NOLA
by Gabe Barry-Caufield

On May 16, I took a plane from Syracuse, NY
House in the 9th Ward before being gutted.
Photo: www.commongroundrelief.org
to New Orleans, LA (NOLA) to volunteer with the non-profit Common Ground Relief Collective to help rebuild NOLA. It had been almost ten months since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita tore through New Orleans leaving thousands of people homeless, missing and/or dead as well as destroying everything they owned. Although there was mainstream media coverage in September 2005, it had been months since I had seen anything about the state of the economy or quality of living in Louisiana, so I was a little nervous as to what to expect. When I arrived, I went straight to Common Ground's volunteer facility located in the 9th ward, one of the parts of New Orleans that was hardest hit by the storm. I was a little shocked by the level of devastation and destruction - houses on top of cars, piles of rubble everywhere and flood lines still visible. Most grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses were still closed with residents hardly anywhere in sight.

I didn't leave the 9th ward for the first three days I was in NOLA, and on the fourth I went uptown with some friends to have dinner. As I drove through the city, the smell of death and rotting that I had become used to slowly turned to lilacs and spring. The piles of rubble disappeared, hand-made street signs turned into streetlights and actual stop signs. It looked like an entirely different city. I had trouble comprehending how one side of town could be making money again and supporting a booming tourist economy, while on the other side of town they just received water less than a month ago and are still finding bodies in flooded houses.


The Affects of My Identity in NOLA
While the whiter and wealthier sections of New Orleans are welcoming back tourists, areas like the 9th Ward are still gutting houses and finding dead bodies. Racism anyone? Solidarity not Charity” is core value at Common Ground Relief. Photo: www.commongroundrelief.org

Before the Emancipation Proclamation, New Orleans was one of the largest slave ports in the United States and one of the last to shut down. Most of the people of color who were enslaved in this country came through NOLA. A good deal of the 'old money' still present in the city came from big plantation owners and families who prospered as a direct result of slavery. Today, most of the white communities are located on high ground (the French Quarter, Uptown), while communities of predominantly poor, people of color are on low ground and in areas that would be nearly impossible to evacuate during times of emergency. New Orleans is a city built on historical injustices, with strong roots in oppression and racist ideology.

I am twenty years old, a woman and white. By 'white' I mean I identify with the racial group that is dominant or holds power over other groups of people in our society. I receive institutional and social privilege based on the color of my skin. White privilege is often invisible to white people, and it's important to try to break down the oppressive way that we've been socialized to view everyday interactions. (More information on white privilege, racism, and how to be a white ally can be found through the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond, www.pisab.org.) I just wanted to put that out there to let y'all know where I'm coming from. My experience cannot be understood without addressing the context of race and racism.

Re-New Orleans:
Gutting the 9th Ward
During my first few days in NOLA, I worked on a crew gutting a house on St. Maurice Street in the lower 9th ward. Like every volunteer who does any kind of gutting work, I was dressed in a tyvec suit, respirator, goggles, work gloves and boot covers. The goal is to be exposed to as little dust, mold, and floodwater as possible because of the highly toxic elements present. Ironically, residents returning to their homes are not provided with any kind of protection against the health risks of post-Katrina Louisiana. We worked for three days on this house to make it free of any contamination and ready for a construction crew to rebuild. Our first step was lugging the ruined contents of the house to the curb while trying to salvage anything we could (family photos, jewelry, trinkets, furniture). Unfortunately, most everything was either covered in black mold or soaked in toxic floodwater, which means it was contaminated and had to be thrown away. Cleaning out the house was one of the hardest things for me during my entire time in New Orleans. It put the whole impact of the storm in a humanized, personal context. I felt like my life was so privileged as I shoveled piles of school papers, baby toys, and unfinished Medicaid applications into buckets to be carried to the curb. I remember taking a break, because I couldn't stand it anymore. As I walked around trying to catch my breath I felt the sting of toxic tears and poisonous sweat pouring down my face - sure signs that I had been contaminated.

By the second day we were tearing out the walls and ceilings and removing large appliances like refrigerators, stoves and sinks. It was exciting because the daughter of the woman who owned the house drove all the way from Houston, TX to help us and to go through the things we had tried to save. One of the differences between Common Ground and other non-profits in NOLA is that they work with the residents on gutting their houses and rebuilding the community. It's crucial to make sure that residents of the 9th ward stay connected to their homes, as many of them have been family owned since people of color were allowed to own land. Like the 'old money' of the New Orleans elite, many of the residents of the 9th ward have lived there for almost 100 years. Common Ground strives to address the power dynamic created when groups of predominantly white people go into communities that are not their own to provide relief work. They support residents in rebuilding their own homes and respect already present cultural and community standards rather than imposing values.

For the rest of my time in New Orleans I volunteered at the Upper 9th Ward Women's Center, where I will be returning in August. The Women's Center is a place for women and children who have lost access to health care, daycare, schools, food stamps, and other resources as a result of Hurricane Katrina. I spent a lot of time helping with everyday tasks, such as cleaning the house and gathering basic needs from Common Ground Distribution centers. In the afternoons, I spent time with the kids from the center: helping with homework, taking bike rides, and just staying cool! Honestly, my favorite part of my time in NOLA was the relationships I formed with the kids and women at the center. I learned a lot from the kids about sharing what you've got and acting selflessly, even when you don't want to.

Empty Promises and the Work to be Done
The racist history of New Orleans set the stage for an unjust social and economic response to post-Katrina relief. The 9th ward has been labeled as a problem part of town for years - the poverty level was one of the highest in the country even before the storm. Lower 9th ward is located near the levee that blew out, causing it to be hit the hardest by the storm. Even before homeowners of the 9th ward were allowed to return to their neighborhoods, contractors from Halliburton and other big businesses were allowed in to evaluate the property value. Many corporate and governmental forces are pushing to keep homeowners from returning to the 9th ward. The city has set a deadline of August 29 for all residents to have their homes signed up to be gutted by a non-profit or they will be bulldozed. Insurance companies are looking for any loophole or excuse to refuse aid. They are refusing to cover damaged homes located on the other side of the levee, because the flooding was a result of a burst pipe in the levee, not an act of God. Many public housing residents are now returning to NOLA to find moldy, condemned apartment buildings filled with their rotting belongings and toxic rubble. FEMA is supposed to provide housing for natural disaster evacuees for 18 months, but they have already begun kicking families out of their temporary homes. Residents of 9th ward and other communities are left with nothing but empty promises from re-elected Mayor Ray Nagin With hurricane season approaching once again, folks are way past frustrated.

“Solidarity not Charity” is core value at Common Ground Relief. photo:www.commongroundrelief.org

There is still a great deal of work left to be done in NOLA. It's not over, even though the government and corporations in a position to provide aid have turned their backs. I'd like to suggest a few questions for anyone thinking of coming to 9th ward to help out: Why should you go and volunteer? What kind of a presence will you take up in 9th ward (think about privilege, power, whiteness)? What can you contribute in NOLA that couldn't be done from your home? Look over the Common Ground website, www.commongroundrelief.org, as well as the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond, www.pisab.org.

Please send extra kids' clothes, women's clothes, shoes, toys, or extra money (diapers and formula, doctors appointments, etc., can be expensive!) that you would be willing to donate to the Upper 9th Women's Center (address below). A special request - one of the kids at the center is an amazing drummer who has only played on a drum set a few times in his life. Any musicians who have drums to spare, it would make a ten year-old boy in New Orleans very, very happy!

Donations for the Upper 9th Women's Center can be mailed to:

Women's Center
C/O the House of Excellence
1415 Franklin Ave
New Orleans, LA 70117



Gabe is a political theater major at Antioch College. She is currently exploring the use of theater as a tool for social change. Protest and survive.