Oregon IMC volunteer surveys New Orleans
After seeing the O2collective presentation of the work they did in New Orleans, RogueIMC vounteer (Ashland) decided to see what he could do to help.
2/23/06: http://jondowd.com/nola/nola_022306.html (Photo Essay of Day One)
(From Monday, Feb. 27, 2006)
I arrive on Thursday, both myself and my 17-year-old truck, in pretty good
shape considering we'd just driven 2,500 miles. There is no visible effect
from Katrina until about 10 miles north of the city where one can see downed
trees and roofs clad with blue tarps. The freeway is elevated throughout
most of the city and I don't really get a sense of the devastation until my
exit on to Franklin Avenue.
Exiting the freeway I am immediately struck by the aftermath of Katrina:
curbside trash covers sidewalks, and piles up against buildings, stop lights
at most intersections don't work. Lines of filth, marking where the
extraordinary height of the floodwaters had been, are visible on every
building, that is, the ones that are still standing. Some intersections have
temporary stop signs at each corner; most do not. One really takes their
life lightly driving on this side of town. Not only are the intersections
uncontrolled, but there seems to be a wild-west mentality when it comes to
driving-the scofflaws rule the day, as many people zoom about at 40~50mph
with little regard for the consequences.
I drop off the computers at the "House of Excellence" - a place where a dozen
computers and a satellite system are set up for folks to have free internet
access-and head for the volunteer sign-in table at the Common Ground
Distribution Center. Orientation isn't until 5:30, so I busy myself taking
pictures (see 'Photo Essay of Day One'). Later that evening I'm assigned my
bunk and directed to show up at the 'morning meeting' the next day. My place
of rest is in an old Catholic School cafeteria. Driving through the pitch
black, litter strewn narrow streets, I see row after row of empty dark
houses, finally ending with a single light bulb (from a generator) which
leads the way to a sea of cots.
Right now there are about 500 volunteers (mostly college students) in
various locations, many of them preparing space for the 2,000 more expected
to arrive during the spring break season. All the houses for miles were
filled 3 to 8 feet of standing water for many weeks. This has created a huge
mold infestation and the only remedy is to 'gut' the house-removing all
belongings, shoveling out buckets of mud, all the carpet, padding and other
flooring, all appliances (all ruined) and then bashing out the drywall until
all that is left is the sub-floor and bare studs. Almost all the volunteers
are asked to do this task. Each day exhausted volunteers return to the
center where their Tyvek suits are tossed in the trash and tools, gloves and
boots are de-contaminated and hung on racks to go back out the next day.
Rather than join a house gutting crew, I land a sweet gig setting up a new
office for the Common Ground co-founder, former Black Panther Malik Rahim.
So back to the first place I go to retrieve my computers and over the river
to Algiers. My work is rewarding and appreciated, and the stories of the
sixties and of what happened here just six months ago are riveting.
Saturday I take a tour of the Lower Ninth ward. Here a massive barge blasted
through a levee holding back a canal that bisects the city connecting Lake
Pontchartrain to the north all the way to the Mississippi River. I expect to
see only traces of the devastation that occurred here six month ago, but
other than streets being cleared of debris, no significant clean up has
occurred. The scene of destruction in the Lower Ninth is apocalyptic,
macabre. Overturned cars litter abandon lots where houses once stood,
crushed houses contain their owner's precious belongings which have been
untouched since the water was finally pumped back over the levee five months
The devastation in the Lower Ninth is complete. It's ground zero of atomic
proportions. But perhaps more disheartening is the political shenanigans at
work keeping these people from their homes. While the former residents here
certainly are poor, 80% own these homes. It will be interesting to visit the
Lower Ninth ward five years from now and see if it's filled with luxury
condos and white faces. To borrow from Buffalo Springfield: Looks like
there's a 'land grab' happening here, and what we should do ain't exactly
Later - Jon
(From Wednesday 3/1/06)
My final day is Tuesday and there are heartfelt goodbyes to new and deep
friends. Not the least of these is an adorable puppy named 'Roscoe'. I have
stayed at Malik Rahim's house for four days, sleeping in the garage on a cot
with three or four other volunteers. The garage is now setup as a new office
complete with the donated computers I brought from Oregon. This garage is
the first distribution center of Common Ground Relief. CGR was started by
link to 188.8.131.52 )
and two white guys who were stranded in New Orleans, Scott Crow and Brandon
http://www.infoshop.org/inews/article.php?story=2006021717595192 ) both of
whom slept on Malik's front porch, armed and prepared to defend Malik from
the gangs of vigilantes who were roaming the city carrying out the
Governor's 'Shoot to Kill' order of suspected looters. Scott and Brandon
were able to prove (at least to themselves) that the dusk to dawn curfew was
actually aimed at African Americans; they were able to travel at will-24
hours a day-to scrounge up whatever supplies they needed. Within two days,
Malik's garage and front yard were packed with water bottles and canned food
for neighbors who were stranded in their homes, unable to pass the
barricades setup by law enforcement and vigilante groups.
As I leave, I reflect upon my newfound knowledge that between 17 and 19
known 'looters' were shot to death and left where they died for days and
days. There is also an unsubstantiated rumor that 400 bodies-suspected
victims of vigilantes or law enforcement-are stored in the morgue for fear
that the murders will become publicly known.
The local TV news ran a story while I was there about a City Council man
trying to pass a measure that residents of the New Orleans housing projects
not be allowed to return to unless they prove they have continuing
employment or willingness to engage in job training. Houston, Texas city
representatives are livid, pointing out that they made no stipulations about
whom they would take in during the evacuation and now that it's time to send
residents back, they want New Orleans to honor its commitment. I videotaped
a 60 minute interview myself and some students from Vermont conducted with
Malik and, hopefully, I can get some help to produce a mini-documentary for
Maybe the political and racial stories I was immersed in were exaggerated or
made up, but the fact remains there is a tremendous amount of work left to
be done in New Orleans. There remains a need for more computers and a need
for more volunteers to gut houses and, who knows, maybe direct some traffic.
Let's all encourage our friends to take the 'vacation of a lifetime' that I
had and keep up the good work.
I want to express my deepest thanks to all who made this trip possible for
me - together we did a great thing and our efforts will be remembered in New
Orleans for a long time to come.
Thank you all, Jon.
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