We travelled all day to get back to San Francisco yesterday and it was exhausting. But I couldn't help think of what it would be like to travel for weeks or months and return home to nothing. No one to greet you at the door, carry your bag, and ask how your trip was. No door to be opened for that matter. The road home is surely long for the people of New Orleans, and gets longer by the day as the state and federal governments dispute whether and how to distribute the recovery money needed to rebuild.
I've often wondered during this week if it wouldn't be easier to just pick up and rebuild elsewhere, start fresh. But after speaking with the residents of New Orleans, I quickly discovered that the sense of community here is strong, and the sense of history remains firmly rooted. Leaving it is unthinkable. One woman told us that the neighborhood in which her trailer stood was where she had played with her friends as a kid, and now her children were playing in that same neighborhood with her friends' children. "You think I'm gonna pick up and take my children away?" she said incredulously.
Another man told us that, in New Orleans, people will offer you a hot meal and want to get to know you. But if you refuse, "aw man, that's it for you, man, we don't trust people who aren't neighborly." And another man told us that the way he was getting through the aftermath of the storm was by working on his friends' houses in exchange for hot dinners. "This lady over here? Man she lost everything. So I say to her I'll work on her house, you know, cause I did some construction before the storm? And no worry about money. If she has some leftovers or whatever, though, I'll take those."
The people of New Orleans will not leave their homes and their communities. And they shouldn't be asked to. It is the sense of community that made this city what it was before the storm, and it is the sense of community that is keeping it together in the aftermath. They rebuild on devastated lots and live in moldy trailers because they know that some day their neighborhood will be filled with their friends and family again.
Lucy, a grandmother raising her two young grandchildren in a FEMA trailer, put it like this:
"You see that corner over there with the light? Before the storm, I would drive to get the kids from school and I would sit at that damn light and wait and wait. The traffic was so bad. And I'd curse at all the cars in my way to get my grandbabies. But when I got back after the storm, I could drive straight through without hardly stopping. There were no cars and no traffic. I wasn't happy about it, though, I missed the cars, you know? It's taken a long time, and now I see a few more every week. And more are coming. I don't curse sitting at that light anymore, I just smile and drive. 'Cause, baby, this place ain't nothing without it's people."