Signs and portents abounded that Good Friday in New Orleans as our group of New York City high school students, parents, and teachers rolled in to spend the spring break doing “relief” work. Lawns and green median strips sprouted campaign posters for the upcoming primary. Houses displayed signs for the twenty-two would-be mayors and numerous City Council wannabes. At times, they overwhelmed the lush magnolias, honeysuckle, and azaleas flowering even as the city struggled for new life. That anyone would want to be mayor of a soon-to-be-bankrupt city should have been a sign of hope.
But it was the other signs during this Passover week that reminded us why we were there. Each house searched by rescue crews carried an X with a circle around it. In the triangles were notations: the date of the search, the initials of the crew, and the number of casualties, if any. Most of the time there was a zero, but sometimes a number stood as a memorial.
As we approached St. Augustine’s Church, founded by freed slaves in 1842, where the fifty-five of us would sleep, a large, black iron cross affixed to the side wall confronted us. It leaned at an angle, as if being dragged by someone. Manacles hung from its crossbeam, and smaller crosses were planted in the ground below. No triumphant icon here. This turned out to be a monument called the “Tomb of the Unknown Slave.” And there was no doubt then, or now, who was bearing the cross.
Throughout the week, the Good Friday cry of “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” would be raised toward the government by residents we met. For despite the crowded bars and restaurants in the French Quarter, the people to whom we spoke felt abandoned. The city, once home to 500,000, now had fewer than half its residents. Block after block of unoccupied homes and shuttered businesses made finding food and supplies a challenge.
Piles of uncollected refuse from damaged houses (FEMA contracts had ended that week, we were told, and residents would now have to pay for pick-up), miles of flattened and splintered houses, the absence of children (only 20 percent of New Orleans public schools survived destruction) brought comparisons to a war zone. None of us had actually been in a war zone, but most of us had been in a city under attack. We recognized similarities to our post–September 11 experience: the outpouring of aid, the volunteers from around the country who had dropped their normal lives to come to help, the grief always just below the surface, the tenderness toward each other. Still, this was seven months after the event. Larger relief efforts had literally folded their tents and left. Burger King, despite offering a $6,000 signing bonus, couldn’t find enough workers to stay open twelve, much less twenty-four hours. Parts of the city lacked electricity and water. Those parts, we were told, were where “they don’t want poor people moving back.” “They” had also bombed the leve...
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