Many moons ago, I (Maria) was a relief worker in the 9th ward a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city. I was working at a healthcare management firm at the time and quit my job to travel, and work in the 9th ward after becoming infuriated about the government’s inaction.
I heard about numerous organizations working in the area but was hesitant to commit to any one, as I was unsure of their actual impact. I decided that I would just show up to New Orleans and ask around for suggestions from community members.
Once I got to the airport, I asked some security guards and one talked to a taxi driver, who said he knew just the organization. The name was Common Ground and their slogan was “solidarity, not charity.” He said that it was a community run organization where people “did not bullshit.” I was in.
The organization ran out of an elementary school that was not in session due to the neighborhood being evacuated. There was a church across the street that ran the school and the priest in that church would say: “I don’t see ya’ll.” I imagine he could have gotten into a great deal of trouble for allowing 300 people to set up camp at an elementary school.
It was very well run and organized. We were all broken up into groups of 6-10 relief workers. I was the team leader and was taught how to turn off the gas and electric. Our showers were constructed outside with hoses, 2x4s and tarps. The kitchen was also makeshift and outside because we were not allowed to use the one inside.
Every day, we would wake up at 5:00am (unless you volunteered to make breakfast, in which case, you had to get up at 3:30am), ate breakfast, grabbed tools, a hazmat suit, a mask, and work boots. This was in July, so it got super hot, so we started early to beat the heat. We would head to our assigned house and get to work on gutting it, and taking all the debris out to the curb. We were also involved in other projects, such as advocacy, childcare co-ops, and legal aid. It was one of the best times of my life.
I was hesitant to return, as I was afraid of what I would see, and my concerns were confirmed. Much of the area is still devastated, but the area around that school is looking really good. Most of the houses (I’d say about 95%) in that immediate area have bounced back and have been repaired. It was weird and wonderful seeing it like this, looking completely different than when I was there. It was also nice to know I had a (very small) hand in helping the community.
It was amazing to see that school was in session and little kids coming in and out, not smelly relief workers. I didn’t want to hang around too much, because let’s face it, Houdini is pretty creepy looking, so we didn’t want anyone calling the police on us.