|Rising from Atlantis
Keith Weldon Medley
[New Orleans Tribune May-June 2006]
In 2004, when Hurricane Ivan approached land, the newspaper USA Today predicted that a direct strike could turn New Orleans into a “modern Atlantis.” An earlier article envisioned an inundating storm surge would keep the city underwater for up to 10 weeks creating an explosive mixture of chemicals amidst 100,000 tons of sediment.
Back then, I thought these scenarios to be media sensationalism. And sure enough, Hurricane Ivan veered off like so many other near tragedies and we took comfort in our levees and our pumps. But one year after Ivan, I joined hundreds of thousands of citizen refugees on the road with Katrina at our backs. And for the month of September 2005, much of New Orleans was indeed a submerged “Atlantis”. Even though the waters have receded, Katrina left lives, dreams, and lifetimes of hard work forever submerged in its incomprehensible aftermath.
Even before Katrina struck, New Orleans was a city hobbled by social, economic and educational shortfalls. Today, deserted cars still fill the spaces under the interstate, and miles of once-populated areas remain devoid of residents. Everyday brings heartbreaking stories. It is a city with a future in freefall. Still, many evacuees maintain a deep longing to return to the city that care forgot again. I heard a man at a barbeque describe how he kissed the ground upon his return. At a repast in January, a lady shared that she was so glad to be back, that she was even happy to see people she didn’t like." Another friend told me “New Orleans may be Third World but it’s our Third World.”
Whether it’s from desperate circumstances, job requirements, or love of the city, many realized that as much as they are a part of New Orleans’ character, New Orleans is also an integral part of them. We are linked to the city and each other by neighborhoods, cultural traditions, and history. Without the architecture and history, the culture and traditions lack a context. Without the culture and tradition, the neighborhoods have no spirit.
Today, progress in New Orleans is not judged by sweeping developments and grand visions, but by getting electricity, mail, a landline telephone connected, or an opening of a Sav-A-Center or Walgreen’s. The sighting of a friend or relative not seen since the hurricane brings tears. Amidst the devastation, a sense of renewal and return is marked by growing numbers of FEMA trailers along city streets.
In Pontchartrain Park and Gentilly Woods, residents signaled their return with bright yellow ribbons wrapped around trees and mailboxes even as Katrina dust still hung in the air. In the lower Ninth ward, volunteers from around the country are cleaning a flood-ravaged Martin Luther King School that the school system had virtually abandoned. Neighborhood groups and civic associations are raising their voices and giving the powers-that-be a what-for over the state and future of their beloved city. As an old Creole proverb stated, “Little by little, the bird builds its nest.”
And New Orleans has always embraced life-affirming symbols and spirit in the wake of sorrow and tragedy. On one of my first trips home, I drove through dark and emptied streets that greeted me after crossing the 17th Street Canal. But driving down St. Bernard Avenue, the magnificent John Scott/Martin Payton “Spirit House” Sculpture loomed in the distance rising from Atlantis almost like an apparition brightly illuminating the carved silhouettes of the unknown African-American workers who built the city. On another trip back in October 2005, I found Delfeayo Marsalis jamming with his friends at Snug Harbor. There, I sat at the bar listening to Jazz sipping scotch on the rocks back in my hometown of New Orleans. It was one of those moments of joy that have become so precious in the post-Katrina city. For a while, I thought New Orleans was down for the count but the lights from the Spirit House and the riffs in the music said differently. Snug Harbor usually has a partition that separates the bar from the performance area in the back, but it was now open and the music was wonderfully familiar.
Another moment of hope was the “We Are One” parade that occurred in January, 2006. A group of nearly 30 Social & Pleasure clubs including the Perfect Gentleman, Pigeon Town Steppers, Lady Buck Jumpers, Prince of Wales, Big Nine, Calliope High Steppers, Young Men Olympians and others returned from their exodus to form the “We Are One Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs All-Star Second Line”. Their parade second-lined from the Backstreet Cultural museum in Treme and made its way up St. Bernard Avenue with torn roofs and debris as the backdrop for a procession of life. Will New Orleans culture be the clarion that calls us back home?
A similar moment of reclamation occurred when the Zulu Social and Pleasure Club hosted their traditional Lundi Gras festivities even though eight of their members died during Katrina. Their effort planted a flag in the revival of our community keeping things warm until more evacuees find their way back from exodus.
Almost a year after Katrina, areas are showing signs of life but the vastness of the devastation in the so-called dead zones is undeniable. And as painful as it is to see the city you love in a state of desperation, it is even more painful to let it wash away and do nothing about it.
COFFEE, TEA and HOPE
Kenneth and Melba Ferdinand
My first return to New Orleans following Katrina was in late September, 2005. Driving toward the city on Highway 90, I was amazed at the wholesale roadside destruction of trees that became more and more contorted with each passing mile. The city was extremely hot and empty. At night after curfew, there were none of the familiar neighborhood sounds. There were no sounds of breaking beer bottles, no thumping rap music from cars passing along the streets, and no police and ambulance sirens. There were no means of communication, no electricity, and no access to medical care.
But even in the midst of this forlorn place, I found Kenneth and Melba Ferdinand cleaning out Café Rose Nicaud, their popular coffee shop on Frenchman Street. Having both grown up in the lower ninth ward, they experienced a similar devastation when Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965, flooded both their houses, and changed their lives forever. Kenneth believes that their experience with Betsy prepared them to face the challenge of a post-Katrina world:
“Melba lived in the lower 9th ward. I lived in the lower 9th ward. All our families went through Betsy. I say for us it was a bar of survival set real high – you had to at least get up to the bar of survival to bring your business back, to bring your home back. We shared the standard.”
Before Katrina struck, the Ferdinands evacuated safely to St. Francisville. They were among the fortunate. Neither their business in Faubourg Marigny nor their house in Bywater suffered significant flooding. Additionally, two of their business neighbors stayed throughout the storm and discouraged looting. Still, their income from their businesses was zero with no promise that the city would ever revive.
Rising above any feelings of despair, at the first post-Katrina opportunity, they began daily round trips to the city even though there was no usable water, power, or gas. Waking at dawn, they drove in from St. Francisville, worked through the daylight hours, and left at dusk before the nighttime curfew. The round trip drive that lasted six hours increased significantly when checkpoints were in place. Without a labor force, they personally cleaned out seven commercial refrigerators by themselves. “We came back every day – four or five days in a row – until we got all the refrigerators cleaned out,” Melba explained. They commuted back and forth three weeks before moving back.
Kenneth added, “We hose-piped, we bagged stuff in trash bags. I think what stymies people from returning is that they’re waiting for a guidepost, something to say how you return, how you go back and clean up your house and not feel so depressed that you just stop and walk away.”
To open, they needed a trained staff and they had no way of contacting their former employees. But two days before their scheduled opening, former workers Lettie Pena and Thomas Edwards came by. The two had planned to leave the city, but decided to help Kenneth and Melba.
“They showed up and said ‘Let’s do this,” Melba recalled. “We can do this.” Though she didn’t have money to pay them, Thomas and Lettie stuck it out. “We did that -Thomas, Kenneth, Lettie, and me. And we did it completely alone until early December.”
Kenneth felt that it was more than his business involved:
“It was not only the responsibility to get our businesses on line, it was also the responsibility to be positive, and to not fold up and go away because we knew that people needed the services, and they needed the role models, and they needed the opportunity to see that there’s possibly some life left in the city.”
Opening date was October 13th. Six weeks after Katrina, Café Rose Nicaud began serving grits, eggs, sausage, latte and muffins, and lox and bagels to a hungry clientele. For the city, it was a victory of hope and hard work over the surrounding devastation. “It was a great feeling because so many people came in and we could see that we were doing a really good service for people who were so happy that we were there,” Melba said.
KNOW WHAT IT MEANS
Oliver and Irma Delacroix
For 57 years, Oliver and Irma Delacroix lived and raised their family on Annette Street a few blocks from the London Avenue canal breach. When Katrina struck, they evacuated to Hixson, Tenn. outside of Chattanooga to live with their daughter Sheila. For the elder Delacroix’s, Hixson was lovely and embracing but it wasn’t home. So in early November the eighty-five year old couple shocked their daughter by announcing their intention to return to New Orleans. A retired contractor, Mr. Delacroix explained, “What does it means to miss New Orleans? I can put another chapter. I can say I know.”
The couple returned and moved into the second floor of their house. The London Avenue Canal breached five blocks from their house sending barrages of mud and water through the streets of their neighborhood. A son who first visited the house told them that their house seemed to be subjected to a giant washing machine filled with mud and water. The water in the house finally settled at nearly five feet. Memorabilia, furniture, and fixtures were thrashed.
When the children realized their parents were serious about returning, they obtained supplies, pots, and food. Without electricity, gas or heat, they used flashlights. Their children’s friends checked daily. The children took turns coming to help.
“They told me in essence there was nobody here as far as Gentilly to the levee,” Mr. Delacroix related.
“When we got here the curfew was still on,” Mrs. Delacroix added. “You weren’t supposed to be in the streets after 8 pm. Finally, Sav-A-Center opened and the filling station opened on Elysian Fields and Gentilly; Mike’s hardware was open.”
Oliver Delacroix is a traditional New Orleans tradesman. He spent the major part of his eighty-five years between his boyhood home in the 2600 block of Republic and his Annette Street home in Boscoville. Irma Delacroix was born in St. Tammany Parish. Mr. Delacroix is a retired bricklayer who specialized in brick and stone work. In his later years, he did restoration work in the French Quarter and the Garden district. He spent the days following Katrina gutting his family home, taking out furniture, and pulling up floors.
The Delacroixs received their FEMA trailer the Sunday before Thanksgiving. Two of their children visited for a quiet but poignant Christmas with electricity in the trailer.
In April of 2006, Irma Delacroix sat in the trailer crocheting baby blankets and hats for a charitable group. “This is my salvation,” she said pointed to a baby blanket. “I made 3 whole sets – the blanket, the jacket, and the hats” Mr. Delacroix finds the situation heartbreaking. “I think of some of my friends and coworkers,” he stated. “There’s no way I can find any of them or any of their families. There’s nobody in the area that you could talk to.”
They have served as inspiration to other neighbors seeking to return. When the Delacroixs first returned, they were the only ones in the area. Now there are ten trailers in their adjacent blocks. “People have told me ‘you give me courage. You give me strength’,” Mrs. Delacroix stated. Although the Delacroix’s 70 year old fig tree was destroyed by Katrina, their son planted another fig tree as a testament of revival. In their front yard, Mrs. Delacroix is excited to see her St. Augustine grass reviving itself. The backyard statute of the Blessed Mother has returned to its stand.
“No regrets whatsoever,” Mrs. Delacroix declared. “I’m not saying I’ll be here until I die. I don’t know. I’m not going to be here alone. If he leaves before me, something else has to be done. But as long as we’re both together, I’m happy.”
CULTURE AND COMMUNITY
Life has always been busy for Carol Bebelle. For most of her seven years as director of the Ashe Cultural Center in Central City, her activities centered on the revitalization of a boulevard. Now Ashe’ is at the nexus of trying to resurrect a city from the worst natural/man-made disaster in American history.
Carol affirmed “As long as we decide we’re going to stay in New Orleans, we’re going to have homesickness for people that are gone, we are going to have horrible pain for people who died; and unless we can get a perspective for in the morning, that gets us up, gets us moving, and that works for us, we’re going to be lost.”
Ashe’ is now a center for the thousands of people who descend on New Orleans to do good works. “Lots of funding providers have come through looking at community organizing,” Bebelle stated. “They are trying to understand how they can be smart about how they work together to be able to help the community; And they’re wanting the community to know it and they’re wanting to show that they get it by having the meetings here (at Ashe) rather than at the Sheraton. They want to be close to people”.
Before Katrina, she saw the mission of Ashe’ as celebrating the culture and creativity of people of the African Diaspora. In a post-Katrina world, she has committed the center to the rebuilding effort and to employing culture as a device toward that end. “Ashe is now a place where people can come and gather for any and all kinds of reasons that are related to post Katrina,” she described. “It’s being able to see what it is that we have that is not destructible.”
She and artist-in-residence Douglas Redd secured Ashe and evacuated to Opelousas. “We came back the first week of October to see; we came back the middle of October to stay for a week and never managed to make it back to Opelousas,” Carol said.
Ashe was just the way she left it when she returned except for the smell from the refrigerator. Their curator Jeffery Cooke had remained in New Orleans determined to protect Ashe and its art. He lived nearby in the uptown area and visited frequently to give the impression that there were people there. Like many in New Orleans, Carol had to deal personally with roof and ceiling damage, electricity and plumbing.
Since the reopening, volunteers from across the country, granting institutions, and community groups have used Ashe’ to get things done. Carol observed that “since Katrina, we average 10 or 15 meetings a week. There are at least one to two meetings a day.” In January, Ashe was the touch point for the “Making it Happen” resource and networking festival. This event attracted 400 providers and practitioners to Ashe and other venues on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. “We created an environment where people were here wanting to do things, and how to do things better,” she said. “10 or 15 partnerships and collaborations have evolved out of that.” This spring, over 1500 student volunteers came down to New Orleans as part of the Mardi Gras Corps to help New Orleans resurrect itself.
“The thing that is going to save the neighborhoods are neighborhoods getting together and working together on being able to bring their communities back,” Bebelle stated. “We’ve been trying to work with supporting organizations to make democracy more relevant within our communities.”
GUTTING IT OUT IN THE LOWER NINE
One of the most devastated areas in the city was the lower ninth ward. Though the responsible agencies had over 40 years since Betsy to correct the levee problems, Katrina proved that very little had been done. The parts of the lower ninth ward affected by the levee failure do indeed appear as if a bomb went off. Entire blocks were smitten and homes ripped from their foundations. The lower ninth ward was a community where 54% of the housing units were owner-occupied as compared to 46.5% for the entire city. It was a community whose neighborhood ties go back for generations. Driving through it after Katrina was heartbreaking. Eight months after the hurricane, bodies are still being found amidst the rubble and debris.
But on Lamanche Street, I spotted a lonely trailer next to a house that was still standing. Outside the trailer were a father and son cleaning the grounds around a gutted house. It was Keith Craft and his son Donovan.
“We’re the only trailer,” Keith stated, “We get electricity from the street and propane. This is our first day – Its desolate and no man’s land. God only knows what roams around at night and who roams around at night. But we’re native New Orleans. This is my home.”
Keith invited me in to chat his trailer on Lamanche. His father grew up in Shreiver, La. and made his way to New Orleans as a young man. A laborer and construction worker, his father also settled on Lamanche Street a few blocks from where Keith lives. A graduate of Carver Senior High School, Keith has been in the ninth ward since he was an “arm-carrying baby.” I sat captivated as Keith related his lower ninth ward roots and his family’s surviving Katrina’s winds and the broken levee’s floodwaters:
“The wind and rain were so bad and things were flying so bad, we went over to my little brother’s house in the 5300 block of Dauphine. And this was before the water came, so we unloaded over there and he has a 3 story house – lucky. God was working with us because had we known that the flood was going to come, we would have tried to get as far away as we could.
We left Monday morning around 4:00. We had my family over there including his father-in-law who was a double amputee and my ‘moms’. We decided that we were just going to stay there that day, come home Tuesday and clean up the debris.
Lo and behold, I’m looking out the window to see how the wind was blowing and I see water. I told my wife ‘here comes the water,’ and before she could get to the window it was over her truck tire. It didn’t seep up, it came. By my brother having a three story building, the walls were going in and out – like the house was breathing. He was a contractor. At that time he was renovating the house, so we braced the walls with lumber. We didn’t know when the water would stop rising – it came up so fast.
We were able to save his neighbor on the left side of us – his neighbor across the street. The lady had just come home with a new born baby – she had a C-section. She still had staples in her stomach. We extended a ladder from their window to my brother’s kitchen door and they crossed over on the ladder. Altogether we had 31 people in that house: neighbors and immediate family and extended family.
He had generators and it just so happened his electrician came over – hooked up the generator. We had lights. We were able to watch TV. We had a refrigerator and we were watching all the destruction all over the city on TV. The thing that got me was how they corralled the people into the Superdome and the convention center. It still bothers me now. I’m so glad we were able to watch TV because we had my moms with us. There’s no way in the world I would evacuate my mother there.
So we stayed with my little brother from the time we got there to the Sunday after the storm. And that’s when I walked to the levee because the following Sunday over on that side [the other side of St. Claude] it was dry – that’s how fast the water went down. My moms is on insulin and we were having a heated discussion about the helicopter because they wanted to drop a basket, but I said no. My moms is eighty three years old. She’d have a heart attack in that basket turning around. I started walking on the levee and God led me to Jackson Barracks trying to clear my head. I pleaded and begged with one of the soldiers: Could they send a truck or something? The guy called his sergeant and then said ‘Could you get them [family] to the levee?’ I said ‘yes sir’ If you get us a truck over there, I’ll have my family at the levee because at this point we were ready to get out of New Orleans. On this side of Claiborne, the water was still high.
I ran and I told them ‘get whatever you can get, the army’s going to send a truck.’ By the time we got over there, there was a helicopter sitting on the ground. There were 14 of us. They brought us from the levee to Louis Armstrong airport. We wound up in Albuquerque New Mexico”.
Before Katrina, his son attended the Martin Luther King school on Caffin Avenue. His wife lives in Houma in an apartment and his son attends school in Houma. He has to pay a house note and also for the apartment in Houma.
“I’m stuck between a rock and a hard spot,” Keith stated. “I didn’t have flood insurance – we were told we weren’t in a flood zone;” The mayor’s on TV talking about ‘Come at your own risk.’ I don’t have anything else. I don’t have a house in Houston. I’m not a millionaire. This is home and to think that I want my son to be down here, no. But this is all we have.”
“It’s not so much Katrina. Katrina did what it had to do. But the city’s not doing what they need to do as far as informing the people, giving them a definite answer. Can you come back? What are their plans for the lower 9th ward? If you notice, they’re trying to discourage people from coming back. Because if you wanted someone to come down, you’d make sure FEMA would bring them trailers. You’d pick up trash.”
Just like they love their family, I love my family also. I don’t have the money or the power but I still have the love for my family. They seem like they don’t care. But this is my home, this is his home (my son).
Keith relies on prayer and his faith in God. “
I’m raising my children to get a good education, to do the right thing so they won’t have to go through the struggles that I’m going through. That’s how my father raised me. My father wasn’t a well-educated man but he provided for his family. I want my children to do better. I’m glad that he was able to see this and maybe now he’ll understand, if you don’t love you and you don’t look out for you, maybe no one else will especially the upper crust.
I feel I have to feed my family; I still have to pay this house note and I still have to have somewhere else to stay. I’m renting in Houma, I’m paying a house note here, and insurance. It’s a financial rape. I’m upset. I really am. I feel I’m a good person, a good citizen; I try to do the right thing. Now, I need the people I’ve been paying out, the people that I voted for, they turn their back on me. . I’m leaning and depending on my God.”
HOME GROWN COMMON GROUND
Common Ground Comes to the Rescue
A few blocks from where Keith Craft sweats out a future for himself and his family is the Martin Luther King School on Caffin Avenue. Even though Katrina struck last August, no one from the Marsal-Roberti group who oversees the school system had come to evaluate its interior condition. It took a New Orleans-based organization called Common Ground to get the doors open and to make sure that if people found a way to return and rebuild, their elementary school and library would be up and running for their families and children. The lack of a nearby school would be one more stumbling block in the reclamation of the lower ninth ward community. These types of action only add to the perception that elements of the New Orleans elite are crafting practices that discourage certain demographics from returning.
Common Ground was organized on September 5 within the first week after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Algiers resident Malik Rahim started the group with a mission to offer short-term support for the victims of Katrina and long-term support for rebuilding communities. According to the group’s website, Common Ground started a medical clinic in Algiers and began providing food and water to people who were trapped in the city. Started with three volunteers and fifty dollars, the Common Ground now clams forty organizers and hundreds of volunteers making a difference in the rebirth of a better New Orleans.
When Common Ground arrived at the Martin Luther King school site, the buildings had not been opened since Katrina. Peter Peltz, A contractor in Woodbury, Vermont, and his wife Kathy drove down from northern Vermont to assist in the recovery efforts. “There’s more people that go to this school than live in our town,” Mr. Peltz noted. Kathy Peltz remarked that “Common Ground wanted to get us in here to start working, to give some hope to the community because the school was such a powerful an important center.”
Upon my visit to the Martin Luther King school in April, the bottom floor was a sodden mess while, strangely, the upper floor looked as it did the day before Katrina. In the second story rooms, the books were still on the shelves, the chairs were still in place, and the teacher’s notes were still on the board. The lesson plans on the chalkboards were dated August 26, the Friday before the storm. The last people to sit in this room were teachers and students. “You have upstairs which is completely unaffected. All you need is access to get upstairs so part of this building can be used,” Mr. Peltz noted.
On the first floor, however, every door had to be broken into to get into the rooms. Volunteers spent days inventorying the first floor items. Mangled books in piles and tiny chairs were stacked in a room that was flooded and closed for seven months. Dressed in protective suits, volunteers labored in the dankness of the first floor classrooms counting the chairs and other school property before hauling them outside for disposal.
“It’s photographing, writing down, all the books 85 small children’s metal chair, and all the books if they have an ISBN number,” Mr. Peltz observed. “The more details, the more the insurance company can’t refute it, and the more money the school can recover. First and foremost is to get live bodies back into this building”
One of the main sources of recovery has been the many young volunteers from across the country who have given up spring breaks and vacation time to help our city rebuild. For those who feel abandoned by government after Katrina, those volunteers are the new “Greatest Generation.” Two ladies from Duluth, Minnesota - Molly Bowditch and Samantha Essler spent their first visit to New Orleans dressed in protective suits, hauling moldy debris from the Martin Luther King school site.
Bowditch who is a massage therapy student in Duluth stated, “I had a spring break and decided to take some time off and come down here. We’re trying to get this school up and running for August. The company that runs the school says they can’t open it until 2008.”
For the Martin Luther King School and New Orleans, it is a long road back. But it’s a journey that many citizens and volunteers are making together.