In August of 2005, a disaster struck the United States, the likes of which had never been seen before. One of our greatest cities, full of culture and life, was practically destroyed by flooding. This disaster was the direct result of a combination of freak weather events, poor planning, back-room compromise, and failed construction. I happen to believe that there was a conspiracy around this tragedy, but this is not the post for those beliefs.
When the levees broke in New Orleans, America was forever changed. I will never forget the images of people wading through the toxic stew that was once their streets; the children on rooftops waving their arms towards the rescue helicopters; the bodies lying bloated on the streets; the Superdome, flooded and overrun with refugees; and the elderly, struggling to stay alive in the scorching southern heat.
This disaster hit me particularly hard. I was in New Orleans in 2004, and then had been there just two months prior to the disaster, in June 2005. During that time, I fell in love with the city, particularly the diversity, mystery and excitement of the French Quarter.
I also saw the poverty, lying just outside of town. I remember feeling very apprehensive as I explored the city by myself, particularly when I would happen to venture out of the main tourist-friendly areas. There was a very powerful sense of tension, an anger and frustration that was seething and churning just below the surface.
Gutting Strangers Homes
After the flood, I ventured back to New Orleans, along with about fifteen other people from a local church, including my wife. We spent a week working in St. Bernard’s Parish, one of the hardest hit areas. We were tasked with “gutting” houses – going in to homes that had been untouched in the year since the flood.
We gutted two homes during this week, no small feat for a group of teenagers and middle-aged adults. This meant dragging everything out of the house and throwing it into a pile at the curb. Beds, fridges, pillows, drywall, artwork – it all went. The only thing we were supposed to leave was the bare wooden studs, working windows and exterior doors, the roof, the floor, and possibly the bathtubs.
It is an odd feeling knowing that by ripping apart someone’s house, you’re actually helping them. Yet it is extremely sad and tragic, because you’re literally throwing away everything they’ve ever known.You save whatever can be saved, but because of the devastation, that’s not a whole lot.
What Is It Like Walking Into A Home After The Flood?
Imagine walking into your house a year after it had been flooded.
Imagine that house sitting and baking in 80, 90, even 100 degree weather for a year.
Think about the rats and the snakes and the roaches building nests in the tattered and soaked remains of your couch, now lying upside down on top of your entertainment center.
Take a deep breath and smell the rotten meat still decomposing in your fridge which has fallen on its side and burst open.
Smell the mildew and the mold and the river mud that now covers your ceramic tile.
Feel the water – still there from the flood – as it seeps into your work boots.
Cautiously walk down your dark and dingy hallway hoping you don’t run into an alligator or raccoon or some other beast who has made their home there.
Step outside and listen. You hear nothing except the wind in the high grass that has been growing relentlessly over your first floor windows.
You might here the beeping of a tractor or dump truck backing up in the distance, but that’s about it. You hear nothing because the whole neighborhood – everyone and everything you ever knew, is gone.
Everywhere you look, all you see are shells of a life that you once knew but is now gone, probably forever.
This is how we spent our week.