Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Crescent City Connection

June 18, 2007

The people and city of New Orleans have redefined for me what it means to be a true southerner. The grace and charm of the city and its people surpass anything I have ever encountered in any city or anywhere in the world for that matter. Coming from Texas I thought that it would be a pretty tall order to find a place with more friendliness on the streets or strangers more willing to help a NOLA-newbie out. Every facet of life in this city seems to occur at a slower pace and people seem to linger a little longer on mundane tasks. I’ve only been here a week and it has already affected the pacing of my life!

One person who seems to embody everything I love about this city comes from a most unlikely source: my boss. Rick is the kind of family man you wish you could have as your neighbor. He went to lengths to ensure that I knew my way around the area where I work and also took me on a tour of various hot spots where Katrina had done her worst[1]. After less than two days of working for him I had met both his daughters, been taken out for a roast beef po’ boy, toured his house to see his restoration work (his house was destroyed by Katrina), and he even trusted me enough to drive his truck back from the shop. At similar work experiences in other parts of the United States it would take weeks or months to build the kind of trust it takes to invite others into your home and family. But what makes this region so great is that it seems this attitude of openness is shared by all New Orleans citizens, not just those I work with.

On a recent, humid Louisiana summer night a group of DENOLA (Duke Engage New Orleans, LA) kids were out at a local bar, the Snake n’ Jake. You can easily place yourself in this modest watering hole by imagining hanging out in your best friend’s garage while passing around a handle of his dad’s whiskey and the only light is coming from a string of Christmas lights dangling behind your head. On this particular evening we had the privilege of meeting a Katrina survivor, Victoria, and her husband. When she found out what we were doing this summer she became immediately attached to us and very emotional. She couldn’t give us enough thanks for what we were doing and wouldn’t leave us alone until she had individual conversations with each of us. While we settled back with a few brews we listened to stories about how groups such as ours have had an impact in New Orleans and on individual lives such as Victoria’s. We were even invited to her husband’s restaurant which we haven’t partaken of… yet.

So far my New Orleans experience has been defined by my interactions with her citizens. With people such as Rick responsible for rebuilding the city and Victoria living in it, it’s hard to imagine the city not coming back stronger and better than before.

-Clark Daniel

[1] One of my favorite things he showed me was a house that Katrina had moved completely- slab and all. Apparently the slab and house floated for blocks down the street taking out light poles and stop signs but miraculously not striking any other houses.

Monday, June 18, 2007

“We just want to be whole again.”

It wasn’t till I overheard the tail-end of a conversation on the plane that my trip down to the bayou, and all its complexity that I would soon face, started to set in as a reality. “Yeah, Nawlins will never be the same again.” As a woman in her sixties recounted her Katrina experiences to the passenger next to her, I listened mildly disturbed; what was most unsettling was my disbelief that the city continues to remain in utter shambles even two years later. In retrospect, I don’t know why I so naively assumed things would be chugging along the way they were pre-Katrina. New Orleans and its submerged city walls went off my immediate radar as soon as the media coverage waned, and I resumed my daily business as the remnants of Katrina’s wrath seemed to float away into the distance. I suppose it goes without saying that I am now slowly coming to feel the relentless grip Katrina continues to hold over the hearts and minds of New Orleanians.

I work in an architecture/planning firm called Concordia. The company oversees many different projects revolving around the development of the city, and works with several other organizations in the rebuilding efforts. What makes Concordia unique from most urban planning companies, however, is its firm dedication to working with the community. Citizens’ input is a central component of Concordia’s mission, and this is evident in the multiple community meetings the company orchestrates and extracts data from. The amount of responsibility Concordia takes on is almost overwhelming for a company of its size. There are approximately 10~15 workers, but there are at least 30 projects that are currently on the dock. So far, Cart (my partner in crime) and I have been focused on getting a better understanding of the economic and political landscape following Katrina. The scope is far broader than I had imagined, with multiple players, wishes, needs, agendas, motives—all mangled together in a complex web of uncertainty and frustration. At times reverting the ruins to what they were and what they used to embody seems impossible, but at the heart of it all, the simple desire “to be whole again” (as expressed by a community representative at a city council meeting Cart and I attended a few days ago) is what drives the community despite the adversity and hopelessness.

I don’t know if I will ever fully understand the impact Katrina has had on this city, being the oblivious outsider that I am. But for the two months that I am down here, I hope to leave with a better understanding of the struggles and determination the people have thus far shown, and contribute to the reconstruction of the wholeness they so long for.

-Theresa Cho

Thank you, Ms. D

The eight-hour drive to N.O.L.A. was a learning experience in itself. I discovered that my “new” car (its actually 12 years old) has some quirks to it. For instance, the air conditioning sometimes chooses to stop. It must get tired or overheated, but in any event, it sometimes just stops working. This started happening around hour 3 of the drive. By hour 4 I had discovered that by banging my fist above the stereo, I could get the A.C. working again. This remedy proved to be quite embarrassing when 4 fellow Duke Engagers piled into my car to go to Tujaques restaurant for our first introduction to each other and to the Program Directors, Joy Mischley and Dr. Dave Schaad. It was swelteringly hot and everyone was dripping sweat and I just kept banging and banging in front of these new people and they were very nice about it, but I could tell they were a little freaked out. Thanks for hanging in there, guys. I have since discovered that I can achieve the same result if I just turn it on and off, with a switch and not a fist.
The drive itself was extremely interesting. Watching the Texas landscape curve and bend from loud pines into lazy Louisiana marshes, dotted with quiet wildlife, echoed in me a strange sense of natural progression – from school to summer, from Durham to Dallas, and from all this push and rush, to this landscape of loud ease. I have been to New Orleans before and when I was there I tried to soak in the cultural climate seeping from every bar, from every twangy voice, from every fleur de lis, but I knew I hadn’t; I knew that whatever I thought I had taken with me after that two day visit was about to taken back, adjusted, and given back to me twenty fold. I had no idea what to expect. I had a read about the problems in N.O.L.A. – the racial tensions stiff since 1927 when a levee was purposefully broken above the predominantly black neighborhood to save the richer parts of the city – that were now even more unresolved after Katrina. I had read about Nagin and Blanco’s lack of leadership and resolve in the days and hours before the storm made landfall, about how hundreds of lives could have been saved if evacuation had been ordered sooner. I drove into New Orleans staring out my window trying to see the source of all of this weight and fear. I tried to peer into the windows of houses that I passed, but most were boarded up, marked with X’s, and waiting to be demolished because front lawns were too high, or residents weren’t returning.
I didn’t see what I had read about – I didn’t see how New Orleans was struggling because I was looking for something specific, for a sign, or landmark. What I wasn’t realizing was that I was surrounded by it. I was driving down an interstate banging my air-conditioning, listening to Fergie, not noticing the two walls that guarded the road on either side that were marked by an 8 foot high water line, a scar of Katrina. I was oblivious. I hadn’t yet heard a woman’s voice quiver from pain as she showed us pictures of her kids next to her flooded house. I hadn’t yet driven down Claiborne Avenue for eight straight blocks without seeing one house lived in. I hadn’t yet been to the Lower Ninth Ward and I hadn’t yet realized that it didn’t used to be a massive field full of tall grass, but was once one of the most densely populated areas in the whole City.
A waitress started talking to Joe and I last week because she heard us asking each other “Where is the money going? How is all of this going to happen?”
- “We don’t know. I lost everything, and we still struggling to get our lives back…” she said, pausing for a second to lean on her broom. Her brown eyes leveled on us like she was our mother.
- “But we just happy to have y’all here to try to help us, to try to answer some of these questions.” I nodded, overwhelmed by her resilience, put my eyes down, as she refilled my ice tea.
- “Hey, ya hear now. If you ever over by 9th ward, stop over see Ms. D. I be happy to have you.”
- "Thank you" we said, quietly.

Thank you, Ms. D, for your unbelievable strength.
Thank you, Ms. D, for making this city alive with so much heart and passion and resolve.
Thank you.

my two cents

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the Hurricane Katrina “experience” being that it was so much more than a natural disaster. Beyond the widespread physical destruction that the storm caused lies a community still, almost two years later, emotionally grappled by the effects of the storm. In a very tangible way, the residents of New Orleans and its surrounding parishes effuse pain, indignation, and helplessness, the last being the most evident. Every resident with whom I have spoken has eagerly shared his or her personal story, one being more tragic than the other, and I finally feel that I am getting a real sense of the magnitude of this disaster. It is very easy to be apathetic toward a situation in which one has nothing invested, but even having only been in New Orleans for one week, I have an entirely different perception of what actually occurred in the city. I could never understand what it meant for a city to be destroyed without having come here and seen the damage myself. Media coverage only tells a small chapter of a very tragic event, whose repercussions will not stop haunting this community.

I get the impression that most residents of New Orleans feel that they have been abandoned, not only by their state government, but by the national government as well. They are given hope for relief, but time after time are let down. The only way I can characterize the current mood of New Orleans is that of anticipation, manifested in speaking with the residents, by reading about legislation in the city, and by having a general feel for the city’s prevailing climate. I arrived in New Orleans with many questions, mainly pertaining to what degree of damage the city suffered, what portion of the city had successfully rebounded, and how extensively the government had provided assistance to the New Orleans population. However, what I have come to discover in my very short time here is that in answering these questions, I have only found there to be even more pressing and uncomforting ones for which I have yet to find answers. Much like the residents of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, I am appalled by the government’s sluggish legislation, the inequitable distributions of aid, and just the general unresponsiveness to the very real needs of its citizens. In the government’s defense, however, nothing could have prepared it for such a widespread crisis, so the fact that there is dissatisfaction in the community does not surprise me. This is just as much a learning experience for the government as it is for its people. I hope by the end of this internship to have a more thorough understanding of the government/citizen relationship, as well as to have contributed on a very personal level to the needs of New Orleans.

-Joseph Lanser

Forget the fairy tale for now. by Cart Weiland

There is no good reason why we should fear the future, but there is every reason why we should face it seriously, neither hiding from ourselves the gravity of the problems before us nor fearing to approach these problems with the unbending, unflinching purpose to solve them aright
-- Teddy Roosevelt

A week ago, I would have told you that New Orleans is rapidly approaching a complete and total recovery from the Katrina disaster that devastated the city almost two years ago. Well, forget the fairy tale, folks. A week ago, I would have been dead wrong.

I suppose that I was somewhat naïve before I arrived. I, like most of America, had followed the headlines in the weeks immediately following the catastrophe, hardly believing the extent of the destruction I witnessed in images on the television screen. My response to Katrina two years ago was utterly generic. I felt terrible for the residents of New Orleans, conversed tritely with others about the disaster, gave a little money to charity, and then soon went about my business. I did not have any personal connection with the place—no family or close friends that were hit—and so other things quickly occupied my time. Subconsciously, I just assumed that progress in New Orleans was being made. I assumed people had moved back, rebuilt, and returned to life as normal.

My assumptions belie the actual situation I have witnessed firsthand in my first few days in the Big Easy, and I am already profoundly struck by immensity of the challenges that lie ahead for the people here. New Orleans, quite literally, is in ruins. Once a city of almost 600,000 people, recent estimates now hover around 200,000. While there are certainly parts of the city that have recovered physically and economically, there are still other, larger areas where rebuilding has yet to begin. Block upon block of blighted houses and boarded-up windows lie untouched in neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview, and even in downtown’s central business district, some restaurants and stores have yet to reopen.

The magic wand that I thought had already been waved over New Orleans simply does not exist. Rebuilding, I have learned this first week, is a long, complicated process that requires the participation and hard work of thousands of people. There are countless non-profit organizations, federal, state, and local government officials, contractors, planners, and architects involved in the process, all of them with different opinions and agendas that must be considered. For me, an inexperienced 21 year old used to the easy, humdrum lifestyle of my college town, this giant rebuilding bureaucracy is confusing and unsettling. At times, coordinating all these individuals seems like a virtually impossible task, but then I pause to remember what exactly is at stake: the preservation of an entire American city.

To throw in the towel and forget about New Orleans would amount to a societal cowardice. We would be turning our back on centuries of history, saying “Sorry, New Orleans, your rich traditions have no cultural value and are not worth saving.” We’d be telling the people here that we are too busy, too tired, or too scared to continue with the monumental rebuilding.

I guess what I’m ultimately saying is this: Perhaps the nebulous web of actors engaged in the Katrina recovery should inspire rather than intimidate. The fact that so many people are involved in the rebuilding efforts speaks to how deeply citizens here care for their city, how willing and able they are to participate in its recovery, and how much they believe in their own future.

-- Cart Weiland

The Big Easy - Tucker Page

New Orleans is the friendliest city that I have ever visited. Sure, people back home in Portland are friendly, but only if you act friendly around them; Europeans always surprised me with their friendliness toward total strangers when I was in London for study abroad, but New Orleanians take friendliness to an entirely new level. It seems like people here go out of their way to be nice. People actually say hi to each other in New Orleans, or at least acknowledge each other’s existence; the "I'll just walk past you like I don't know you're there" mentality that one sees so frequently at Duke or in big cities like Boston is conspicuously absent here.

I am not entirely sure why all of this friendliness has shocked me so much. I guess I would have thought that people who had so recently gone through such a life-changing event as Hurricane Katrina would have been in worse spirits. What I have seen here, though, has been far more complex. New Orleanians certainly still face innumerable hardships. I have met numerous people whose homes were destroyed; some have rebuilt, but some are still living in FEMA trailers or are still in the process of gutting their houses. One doctor that I work with at the Health Department told me that his wife and children are now living in Baton Rouge while he works in New Orleans; although he visits them on weekends, he told me that after thirty years of marriage, he had never been away from his wife for as long as he had been over the past two years. Nevertheless, people seem to reserve their anger for organizations like FEMA or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and not for other people.

I had never felt uncomfortable being thanked until I came to New Orleans. Everybody thanks us for coming here to volunteer, from my supervisor at the Health Department to my co-workers to completely random people whom I have met around the city. This wouldn’t make me feel so strange if I actually felt like I had already done something meaningful here; we have only been in New Orleans for a week. Even looking toward the future, I don’t feel like I could ever possibly make a dent in the enormous amount of work that everyone at the Health Department has on their plates. I am beginning to think, though, that people just appreciate the idea of us being here more than anything else. No doubt New Orleanians would like us volunteers to actually do something constructive, but the mere fact that we are here in New Orleans seems to be important to them. Just by being here, of course, we are supporting the local economy. On a deeper level, though, I think New Orleanians are happy to see that two years later, people still care about them. Especially as the government continues to renege on many of its promises to those affected by Katrina, it seems as though people here draw emotional support from the fact that the American public has not forgotten about New Orleans.

-Tucker Page

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Soul of New Orleans

I believe I can
I believe I will
I believe I know my dreams are real
I believe I stand
I believe I'll dance
I believe I'll grow real soon and
That is what I do believe
-Yolanda Adams, “I Believe”

New Orleans has always laid claim to a larger-than-life reputation; for years, it was renowned for its playful defiance of corporate America’s work-driven energy, as best exemplified by the world famous Mardi Gras, an “adult’s playground”. In the past two years, however, the name “New Orleans” most often invokes images of a city in possession of a different, overwhelming presence: desperate residents perched on their rooftops, awaiting rescue; thousands of helpless people crowding the now infamous Superdome in hopes of food or water; spray-painted X’s on home after home, declaring entire neighborhoods uninhabitable. As I prepared for my arrival in Nola, as the locals reference their home, my expectations embodied an odd mixture of the two, of a battered city with a lively party scene. While both components of this prediction are readily apparent to the visitor, what is most striking, and most deserving of a reputation, is the subtle phenomenon of the New Orleans resident.
In an effort to witness this phenomenon firsthand, we elected to visit the annual SoulFest in Audobon Zoo, advertised as a celebration of New Orleans’ rich African-American heritage, and of the cultural tradition that is Soul: food, music, and attitude. While enjoying the music of Yolanda Adams, a modern-gospel musician, a sudden downpour sent many running for the tents. Dripping wet, I looked around the tent to realize I was facing a huge, freshly-painted mural. Noticing my stare, someone handed me a brush and urged me to add whatever I wanted: this was a compilation of New Orleans natives’ ideas and thoughts. And so, with Yolanda Adams singing in the background, I began to take a look into the true spirit of New Orleans, as embodied in their collective artwork. The piece featured what seemed like a million fleur-de-lis, the official symbol of New Orleans, in every color, shape, and size. As I picked up my brush, I was conscious of the company of the other contributors: a combination of old and young, New Orleans natives and recently arrived volunteers, of every race and ethnicity. Mid-stroke, the powerful voice of Yolanda Adams drifted into the tent, at the same time as crowds drifted out of the tents, braving the somewhat diminished rain. Despite the disastrous impact rain has had on their community in the past, the festival revelers sent up thanks for the storm, as it provided respite from the heat. In a celebration of their culture and city, the crowds converged on the dance floor to the sounds of “I Believe”; audibly, the city was reaffirming that which makes it so very special: I believe I can. I believe I will. I believe I know my dreams are real.
My somewhat surreal experience at SoulFest embodied that which I had struggled to define throughout my first week in New Orleans. The city, while undoubtedly deserving of its fame for both disaster and delight, is most remarkable for the outstanding spirit of its residents. Never before have I witnessed so much determination and energy converged in one place; the people are filled with a burning pride in their home, and a strength of faith that permits them to continue to believe in the renaissance of New Orleans. In the face of seemingly unconquerable adversity, the residents have found a way to hold onto their rich past, while moving purposefully toward the future. The soul of the city embodies the clichéd “force to be reckoned with”, a force remarkably capable of defeating the forces of the natural world and the trials of the modern world, a force that I find myself believing in more and more with each experience in captivating Nola.

Jenny Heffernan

Acclimation - Nader Mohyuddin

VS Naipaul writes in his 1987 novel, The Enigma of Arrival:

To see the possibility, the certainty, of ruin, even at the moment of creation: it was my temperament. Those nerves had been given me as a child in Trinidad partly by our family circumstances: the half-ruined or broken-down houses we lived in, our many moves, our general uncertainty.

Little is certain. After another harrowing finals week in Durham, I had before me several weeks of uncertainty. While I knew mine paled next to those of whom I’d be helping in New Orleans, it bothered me still. I knew summer would be fun—I knew that. But without an idea of where I’d be working, or of details of the meet-up in New Orleans, or of the personalities of those I’d be living with for two months, a lot seemed up in the air. I relaxed when I could, during my month of vegetation at home. Lots of food, video games, basketball, and fun summer outings. Couldn’t complain.

But the details worked themselves out. I’d eventually decided, on a last-second whim, to work with Providence Community Housing, a non-profit housing development group, working in property acquisitions. With my career interest in business, it seemed a good fit; with the tremendous benefits the work could result in (that is, a key step in building homes is to secure the property), it seemed a great fit.

And so June rolls around, my sister graduates high school, I say goodbye to a few friends, and I pack my belongings and head down to the bayou.

A week goes by.

And really, in a whirlwind. Providence ended up a spectacular fit, with consummate professionals in all areas of work, a short commute, and a comfortable working environment. A good friend of mine, Reid Cater, works with me at the office, though is often with another division. Mike Koler works there part-time as well, and may be involved in similar tasks as mine. With my own business card, a cubicle, and three bosses, I feel well acclimated already. I was never a coffee drinker: two days into work, and I can’t go without two cups a day. So it goes.

A brief description of what I do: I accumulate, manage, and analyze databases of potential target properties compiled from multiple sources (City of New Orleans, Housing Agencies, etc.) and examine their desirability for redevelopment. Another project on the horizon will entail assisting the development of a community-wide survey of every house in our target area (just north of Vieux Carre), to get a solid idea on who lives in each house, and what shape (physically and legally) the property is in. Meeting with residents and community “stakeholders” (those with vital interests in the community) for input in the redevelopment process is a key part of Providence’s vision. It is their community: Providence wants to develop it the way they want it. Paramount in this end is the philosophy of one-to-one housing: that is, building exactly as many units as is demolished, to make sure everyone who was displaced has a place to return.

So, I won’t have a lack of things to do. Sure, it’s a very “office” kind of job. (They are getting a new watercooler this week, in fact. Here comes the gossip.) But the cause is a great one, and they are taking the lead on all sorts of work, from community outreach, maintaining contact with refugees spread across 37 states, to lobbying Congress to ensure money allocation is done in the best interest of those most affected. Altogether, I don’t think I could’ve hoped for a better company, a better job for my interests and skills, and a better way to work this summer.

But summer isn’t all about work. Certainly not in New Orleans…to do so would be to belie the history and traditions we are working to restore. Fun is in no short quantity here. St. Charles Avenue is an architectural landmark, along with the rest of the Garden District. Just gorgeous. The food (non-dining hall, that is) has been good, but there’s certainly more to come. Delmonico anyone? The French Quarter, is, well, an icon. From the packed streets, to the legendary balconies, the fun is raging 24 hours a night. Old Bruno's on Maple is great, and Magazine Street has been a quieter, and personally more enjoyable destination, but fun spots seem to be all over the city.

There’s still a lot to do, no doubt. A bus tour of the Katrina destruction was certainly sobering. Virtual ghost towns that were bustling just two years ago. The water lines in particular are rather poignant. But, as the tour guide noted in her very slight Louisiana accent, there’s a lot already underway. For all the (deserved) anger at FEMA, The Road Home, and other inefficient bodies, the one force that even Katrina can not quell is that of human compassion. With thousands of volunteers in the area, work is getting done. Gutting houses, putting up drywall, painting houses in classically bright New Orleans color schemes—homes and businesses are slowly coming back to life. And with those come communities, and with communities comes a city. Long considered “the biggest little city in America,” New Orleans has had a variety of small, vibrant neighborhoods that had their own personal flavors. Working to restore these communities, which Providence is doing, is a key part of restoring New Orleans to what it was. And to help that cause is rewarding in any number of ways.

Arrival may be enigmatic, but life moves a little slower by the mighty Mississippi. With steamboats still chugging, with rum flowing like wine, and with muggy summer nights punctuated with the sweet swing of street jazz, it’s better just to take it easy.

The Water is Falling -Reid Cater

How can you not feel good when the water is falling?

There are a lot of reasons not to feel good in New Orleans, especially if you have lost your home and don't have the money or experience to even begin to rebuild. Yet, there I was at a meeting for homeowners who had lost everything and I was being asked how someone could not feel good. Looking outside the window of the trailer at a former church and school, now a warehouse and headquarters for Catholic Charities' Operation Helping Hands. I began to understand what that could mean. Progress may be painfully slow, but New Orleans is healing. People are slowly finding the money and help to turn their gutted houses back into homes. Working with Operation Helping Hands through DukeEngage this summer I hope that I will be able to watch the water continue to fall and maybe pump a little out myself.

Operation Helping Hands is a division of Catholic Charities that works with homeowners of all faiths to repair and rebuild their homes. We have programs that bring in volunteers from across the country to gut houses and do exterior work, i.e. painting, as well as a rebuilding program that guides homeowners through the process of completely renovating their gutted homes. (Since I am working with them as an intern this summer I guess that I can say "we" though I don't feel like I have earned that yet.)

An hour or so into my first day I found myself dialing the number of a Katrina survivor who had called our helpline, wondering what I would say. I had been given the job of calling people back and figuring out if they fit into one of our programs. After several calls and plenty of questions for my boss I began to get the hang of the calls. Some of the the people who called in needed help gutting their homes. Gutting is the process of tearing out all the drywall and destroyed personal items in a house and it is the first step towards rebuilding. However most of the callers had gutted their homes and were ready for the next and much more difficult step of putting the "guts" back into their houses so that they could finally move home.

Helping Hands provides gutting and painting free for those in need using volunteer labor and donations. Since most volunteers are not skilled enough to wire a home or put in the plumbing and dry wall the rebuilding program focuses on putting homeowners in contact with reputable contractors (working the phones I heard several stories about contractors who literally left holes in the walls) and acting as a mediator between the homeowner and contractor during the rebuilding process. Homeowners pay for the work themselves using funds from insurance or from "The Road Home" (a convoluted, federally-funded state-run, privately adminstrated-program that seems to be widely despised). Often there is a significant gap between the cost of rebuilding and a homeowner's avaliable funds. In these cases Helping Hands tries to fill the gap with donated materials and skilled volunteers. It is my job to explain all this to people who are desperate to move back into their homes as soon as possible. If they are interested I invite them to one of our meetings where they can hear more (from people who have been with helping hands much longer) and sign up if they like the program.

At the meeting I saw dozens of people packed into a small tralier on the grounds of St. Raymond's Church which was itself flooded in the storm. Many were elderly an/or disabled and all were fighting the frustration of being out of their homes for two years. And yet, after the meeting it was one of them who reminded me that no matter how bad things were or still are here on the Gulf, the waters are falling.

Week One- Dana Stefanczyk

The first thing I noticed about New Orleans was the heat. And around Xavier, the emptiness. Homes and buildings stand abandoned here and sometimes it can seem so desolate. Images of the surroundings make it easier to see why tourists are so welcomed here.

After tours of campus and the surrounding area, we went to our first experience of the French Quarter, and what I believe was our first experience of true New Orleans culture. The seafood fest consisted of people milling about while live music was being played. Some people were sitting out and baking in the sun, others were dancing barefoot. We were still getting to know each other. The striking thing, and something I later found to be consistent, was the mood of the place. People are relaxed, and carefree, and take it easy. And they love that we are here.

One Monday we went on a bus tour of the city, a trip that took us through the eclectic mix that is New Orleans. St. Charles Ave. consisted of some of the most beautiful mansions I have ever seen in every style of architecture under the sun. The French Quarter is a like something out of a storybook, with its colorful houses painting the streets with icing. And then there are the areas that were much harder hit by Katrina, and though they are rundown and abandoned, they still hold that mood.

Work has been a different experience for all. Personally I have been very welcomed by the Public Health Dept., and was surprised at how excited they are to have me there. I have been working with other to set up Medical Vans, and it is nice to feel like I am having a tangible impact on the city, and to have people care about what I am doing.

I am trying as hard as I can to immerse myself in this city, for better or for worse, to experience everything it has to offer. "When in Rome, do as the Romans do." And when in New Orleans, talk to everyone, go everywhere, do anything possible to live this city.

Andy Winslow

Week I (Sunday, June 10, 2007 – Saturday, June 16, 2007):

My first impressions of New Orleans save the airport and the humidity were very positive. Riding down the freeway to Xavier University, where DukeEngage NOLA will be staying, I tried to maintain a conversation with Dr. Schaad, our faculty advisor, and look out the window to take in New Orleans. Something had to give, and unfortunately for Dr. Schaad, my gaze out the window wasn’t moving.

I didn’t see anything that profound or unexpected, which, I guess, is an observation in itself. I had expected to see decrepit and abandoned buildings, boarded houses, and a bit of the bayou shrubbery that a Minnesotan never gets to experience. Since Xavier is right off of the freeway in a fairly urban setting, our drive didn’t expose all that much of New Orleans. It was our later trip to a restaurant on Decateur St. called Tujagues, adjacent to the famous Café Du Monde and the mighty Mississippi, which provided our first tour of some of the devastating effects of Katrina.

Perhaps the most compelling observation I made was on the facades of a number of the houses on our drive to Tujagues. I noticed a spray painted ‘X’ adjacent to a date and a separate number. Dr. Schaad informed me that the fire department came through New Orleans after the storm and flooding and knocked on the doors to make sure nobody was inside. They surveyed each of the houses, recording the date and the number of bodies found in the house. Though these visual images set a profound image in my mind, the reality is that this district, as I would find, was not the hardest hit area (click the ‘regional picture’ tab).

The restaurant gave a survey of the Creole cuisine, which was a great way to start off DukeEngage NOLA. After exploring the town Sunday with the other members of the program, we headed to work the next morning. I work with Kristin Bova for the City of New Orleans Department of Public Works. I didn’t know what to expect, given that there were probably a number of Katrina-related problems the department was dealing with and that this was my first real exposure to engineering outside of the classroom or laboratory. I walked away from the first day with a bit of an ambiguous feeling about the internship, but this was only due to some unsure feelings I had about my actual job duties. The next day, we were introduced to our supervisor; he listed a myriad of problems the Public Works Department had on its agenda, giving the impression that there was plenty for us to do.

As it turned out, the office is a great place, the people are friendly, laid back, and they rarely make it to the office before 9:00 AM. We were assigned the task of going in the field to the historic French Quarter to survey some of the street corners in effort to make the curbs ADA compliant, a project that both of us have thoroughly enjoyed thus far. Indeed, as fun as the job we are doing is in comparison to the other DukeEngage internships, part of me had hoped that the work would have more of a direct relation to Katrina and its after-effects. The Quarter, after all, is set near the River on the highest ground in New Orleans and was mainly unscathed by Katrina. My work felt a lot better when I grasped the idea that the Department of Public Works lost 70% of its manpower during the storm, a seemingly incomprehensible loss to a department that was already falling behind.

Finally, part of the group went out to the Mississippi river Saturday night and we enjoyed the sunset and a walk through the French Quarter. Our night included a stop at Café Du Monde. From my personal experience, beignets are the greatest thing known to man, but attempting to eat more than five of them in one sitting is never a good choice…