Although I’m sure it’s seen some better days.
I’m not sure of the exact address because the last number fell off the house at some point. Considering the shape of the place, it could have been anytime in the last 20 years.
The house, like nearly every one in the Bywater neighborhood where it stands, or the adjacent Upper Ninth Ward or the Lower Ninth Ward just a few blocks down St. Claude, is abandoned. Although these neighborhoods are not the only portions of New Orleans devastated by the flood, the poorest people lived here. Many of them died here, too.
Every building covered by Katrina’s floodwaters is now covered by spray paint. A large X signifies that a house had been cleared by rescue teams. Surrounding the X is the clearance date, the team that cleared it (this house is sprayed with “NG,” the National Guard), and whether hazards were found. The code also indicates whether bodies were found or recovered. A circle with a slash, for instance, means a body was recovered from a building.
Beneath the X spray-painted on the house at thirty-four-oh-something St. Claude Ave. was a circle with a slash. This house was someone’s home, but it also was someone’s grave.
The first thing I noticed after climbing through a broken window wasn’t the devastation inside — piles of broken glass, rotten cardboard, discarded cloth and splintered wood. It was the smell. It was as if the house had been pulled from the bottom of a muddy lake and never dried. The stench of rotted wood made my nostrils burn. I could actually taste it.
Stepping into the remains of the front room, I quickly discovered that while this house had been cleared, it wasn’t empty. In a dark corner was a makeshift bed — a couple of bare foam cushions covered by a moldy blue sheet.
Next to the bed were an empty tin of a canned ham, a stick of deodorant and a couple empty cans of beans. I wondered how anyone could live here. Then I looked up at the relatively intact roof and figured there were probably worse places.
Leaving that scene I climbed over a couple of two-by-fours and entered the back room, which must have been a bedroom. In there, on the floor, buried under rotted drywall, ratty insulation, broken sticks and a pile of mason jars was a small, purple plastic rabbit. It was something a person might win at a county fair or buy on the clearance rack of a dollar store. He was smiling a very happy smile, completely unaware of the destruction surrounding him. Whoever owned this little guy probably smiled at him whenever they made eye contact.
Other rabbits were scattered in the vicinity — the remains of a collection. Some of them were plastic, some ceramic, many of them shattered. Some, like the purple guy, survived the storm. But most were like a ceramic gray bunny with a purple top hat. His body, once white or light gray, was a dingy charcoal now. He was facedown on a pile of drywall, with a crack on the right side of his skull.
Standing up straight, I thought immediately of the neck-high water that submerged this house after the levees broke. I thought of the person who once lived here. I thought of that person, floating lifeless in that water like this toy rabbit.
The musty odor from the rotting wood in this stinking house got more repulsive with each breath. I wanted to vomit.
In all, I spent about five minutes in the house, but it felt like an hour. Part of me didn’t want to leave, part of me couldn’t get out fast enough. Another part of me felt as though I had desecrated someone’s final resting place.
But pensively exploring old, destroyed houses was not the reason I traveled to New Orleans two weeks ago. I went with 60 other Emory staff, students and faculty to build new ones, as a volunteer with New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity.
The New Orleans Habitat build was the centerpiece event of Emory Cares International Service Day, the Association of Emory Alumni’s signature service project.
Last year was a record year for Emory Cares participation. Some 400 volunteers worked on service projects in 16 cities around the globe. The record didn’t last long. On Nov. 11 this year, 28 cities hosted more than 1,000 members of the Emory community, including more than 400 in Atlanta alone and nearly 60 in New Orleans.
Almost all of the Emory Cares events were conceived by Emory alumni. They restored oyster habitats in Charleston, cleaned up wetlands outside of Los Angeles, and planted trees in Houston and vegetables in an urban garden in Birmingham. They staffed food banks from Boston to San Francisco, and in Seoul, South Korea, they assisted at a home for mentally and physically disabled men.
In Atlanta, Volunteer Emory was a crucial partner. Not only did VE line up 25 nonprofits where volunteers could serve, it also was instrumental in promoting the event to students. More than 300 of them came out on a rainy Saturday and joined some 70 alumni in service. About 20 more students made the bus trip to New Orleans.
Our New Orleans crew consisted mainly of Atlanta residents who had made the bus trip, but several Louisiana alumni and parents also joined us.
The Emory volunteers were scattered among several projects throughout the Upper Ninth Ward. Arguably, the Lower Ninth Ward suffered more during the flood; houses there simply washed away. There is little left but vacant lots and feral cats. In the Upper Ninth, most of the houses still stand, but block after block of rotted buildings actually makes the place bleaker by comparison. Some hearty souls, though, have returned. White FEMA trailers, no bigger than three Everybody’s Pizza booths strung together, sit on their front lawns next to their empty houses decorated with yard signs defiantly declaring, “We’re Home!”
We worked from 7:30 a.m. until about 3 p.m. Some of us installed insulation, others siding. Some climbed ladders to work on roofs. Others built floors. More than 20 Emory volunteers painted, chief among them Debbie Wagner, who by lunchtime wore red paint from her hair down to her formerly white sneakers
I was stationed with her husband, President Jim Wagner, building a floor for a Habitat home eight blocks from Musicians’ Village. He was one of the most active volunteers, brandishing a drill much of the day. There was no hierarchy here — except for Anna, a high school teacher by training, now a home-building foreperson through AmeriCorps — she was the boss. And she kept us on task.
By the end of the day, we’d laid about one-third of the joists that will eventually make up the floor of the house. I could barely lift my right arm after all the hammering.
Following the build, the bus took a detour through the Lower Ninth Ward. Barely a word was spoken as we reacted to the shear stillness of the place. Concrete steps led to nowhere — the houses they once led to were either washed away or crushed by bulldozers. In one sense, I felt like we were on a disaster tour — the Lower Ninth Ward had become a tourist attraction. Yet, the more I thought about it, the stronger my feelings became.
Everyone should see what I see right now, I thought as I looked out the bus window. Everyone should see what I saw at thirty-four-oh-something St. Claude Ave. Everyone should see it ... and go from there.
The next time I come to New Orleans, I’d like to see what the house I helped build looks like. So I wouldn’t forget, I wrote down the address: 1718 Montagut Street, New Orleans, Louisiana 70117 — right on the corner of Montagut and North Roman, across from the railyard.
A few minutes later, I threw the paper away. I’ll always remember exactly where I was.
Many alumni leaders have sent photos from their service projects. They will be on AEA’s Web site (www.alumni.emory.edu) starting Friday, Dec. 1.