Imagine it’s a bright, sunny day and you are driving down your local road to the Mall, that stretch of road that always has too much traffic and too many stores. On the way you pass only one or two cars. The parking lots look like they are full until you realize that windshields are missing, some cars have been pushed askew, and everything is covered in mud and dust. There are no people. Store windows are boarded up, and there are piles of trash and insulation along the road.
As you get closer, you notice that all the houses have a stain about 13’ up the walls. This is the high water mark. Shutters are missing, doors hang crookedly, sometimes a car has been flipped. Or look, there are two cars stacked on top of each other. Refrigerators line the streets. Downed trees are everywhere. You occasionally see people staring at what was once their homes, now uninhabitable, faces slack with shock.
This is post Katrina New Orleans. Still, three months on.
On my first night in New Orleans I was treating in the dark in an abandoned warehouse that was the home to volunteers for Common Ground, a locally organized medical relief organization that has attracted people from all over the country. I used a head lamp and hoped that I could be accurate enough in the dark to not hurt my patients and to do the job.
When I started my training, I couldn’t imagine working any place but a treatment room. I couldn’t imagine having less than an hour to spend with my patients. When the tsunami hit Southeast Asia I heard about acupuncturists traveling there, and I couldn’t imagine how they worked. I wondered how my medicine could be used in emergency situations.
The people I met and often treated were amazing. The South is justifiably known for the warmth, humor and hospitality of its citizens, and that grace continues even under this pressure. True, lights are coming back on, and water, and it is no longer an emergency, just a disaster. In fact, disaster has become normal, which is disorienting to an outsider. I heard no complaints, though I was aware that laughing was better than crying.
New Orleans and its people live in a state of polarity. Bright, sunny days that blanket graveyards of homes. Tragic, horrifying stories that are recited and then followed by silliness and play. We treated 911 workers who were trapped at their stations while the city flooded around them. One worker told of being on the phone with someone who was pleading that they save her life. She heard the caller drown. An hour after telling me this, and after ear seeds in Shenmen, she was playing silly games with younger co-workers.
In all my time there, I saw 4 squirrels. Pigeons returned while I was there. I began to see stray dogs and cats. I treated folks at Animal Rescue, a group run by volunteers formed to try to save the pets that had been left behind, and to try to reunite them with their families. They’ve established a nationwide network of animal shelters that have agreed to foster the pets until their owners are located or the pets are released for adoption. I met one of the world’s great saleswomen, Kate, who tried to talk me into adopting a Katrina cat. She even had an answer to my plea that I was traveling by plane: there is a network of truckers who carry animals as far as they can, then pass them on to other truckers until the animal reaches its new home.
My second day there, we traveled east along Lake Ponchatraine to an area near Six Flags amusement park. There were fewer and fewer cars as we went east, though the road had obviously been built to handle large amounts of traffic. Every now and then we’d pass a boat left high and dry.
When we got off the highway, the exit left us at what once must have been a very busy road. There were no cars, the traffic lights were dark and covered with mud. All the trees in the small forest around us were dead, with high water marks about 15’ up their trunks. There were one or two boats in the woods. It was empty and quiet. Off to the left were the rusting remains of a roller coaster. It was eerie and empty, and I thought this is what the world could look like after the apocalypse.
We treated FEMA workers, a couple of guys from the Coast Guard, 911 operators, an insurance adjuster, building inspectors, a contaminated area inspector, kitchen workers, Red Cross workers – and evacuees and residents. We found free food for us nearly everywhere we went. Our canteen in Tent City became known as the place in New Orleans to eat, and it was often full of people in uniforms I didn’t recognize, carrying rifles and pistols. The National Guard was full of men who looked so young.
Certainly FEMA is the most hated organization in the city, and the FEMA workers who are the face of the organization – seemingly good people struggling to make sense of the chaos, receive the brunt of residents’ anger and frustration. When I left, there were 300 people returning a day and reporting to FEMA. FEMA workers dread increasing numbers as more folks come back.
And people are determined to return. That is one thing that was manifestly clear. This is their home. All they want is to be given the tools and allowed to rebuild. The determination isn’t very vocal that I could see (but I’m not a FEMA worker), but it runs through every interaction I had.
I am so glad I went, so glad I had something to offer. I practice a medicine that can be used in trying environments. It’s not quite First Aid; maybe Second Aid? It was a bit difficult to come home. After all, I’d just spent 10 days riding around on a white horse, providing aid and succor wherever I stopped, and now I have to earn a living. But it was an honor to walk a short way with a few folks from New Orleans, and humbling. I’m so glad I went.