The thing I remember most is the smell. I had nightmares about it.
I woke up our second night in New Orleans under a pool table, pulling myself out of a nightmare with one component: the horrible smell of a basement apartment that had been submerged, food and cats and all, in the flood and left in the dark for at least 8 weeks. When we opened it up two days prior to begin the cleanup, it set off fight-or-flight responses in us. It was a smell your DNA knew to run away from. It was the smell of death. You had to force yourself to step over the threshold into the pitch-black room.
The next things I remember most clearly are the bugs. It’s true: when the world ends, only the cockroaches survive. The world ended in New Orleans in August, and by the time we made our first trip down to help with the cleanup in November, the roaches had conquered their new kingdom. They scurried everywhere anytime you moved the wreck of a piece of furniture (or the glob that particle-board becomes after staying wet for several weeks). First they were terrifying. Then they were disgusting. Then you learned to live with the occasional flight of a couple of them across your hands, feet, and arms while you carried something out into the light. Then you hardly noticed.
We drove all night from Washington, D.C. with a cleanup team pulled from the membership of the regional Episcopal Church and arrived in New Orleans in the morning. The city was dead. There was no other way to describe it. A major city with almost zero traffic in sight. Silence in the air. Packs of dogs, long given up on finding their owners, roamed some of the neighborhoods. Where people used to stand waiting for buses or trolleys, now crowds of bulging refrigerators stood, duct-tape straining to contain the decaying food matter and maggots, failing to contain the stench. You half expected these techno-organic zombies to chase you down the street.
We expected to run into crowds of volunteers and to hear the hopeful sounds of construction work. We were disappointed. We had no contact with any other team the entire time we were in the city. We heard not one beep or crunch or hiss to betray the presence of an unseen Bobcat or other machine working to move or build.
I remember the rage at the incompetence, and sometimes viciousness, of the federal and local responses. The local Episcopal Relief and Development coordinator told us that so little was being done with the material sent by the dysfunctional Department of Homeland Security and FEMA that ERD staff would just walk into their warehouses and take the blue roof tarpaulin to put it to use, and when FEMA staff protested, they said, “Either use it yourself, or try and stop us from taking it.” They didn’t try and stop them, but I don’t know if they used it themselves.
I remember the Barlows and the Evanses, the two families whose homes we worked on during our first trip. I remember Miss Bertha from across the street of the local Episcopal church, a 90-something-year-old Creole woman, the last of more than a dozen siblings, who would rather I sit and listen to her than work on her property. I remember the vivid stories we were told by survivors who described the wailing in the night as people clung to their roofs and yelled out for help in the dark to a nation that watched the city drown. People needed help with their homes, but periodically during the work you’d have to stop, because finally the person would realize that here was someone who hadn’t also lost everything, someone with whom they could talk that could listen without having to also tell their stories. Everyone in town that survived need you to listen. It slowed the work, but not The Work. They needed more than just volunteer labor and donations. They needed your love.
Our first trip damaged my wife and me in various ways. When we drove back into Arlington, VA, we couldn’t stop looking for the arcane spray-painted Xs on the front of buildings, the ones that denoted who searched it, when, how many pets and people were found dead inside. I remember we cried off and on for weeks. I still cry, sometimes. I’m crying now. I don’t regret going on the first trip, or the subsequent trips. But you don’t come back the same.
Of course, we weren’t alone in New Orleans. The breadth and depth of the need just swallowed and obscured for some time the visibility of the volunteers that trickled in in the first few months. But there was one moment I remember more than any other. I remember standing in the middle of a street under a dark streetlight, watching the silouettes of now-wild dogs further up the street, hearing no sound but that made by fellow volunteers packing up our gear for the night. I remember standing there and feeling terribly inadequate to the task in front of us, and seeing the hundreds of homes up that street that we’d not have time to work on. But I remember a thought came to me, strong and deep and calming, that this is what love is. Love means showing up. Love means showing up even if only to fight the long defeat.
New Orleans, I love you. We all still love you. We want you back.