Katrina’s wrath endures

Over our winter break, I had the opportunity to help with the rebuilding process in New Orleans, an area still devastated after Hurricane Katrina. The experiences I had were moving and it was encouraging to witness the progress being made, but much more is required if the city is to be rebuilt. More than one million people across the Gulf region were displaced by Katrina, and unless we take action on behalf of our fellow citizens, their already unsettled lives will continue to deteriorate.

I traveled to New Orleans with Eau Claire’s Peace Lutheran Church and worked with Common Ground Relief, an organization dedicated to rebuilding and strengthening the areas worst affected by the hurricane. Started by three community activists in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, Common Ground Relief now includes 350 volunteers and has provided assistance to more than 50,000 residents thus far. From house gutting to food distribution to free medical aid, Common Ground is bringing hope and strength to the returning residents of New Orleans.

As mechanics fix bikes for all to use and cooks work long hours to make sure everyone is well fed, one can sense the strength of community and cooperation at work. My initial tour of the city was a saddening experience as I witnessed firsthand the remains of thousands of people’s destroyed homes. Piles of rubble, TVs, mattresses, downed power lines and garbage lined the streets. I saw houses flattened to cinder blocks by the force of the levy break, cars lodged into people’s homes and stray dogs wandering the streets. Where one of the levees had broken and dumped water into the Ninth Ward, a 150-ton barge had launched into the neighborhood and crushed the front end of a school bus.

It was an unbelievable sight, far worse then anything represented in pictures or TV coverage.

At first I was involved with Common Ground’s radio station, broadcasting hip-hop and local news (without a license) to community residents across the east-side of New Orleans. As a local radio talk show host here in Eau Claire, I felt my talents were well suited to help with community outreach by informing residents about the work of Common Ground and the news of the rebuilding effort.

Toward the end of my trip I joined the tree-clearing team, cutting and hauling trees from people’s homes so they could begin renovation. It was by far the most rewarding experience of my trip because I could physically see the progress we were making and had a chance to meet the residents we were helping.

One resident – Lewis – will forever be etched in my mind. Two pecan trees had fallen on his house, and we were called to clear them away so that he and his brother could receive a temporary trailer from FEMA.

Lewis was developmentally disabled, and following the hurricane he and his brother Rodney were trapped in their attic for 10 days.

Lewis was thrilled to see us, and between his chain smoking and coughing, he wanted to know if there was anything he could get for us. Most of all, he seemed to appreciate just having someone to relate his story to, someone who would listen and care about his situation.

Friends, unfortunately there are many others like Lewis, people whose already battered lives were completely devastated by Katrina. Sadly our dysfunctional leadership in Washington has dropped the ball and forgotten the people hardest hit by Katrina – the kids who are missing school, the elderly who can’t find medicine and the families still living in tents and barns. It is at times like these that we as Americans should define ourselves and step up to the challenge of creating community and looking out for our fellow citizens.