Volunteering in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina changed my life. I did not live through the storm, but I worked in the aftermath.
In 2005, I lived far from the impacted area. I still do. Yet when I heard about an opportunity to travel to New Orleans in August 2006, one year after the storm, I jumped at the chance. Friends helped me to get in contact with a mold remediation crew that was working in Louisiana on private homes and places of worship.
I landed on an abatement crew. I was the person who removed household goods, people’s memories and tossed them to the curb. I tore down walls, ripped up floors and left a shell the homes’ residents wouldn’t recognize. The piles of rotted, moldy furnishings and piled up outside of houses. As I carted heavy wheelbarrows full of damaged sheetrock and rolls of carpet, I watched scroungers pick through the piles. They looked for copper wire and anything else that could be sold.
In one home. we discovered hidden stashes of condoms in a teenage girl’s room. She had obviously put forth effort to keep this part of her life from her parents. Their secrets became our secrets, too. Then, to let us tramp through what little space and belongings they had left — well, it is a moving thing to experience.
The work was shockingly difficult. I suited up head to toe in protective gear because I worked in flooded homes not touched in a year. Gloves and boots were duct-taped to full-body suits to prevent mold and debris from getting into my clothes. Goggles and breathing masks were sticky and hot in the summer conditions. I am from the high desert in Oregon. The sun sizzled and when combined with the humidity, I could only work about 20 minutes at a time before I needed a break. I alternated bottles of water with Gatorade. Even eating five or six times a day, I lost weight.
When my crew left the homes, they were bare. We removed all of the walls, flooring, ceilings, nails and screws. We swept and vacuumed multiple times to pick up as much dust and mold as possible. Only the studs remained. I left the houses ready for corn-blasting and chemical wipe-down so the homes could be re-built.
During two trips to Louisiana, I worked two months in some of the poorest neighborhoods in squalid conditions. One of the most graphic symbols of the destruction were the “x’s” spray-painted on the homes. Someone taught me to read the meaning behind them: some of the numbers indicated how many bodies were found in that building during search-and-rescue efforts. I recall one home that said, “Please save my cats.”
Laboring in the lower Ninth Ward, I saw where the levee broke and flattened street signs. The rushing water demolished houses, leaving only empty cement foundations and, in one case, a single iron gate to swing in the wind, opening into nothing.
But as I threw out big-screen televisions, expensive electronics, and heirlooms I learned that material things do not truly matter. Saving your family does. Driving through New Orleans even one year after Hurricane Katrina, I saw battered houses and apartment buildings with the word “Help” painted in giant letters across the roof. It makes no sense to try to survive a storm on your roof simply because you refused to heed the warnings given to you. It is even sadder if you stayed to salvage a few objects that can easily be destroyed and easily replaced.
It’s now four years after my volunteering stint and five years after the hurricane. The people of New Orleans taught me to be family-oriented, not focused on objects. It is the only way to weather any storm and come out happy. Working in New Orleans and seeing what can so easily become of material possessions, I learned I did not want that to be my life. On occasion, survivors of the hurricane spoke to my group. A few discussed what they most regretted; they hesitated to leave when the warning came, and they ran into trouble trying to get away from the storm. Their belongings became heavy weights holding them back and dragging them into the disaster.
I met only a few of the people whose homes I worked on. Some of them had not returned to New Orleans. Many lived cramped up in donated FEMA trailers on their front lawns. Those that did often opened up the tiny trailers to allow us to use the restroom as we worked. To this day I admire their generosity and humility. Their pre-hurricane lives were laid completely bare to us as we strove to eradicate the mold.
When I arrived in Louisiana, I was in my last year of college, a time when I had to decide where my life is going. Many are pushed into finding high-paid careers at the expense of time for family. Working in New Orleans showed me that it is not worth risking your life for what can simply become junk piled up on a curb. Even if a disaster doesn’t strike, why sacrifice your day-to-day life to buy expensive things? I do my utmost to focus on finding real happiness instead of being tied up by work and possessions. Family, friends, and authentic experiences are possessions that a person should make every effort to hold onto.