The weekend went by quickly and we've now started our various projects with government agencies and non-profit organizations. We've been in NOLA two days now, and the projects have proven to be quite diverse.
Three students are working at the New Orleans Public Defender's office, which is undergoing a complete restructuring after Katrina devastated what was already a dysfunctional criminal justice system. Two are working with the City Attorney's office to begin to tackle the enormous backlog of pre-Katrina cases. Three of us are with the local chapter of the American Red Cross, an organization struggling to rebuild a volunteer base that lost two-thirds of its members in Katrina's wake. Finally, nine students are working on two separate rebuilding projects in New Orleans' Ninth Ward: one group is gutting a nursing home, and the other is helping an individual family rebuild their home.
After our first days on the job, we were emotionally drained: the destruction is profound, and even after two and a half years, the rebuilding has an enormous way to go. As you walk through just about every neighborhood of the city, abandoned buildings seem to spring up on every block. In most residential neighborhoods (other than the wealthiest areas), many of the houses still standing remain boarded up, exterior walls still display response teams' spray-painted messages from September 2005, and "Do Not Demolish!" signs plead with the city of New Orleans for a little more time to rebuild. Other signs attest to the residents' frustration: "Hey Nagin, F**k your plan, we made our own." People have set up FEMA trailers, recently discovered to contain formaldehyde, throughout the city, and we can't help but wonder where all those residents will go when FEMA evicts them all in the next two months. It's a pretty sad state of affairs when people are begging for permission to stay in trailers that contain such a toxin.
However, the people of New Orleans have been incredibly welcoming and have expressed genuine gratitude for our work here. And it goes without saying that we will learn a tremendous amount from them. We heard an inspiring speaker tonight (more on that from another member soon!) who left us with a quote that I hope can remind us of our purpose on this trip:
"If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." --Lila Watson