Like so many historical moments, all of us can think back to five years ago as the images of the devastation that was hurricane Katrina filled our screens. We remember where we were and what we were doing as the excessively high winds roared toward New Orleans. We remember the horror we felt watching the thousands of people who were stuck and stranded in the aftermath as the levees broke and a city was buried under water.
Those of us who watched from afar remember only the images, but the people here in New Orleans have not forgotten the experience of living through hurricane Katrina. And driving through this beautiful city, I have seen that there are still many, many reminders.
New construction sits next to ruins. Water lines bear a stark reminder of the flooding that forced families to leave homes they had lived in for generations. Once densely populated, many of New Orleans’ oldest neighborhoods are sparse.
But what is clearly not missing? The heart and spirit. This is my first trip to New Orleans. I’ve heard so much about the spirit of the residents, but I wasn’t sure if perhaps that might have been exaggerated for the purpose of television and drama.
The people of New Orleans are truly and genuinely sweet natured, kind, grateful and filled with hope. Despite the hardships of the last five years, they have picked themselves up and, through the kindness and generosity of so may others, they are dusting themselves off and rebuilding their city.
I was brought down here by Rebuilding Together and Sears to take part in a commemorative celebration event, remembering Katrina, five years later, and pushing to revitalise one of the harder hit neighborhoods still blighted by the flooding that roared through the city after the hurricane weakened the levees.
The Gentilly neighborhood is fraught with evidence that the work in New Orleans is yet to be completed. Built in the ’60′s and ’70′s, Gentilly holds sentimentality and memory for many of it’s residents. The homes are often multi-generational, passed down for years, and their walls are filled with memories and tradition. Since Katrina, however, many families have been unable to move back. Many of the homes sit abandoned, the ominous black X marking the spot where the flood waters finally peaked. Under the X is the number of bodies that were found in the home. Thankfully, many said 0, but on occasion, the number was higher than 0 and it was a sickening feeling to be standing in a spot where such horror occurred.
Rebuilding Together and Sears have come together to form a mighty partnership to rebuild the city of New Orleans. Through sponsorships, funding drives and donations from loyal customers, they have raised millions of dollars to put toward rebuiliding homes, families and lives. This past week, they organized Fifty for Five, a five day drive to rehabilitate fifty homes and finally bring families back together.
It was a broad effort that required a lot of volunteers, and the end result was not disappointing. “We are so grateful for our volunteers,” said Gary Officer, President and CEO of Rebuilding Together. “Rebuilding Together gives hope and advocates for the right for everyone to return to a healthy, safe and affordable property. We could not do it without the volunteers who are so willing to give their time and efforts to the cause of others.”
While not all of the work they hoped to finish was completed in five days due to weather and a massive logistical scope, much of it was pushed forward, bringing Rebuilding Together one step closer to successfully rehabilitating 800 homes in the five years since the hurricane.
I spoke with several of the families who were receiving Rebuiliding Together’s services this weekend and all of them echoed the same sentiment of gratefulness and pride. I was honored to see my countrymen come together to help their own. Volunteers travelled from every corner of the country (and a few from across the ocean) to help commemorate this five year mark. In the scorching Louisiana sun, they built fences, painted houses, laid hung dry wall, built decks and all together worked in unison to make the homes livable, affordable and safe for those who are still displaced.
And the effort wasn’t lost on families like that of Ms. Lula and Lois Ruffin who have been waiting for five years to return to their family home. They are currently living in an apartment and, within just a few short weeks, will return home for the first time since August 29, 2005. Lois Ruffin bought that house in 1998. She wanted to show her kids that life could be different outside of the “ghetto” as she put it. And she wanted to give her aging mother, Lula, her very first opportunity to live in a home. When the floods roared through their home, Lois thought they had lost it forever. But Rebuilding Together has stepped up to make sure that the Ruffin family comes back home.
It was truly inspiring to be in the company of so many hard working, giving and fine people that were represented by the selfless volunteers. And it was even more inspiring to talk with those affected. I look forward to sharing their personal stories with you in the coming week and hope that you will be encouraged not to give up on this great city. Don’t forget the need and always remember that the giving of your own time and resources to those who are in need is an act that will never return to you void.
Five years later, we have not forgotten New Orleans. It’s growing back stronger, and prouder thanks to their indelible spirit and the spirit of those who have left their imprint behind.
Thanks to Sears and Rebuilding Together for sponsoring this trip.