Hard Work In the Big Easy
Sunday, July 9, 2006
The preparation advice seemed extreme, even for Third World travel.
Hepatitis A and B boosters. Tetanus shot. Face mask for airborne toxins. There'd be no groceries or drinkable tap water within five miles. All nearby homes would be unlivable by Western standards. All this for a trip to New Orleans?
Yes, the Big Easy has become a lot harder to visit, especially if, like a growing number of travelers, you're looking to volunteer in a city severely damaged and surprisingly unhealed since Hurricane Katrina's devastation last August. It's a city that even has its own version of refugee camps. Within hours of touching down, I found myself ladling out scrambled eggs to a long line of residents at a makeshift "cafe" under a tent set up by aging hippies to feed homeless locals.
Like many others, I had come to help, frustrated by the familiar litany of official inaction: FEMA foot-dragging, local government gridlock, even Red Cross scandals. But what don't make the headlines are the small yet significant actions of a clutch of volunteer organizations, and I was out to find a few to which I could contribute.
Even a cursory tour around New Orleans confirms the worst you've heard. The Lower Ninth Ward -- ground zero for the worst levee break -- is a virtually untouched, surreal landscape: splintered houses lying on cars, cars in trees, trees on houses, moldy rubble everywhere. In spring, seven months after the event, the entire area was silent -- no rumble of bulldozers, no excavators, no dump trucks.
In that bleak landscape, dozens of volunteer organizations have come to help -- getting people food, water or supplies or helping them reinhabit their homes and neighborhoods. They offer hope to locals and a blend of hard work, challenge and even adventure to volunteer vacationers.
During a 10-day trip here, I worked with two grass-roots nonprofit groups. The first, New York-based Emergency Communities, fed residents in the disaster zone of Arabi, a few miles east of the French Quarter (that site has since closed, although the group has operations in other areas in the same parish). The second, Common Ground Collective of New Orleans, helps homeowners in the impoverished Ninth Ward get back into their flood-destroyed homes and provides a variety of other services. Both are run on a shoestring and are fueled by a diverse and seemingly endless supply of volunteers.
"We started because there were no resources down here at all," said Sakura Kon?, a spokesman for Common Ground. "Now there are few resources for those most in need. That's where we can help."
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Emergency Communities was founded as a direct result of Katrina by a group of self-described hippies who were adept at setting up large-scale outdoor kitchens at concerts, conventions and forest gatherings. They reasoned that they could apply that skill to disaster zones.
Says EC Executive Director Mark Weiner, "Alongside the physical destruction of a hurricane comes a loss of community. We try to re-create that sense of community and add a human touch to all our services -- whether it's providing a hot meal, a hot shower or a space where people can just hang out and chat."
After Katrina, EC was one of the first organizations to arrive on the Gulf Coast and start feeding people. The group receives food donations from charitable organizations and local producers, and now receives some funding from the United Way.