As our plane circled over New Orleans, I fixed my eyes on the window. I wanted a perspective on the damage below that did not come secondhand from television or the papers. Soon our group from Sarah Lawrence College—a professor, a dean, nine students, and two alumnae—would be landing. It was January 5. We had come for a nine-day stay to work with ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now.
In the Bronx, we had trained for a day for work as community organizers. In New Orleans, we would be assigned one of two jobs: to go into neighborhoods to report on what people needed in order to get back into New Orleans or to work on housing reclamation.
I expected utter devastation—miles and miles of storm-ravaged homes and communities. Instead, I saw endless bits of blue. I thought that they were swimming pools. Later I found out that what I had seen were blue tarps put on houses to protect them from the wind.
We visited the two hundredth house that ACORN was gutting. ACORN’s gutting efforts were part of its “No Bulldozing” campaign to save structurally sound houses by gutting them to remove mold damage. ACORN wanted the government and developers to see that people wanted to return to New Orleans and were invested in rebuilding.
House #200 was in one of the harder-hit areas. Piles of debris still lined the streets. In some yards, there were boats, and in others, cars with water lines to the middle of their windows. Almost no one had returned. The quality of the air in the neighborhood was different from the area we had canvassed in the day before. We could smell the mold in the air and feel the particles in our lungs.
At the front of the house, workers were using wheelbarrows to take the remains of the homeowner’s belongings to the curb. The pile of debris reached my waist. I noticed a clump of people standing to my right. The group included a tall black woman who was visibly upset yet trying to keep her emotions together. I was told that she was the owner of the house. I followed her gaze as she watched the ACORN crew empty out her house. One of the volunteers paused by the pile, sighting an object of interest. He picked up a piece of framed artwork, thoughtfully looked at it, and then let it fall back onto the pile.
The homeowner described to us how the flood waters rapidly rose to the height of her shoulders, forcing her to navigate the murky waters in her main-level family room with her pocketbook on top of her head. The only safe area of her house was the attic. She pointed to the attic window, a tiny portal too small for an adult to shimmy through and escape. She remained in the attic for three days until she was rescued. Just before we left, a truck pulled up with salvaged refrigerators on its bed. There were about ten of them, and the stench of rotting food and mold was overpowering.
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