Pauline W. Hoffmann, Ph.D.

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For more information on my travels (to be updated as regularly as possible):

TippyTravels - my travel blog

BonaResponds in New Orleans

Spring Break Service Trip

The following is an excerpt from my blog TippyKayak.  This version contains pictures from the trip.  Take a look.

BonaResponds Recap - Please Read First

My intention when I went to New Orleans was to update my blog each day. However, when we arrived at our location in St. Bernards Parish, I was told we didn't have internet access. Instead, I wrote my blog in a notebook and promised to update it when I returned. It is noted in this blog as entries Part I through Part X - also noted below.

When I typed this in all at once, I was tempted to edit entries. However, I thought better of that and kept things as I had written them because the emotions at their writing couldn't be replicated with me sitting in my office at home. Note that. As I was rereading the entries, I noticed anger, sadness, and other emotions I had experienced over the course of the week.

Please recognize that as you read. These were written over the course of a week. Enjoy and comment. I appreciate all comments.

Hurricane Devastation - Disbelief (Part I)

The first time I recall seeing anything out of the ordinary was Mississippi/Alabama. Trees were uprooted and cracked in half like little toothpicks. Trees were also bare to the tops. The ground was as brown and dried as Buffalo in July. But it was mildly warm and it wasn't July.

It reminded me of a trip through Yellowstone National Park in the mid-1990's a year or so after the forest fires decimated the area. The trees bore the same scars but MS/AL didn't have burns. One of our student passengers in the van mentioned the movie Independence Day. It was quite a contrast from anywhere else we had driven.

And then we arrived in New Orleans. I was going to leave several blank lines here for effect - the effect being complete silence. I was driving the van at this point and my primary job as a member of our esteemed faculty is to make sure everyone remained safe on my tour as driver. But I couldn't help but look around. Luckily...poor choice of words...few cars were on the road.

I had been fortunate enough to have visited New Orleans a few times in my storied past - once as a Bona student and once as a graduate student for a conference. I recall partaking of a hurricane each time. One is all it takes.

How chilling that statement. One is all it took to destroy a city.

We did have a discussion as we read billboards on our drive in. A vodka (I believe it was vodka - it was a distillery, at any rate) had a billboard with the Mardi Gras masks with the slogan 'We're Back.' A second read 'Welcome back.' Other billboards sold the usuals but others showed support 'We're here to help, We're here to stay,' read a potato chip billboard. Was it good? Or was it taunting and in poor taste as we looked around and saw houses in pieces. These colorful, flashy, shiny, new billboards amid the wreckage. (When I first typed this I wrote Ralph and realized it was Ray and had to change it. That's how memorable the guy is to me.) Ray Nagin even got in the mix with a wonderful shot of himself lording over the city he is promising to rebuild in his re-election campaign. That was also a pretty billboard.

We drove down Jackson to St. Charles. I remembered the street car. I didn't see it today, but many of these houses were as I remember. The distinct architecture. The cool streets. Many had signs of their Mardi Gras revelry on the front porches. Decorations in purple, gold and green. Three houses looked great, then one was missing a porch or part of a roof or siding.

We left some of our van crew in this area. Hands On is a highly organized operation. We left behind bunk beds, internet access, accessible showers, lighted loos, and so on.

To get to St. Bernards Parish - our location - we had to drive through the worst of the damage in New Orleans. I apologized to my van mates over and over because I couldn't help but drive slowly. It would be impossible to drive through this area without staring. Traffic lights are replaced with stop signs (one of which I drove through because I wasn't expecting it) because there is no electricity. Strip malls are gutted or filled with debris. Houses are entirely trashed or filled with debris or are shells of themselves. I think we saw only a handful of FEMA trailers. That disturbed me.

We did pass Mardi Gras floats stored in some kind of a stockyard. But how out of place - colorful floats stuck in such stark surroundings. Beautiful floats with amazing colors sitting alone just across the street from a house that looked as though it was stepped on by a giant. Alone.

We notice odd things - the shells of our favorite fast food places. We see a McDonalds with the original 1950's style arches and building. We collectively decide that it must be saved - it's historic after all.

Our hosts - Common Ground/HOPE - are working out of a church. We must rely on generators. Our bathrooms are in a separate building with no electricity and no doors or walls. Well, the doors and walls are actually bedsheets strung up to afford us some privacy. I must rely on a candle or flashlight to go. And I always have to go in the middle of the night. And I didn't bring my flashlight because I must be a dumbass. So I rely on my cell phone to get me out and back safely or relatively so. Fun.  The picture to the left shows our sink and bathrooms.  The bathrooms may be difficult to see.  They are behind the sheets through the framing. 

 

The pictures to the right and left show our sleeping quarters.  Notice the missing drywall.  Our hosts removed drywall just above the floodline in the church hall.  That's how much water was in this church hall.

I am tired despite having stopped the van to sleep but I am aging - I'm older than the undergrads. I haven't seen the other side of midnight and enjoyed it in years.

Changing rooms don't really close but luckily I can get in and out of my clothes quickly so I don't run too much risk of potential students seeing me naked. That would likely scar most of them.

The picture to the left shows the entryway to our sleeping quarters or the exit to the kitchen, depending on your perspective.

Pot luck dinner - yummy! And that is one of the last times I will say that on our trip. The night we arrive, many of those in the community who have been helped by volunteers before us arrive with official New Orleans cuisine to share. We are thrilled! This is a wonderful way for them to thank us. We find out later that residents often do this because they don't have much else to spare and sharing a meal is something they do well and often. They would love to give us money or something else. But when a hurricane and subsequent flooding takes everything you own, you do what you can.

We are all sleeping in a large church hall. All of us on cots - one large collective. I don't know how well I am going to enjoy that, but hey, I've done worse - I think....

As I am setting up my cot, I notice drywall (they call it sheet rock down in these parts - perhaps they do at home also, but I know it as drywall) missing up to about 15 feet in our church hall. Our hippie hosts later tell us that the church hall suffered flood damage, as did the rest of the Parish. They stripped the walls to just above the floodline. Just above the floodline. Think about that much water in your home. Jesus.

The pictures to the left and right show our kitchen setup.  You guessed correctly if you guessed that it was a DOH nightmare.

Our showers for the week are to the right.  I got one hot shower for the week, the rest were cold.  I think that may have been a record among our group.

I go to sleep despite the fact that 60+ students are carousing. I think they are excited from the bus ride and anxious to get started. I don't quite know what to expect. And I am not quite sure I can even do anything. The task seems so daunting. We are here for one week. What difference can we possibly make?

 

57 Years of Marriage Sitting On My Front Lawn (Part II)

I'm not quite used to the Bohemian atmosphere. I tripped on a cot in the middle of the night coming back from the loo. Poor student. I hope he or she is okay.

First day of work. A hearty breakfast goes a long way and our hosts/hostesses treat us quite well.

Walking down streets we notice homes boarded up, gutted, ignored. Primarily ignored. Several FEMA trailers line the street when we reach our house for the day. A mini community in this wasteland.


The pictures above show views of the St. Bernards Parish neighborhood.  This is where our group worked.  Notice the FEMA trailers in the top left picture.

But the community is nice. It's a nice, small suburb - not what you've heard on television. Not all of New Orleans affected was the lower class. The middle/lower middle class was also affected.


These pictures show the houses pre-gut and then our team suited up and ready for hazardous materials.  We were supposed to gut houses down to the frames.  Then a mold removal crew would come in and spray for mold.  Our group was asked to experiment with a microbial mold remover as an alternative to bleach.  After that, another coating is placed on the frame (I think) and then residents wait for permits.

One woman in her FEMA trailer, which was smaller than campers I'd been in - to camp, let us use her restroom. I couldn't live in the trailer. And the problems we don't hear about are many.

Trailers offer horribly tight quarters. The trailer I was in housed a family of 4. There was one bed, small kitchen, small bathroom, table with a couple chairs. The little 9-year-old girl was happy we were talking to her. None of her friends had returned and she thought us very nice for talking to her. That made us quite sad. She had no one to play with. And a hell of a place to play.

Another trailer occupant mentioned that nothing closed in her FEMA trailer. It took her months to get the trailer, another couple months to have it hooked up, and now nothing closes. She laughs as if it is the price of doing business, which apparently it is.

Trailer residents feel horribly forgotten. Many who are in the trailers have gutted houses and are waiting for building permits to rebuild. The city is stalling and it is noticed. Theories abound as to what the hold up is. Regardless of whether any of the theories holds water, perception is huge. If residents think these things, the damage control required to change that attitude may cost more than the cost to repair the damaged levees! Many feel that the city is performing a sort of ethnic/class cleansing. That if the city stalls long enough, people will leave allowing the city to sell the land to developers for more economic friendly projects.

Another theory holds that the city hasn't decided what it wants to do yet. They may turn the area into green space or alternate housing. Meanwhile, people wait in ill-equipped trailers ready to return to their homes and rebuild their communities. Willing and able - stalled by government.

No one believes what government is telling them - that there are too many homes to inspect and too few inspectors. Particularly since no one has ever seen an inspector.

We are encouraged to talk to people - not just Bonaventure people, but community members. This morning while sipping my Bohemian coffee, a FEMA worker installing FEMA trailers behind our church hall was eager to talk and I was eager to listen and ask questions. And share my compassion. (An irony I can't escape. I find it funny that I attended a Catholic University, worked in the Catholic Health System, teach at my alma mater and sleep in churches - I'm Wiccan!).

He lived in his home for 30 years. He found out it wasn't salvageable. He cried looking at his house. Now he is not sure what he will do. This leads to an explanation of the notation on the houses in the ravaged areas. An 'X' was spray painted on each house. The number at the top was the date of the search, the notation to the left was the group who searched, to the bottom was the number of dead bodies, to the right, the number of dead pets. If your 'X' was circled or had a square around it, it meant it would be demolished. There was no gutting it and saving it. I can't imagine traveling 'home' wondering where my home stood in this macabre lottery. And knowing I could likely do not a damn thing about it.

Volunteers are in the communities helping people to clean up. What we heard was that if the house wasn't gutted by May, the house would be demolished. People are now frantic to gut their homes - and then sit in their FEMA trailers waiting for permits that may never come. The logic in this completely kicks my ass.

One woman let us take a look at her inground swimming pool that had fish in it from the flood. She had been shocking it with chlorine to no avail. The pool was so polluted, several in my group almost walked on it thinking it was cement. Thank God no one did. I didn't want to have to explain that back at the Hippie Commune (home for the week). This woman had paid people to clean her house. She has been waiting at least a month for an inspector. She did everything that is needed. She gutted the house, hauled all the debris to the curb for pickup, had the house de-molded (sprayed with bleach), and sealed against future mold growths. She is afraid to pump her pool because she is afraid it will crack and fall inside itself since they are below sea level. No one trusts anything since the levee break/breach.

I was amazed by the number of For Sale signs on properties. My initial thought was, property values must be so low, who the hell would buy. Someone told me that it's the opposite. Values have risen because developers are looking for large tracts of land to buy and then sell or subdivide to their economic pleasure.

The debris in trees, on roofs, between houses was amazing. Six months after the fact and there are still sheds propped up between houses. There are still cars on top of sheds or other cars or nestled in backyards and ditches.

People driving around all had new cars that were so clean I envied them. It turns out that car insurance companies are getting money to people quickly and even giving more than bluebook value. Homeowners on the other hand was a huge gripe. One owner talked about getting $400 for his home. The assessor came in and looked at the part of the house not affected by the flooding (flood insurance wasn't part of the policy) and decided that was the damage. This house was assessed from the attic up - the only part that escaped flood waters. And the only part without damage. The roof was intact, the attic walls were intact. Who cares that all the possessions and the living space wasn't inhabitable and was destroyed. Not part of the hurricane. $400. Can you imagine? And most of these people have lived in this neighborhood for 30 or more years. And have no mortgages. And have paid homeowners insurance for 30 years. $400. Kick me again, I'm still moving.

I was flattered by the cat calls of men working on one of the neighboring houses. Normally I am offended by such displays of testosterone, but I was sweaty and full of dirt and God knows what else so I was flattered. I smiled. Anything that makes you smile is appreciated, however rude or crude. Funny how that happens.

My back hurts, my foot hurts, I will ache in the morning, but I wouldn't trade this experience and I've only been here one day. I am thrilled to be here. It's a hell of a Spring Break. I have no energy and want to go to bed. I'm such an old lady.

The story of the day was told by a gentleman who lived in the house next to our gutting project. He has gotten Tulane University students to help him gut his house to sell. He and his wife lived there the 57 years of their marriage. They are in Mississippi now. She wasn't with him. I didn't ask why. He talked to us and expressed his thanks for having us in his community. He, like so many others, is so grateful for our presence. It's a reminder that they are not forgotten. That people are thinking of them outside of the levees. They couldn't hold the water back and they certainly can't hold the compassion back. He said, "57 years of marriage is sitting on my front lawn" as he looked at the debris stacked haphazardly on his curb. Then he shook his head.

And I wanted to hug him and then I wanted to cry.

I write this in our barracks after a long day and have to pause to look around at my fellow gutters who are sitting on their cots. Somehow seeing my compatriots' reactions and interactions brings a sense of normalcy. But I have to remember I'm a professor. That gives me power and clout or a reasonable enough facsimile that I get to charge my cell phone ahead of the students! Big flipping deal. I don't feel like a professor here. I am as big of a person as each of the students. And I can't help but call them my students even though I will likely never teach most of them. We are all on the same page and all hold the same status - volunteer. Perhaps even savior, at least for this week. Those are pretty big shoes.

I'm listening to Coldplay's Fix You on my IPod and I want to cry. This isn't my reality. I have a home with four walls, floors not covered in a 6" layer of muck and ooze, electricity, heat, water. My home isn't the cleanest, but it's a home and it's habitable and I think I will hug my furniture and kiss my floor when I return. Perhaps I'll also sweep!

Burning of the Books (Part III)

People are more subdued, I think. Definitely tired. The work is back-breaking. Solemn because people have seen and experienced much. There is a bonfire now. What I wouldn't give for a nice glass of wine or a Smirnoff Ice or Mike's Hard Lemonade. I don't drink beer, and I think wine is a bit pretentious for a campfire, so give me something I can suck out of a bottle. Although, if I sucked wine from the bottle, that would be sucking the pretentious right out of it!

Some of the Hippie Leaders are burning retired algebra and geometry textbooks. They served as kindling and many of my students are getting a bit too much pleasure out of it. If kills me, as a professor, to see a text being mistreat, but I can't sway the masses. Perhaps a part of me - the small portion that isn't a geek (my big toe?) - is a bit titilated that parabolic equations and others of their ilk are burning. I don't know.

The fire sure feels nice.

What Does Appreciation Look Like (Part IV)

It looks, smells and tastes like BBQ ribs provided by grateful homeowners. People happy and relieved and thankful for the help. Laughter is a great healer and food is a wonderful thank you gift. The only thing missing - a nice red wine. Hell at this point, I'd take a shitty red wine in a bottle with a straw.

Mad Dog, grrrrrrr.

Clusterfuck (Part V)

Clusterfuck is the first word that came to mind regarding today. In fact, it could be two words but I don't have a dictionary and I don't think it's in the AP Stylebook, although I don't have that either. The best laid plans also works to sum up today.

It was hot and things were starting to get to me. I have a sunburned neck which is no one's fault but my own. I don't know if I can continue to do this work. Manual labor is difficult, but this is also toxic. I think I also wonder what we can do and if we make a difference. But I have to be confident I am making a difference to at least one family. I don't know.

I also think someone told me there is a dimebag in the First Aid Kit.

What the fuck?!

Are You Going To Try Sobriety Again Today? (Part VI)

"Are you going to try sobriety again today? " was the question asked of one of the perpetually stoned members of our host party. Part of me wonders how much of it is an act - or an exaggerated personality for the benefit of the 'Catholic University Students.' Or how much is a result of one too many train jumps gone awry?

Today was a much better day and I'm not sure why. Perhaps because our house was next to our barracks? Perhaps because I felt pretty good ripping shit down and tossing it away? I also think some of the original sting of seeing the devastation has worn off and our senses of humor have returned. They were sorely missed and needed.

I still can't help but think I wouldn't rebuild if I were in this situation but I don't have as much attachment to things. Easily said considering my house has been standing since 1836.

Our house today was in worse shape, structurally, or so it seemed. Half of the roof and attic are missing. About 1/8 of the brickwork is missing. It did afford us nice breezes throughout the day - as callous as that may sound.

While going through the closets in the bedroom, I was haphazardly tossing clothes onto the debris pile out front. I started to think that I was going through the most intimate part of anyone's home. What would I do if people were going through my personal belongings in my bedroom? Is there something there I wouldn't want to see tossed to the curb? Or something I wouldn't want anyone to find? I mentioned this to my group of students while we were taking a break. No one elaborated likely because they didn't want to think about what a professor might have in her bedroom. Not that I would have shared....

On the top shelf of the closet was a box full of the little wedding favor bubble things people blow at weddings instead of throwing rice. I wondered if there was an upcoming wedding interrupted by the storm. We blew some of the bubbles then thought they might be toxic so we stopped. But it did offer a bit of a reprieve.

Relaxing at lunch I let fly that I read tarot cards and brought a deck with me - my voodoo inspired, trance deck - quite fitting for New Orleans. Several girls want readings after dinner. it should provide much entertainment.

New Orleans Tours drive through the 9th Ward and St. Bernards Parish. A sort of macabre hurricane devastation tour. I tried to process that one. Paying money to tour the devastation. It seemed so fucked up and as a communication scholar, there isn't a better way to phrase that. I have looked at houses but I have also gutted them. I have taken the time to talk to those affected both at the worksites and in the distribution center on site. The shelter of your bus is nice. I hope you bastards enjoy the view through your "aquarium." Get out and sweat and cry. I don't know why that bothered me so much. Tourist money is coming back into the city but at what cost?

I did pay to get here. But I don't think of myself as a tourist. And in defense of the tours, perhaps a portion of it goes to relief efforts. I don't know. I found it disturbing. Although I would like to talk to the sightseers and perhaps after cooling down I can empathize. Each of us can process as only we know how. I need to jump into it. Some may need shelter. Some may need the newspaper. It's all about perspective.

Some memorable signs I saw or heard about:
 

  • FEMA (Fix Everything My Ass)
  • George Bush, Where are you sleeping tonight?
  • Thanks for the Levees
  • Goodbye Mom and Dad
  • For Sale
  • Polluted by Murphy Oil

Some require some explanation. There were many houses that had signs or had paint sprayed directly on the houses that expressed condolences for lost loved ones. Goodbye mom and dad I could only surmise meant mom and dad didn't make it. And that sign was painted on the grave nature appointed for them.

Murphy Oil is a huge refinery in St. Bernards Parish - or close enough that it may as well be in the Parish. Rumor has it that Murphy Oil had been illegally dumping or storing oil for years and, in truth, with the levee breach, one of the large oil containers leaked oil all over the Parish. In fact, one of the Hippie volunteers told me that when cleanup first started they could run a finger along the car or along the house and get a layer of oil off. Murphy, of course, denies anything illegal and states that the tank overflowed.

A story that doesn't surprise me. It does surprise me that it didn't occur to me. Several residents mentioned having to climb on their roofs to weather the storm. No surprise, it was on the news. What wasn't mentioned was that the fauna of the area needed someplace to roost as well. Residents found themselves fighting off snakes and alligators. With what, I can only imagine. Imagine sitting on your roof waiting to be rescued while you fight off a gator? Or try to wrestle a snake? The idea seems unfathomable. I don't know how to put myself in that situation.

Also, many of those who were piloting boats were residents. Many residents had boats and most kept their keys in the boats. When the boats floated by, residents would swim to them, start them up, and rescue people off roofs. In fact, in once instance, residents returned and spray painted (the only way to leave a message for your neighbor) on the garage door an apology for taking the boat, but left their phone number to call to get it back.

A garage with a sign noting the stolen boat.  A phone number was left to arrange for its return.

Neighborly, compassionate, understanding, and friendly in spite of such hardship. Why wouldn't you want communities like this?

Day 4 (Part VII)

Today the toilets are betraying us which is great news since all they feed us are beans.

Today I have also started my list of things I can't wait to do/have when I return:
 

  • A bathroom with a real door and walls and toilet paper that isn't soggy in the morning from the dew (or I hope it's dew and not a late night crap shoot, so to speak).
  • Hot showers - which I will take until my hot water tank runs dry! I have had only one hot shower while here. What is sad is that I am starting to enjoy cold!
  • Pizza and wings.
  • Clean dishes - or dishes I have cleaned that I know were not found in a toxic waste home - at this point we aren't sure. There is some speculation...
  • Kiss my house, hug my furniture, hump my bed, cook dinner. Not in any particular order.
  • Drink a glass of wine to prove I am civilized then abandon the glass and drink the rest of the bottle with a straw.
  • Only my dogs and me in my bedroom. Anyone else, invite only. No offense, but that invite won't include 60+ people. I have been know to do some racy things, but that wouldn't be one of them.
  • Run naked in my house because I can.
  • Go to sleep without distractions and without three layers of clothes (it gets cold at night when there is no heat).
  • Laundry.
  • Burn incense to remember our hippie hosts.

I read this list and feel rather selfish, but it's what's keeping me normal and grounded. It's also keeping a part of me removed from the situation because I have to keep one foot outside.

Good news! The Wild Mountain Organics insect repellent works in the bayou of New Orleans! Woo hoo! Perhaps a portion of the sales of our insect repellent will go to Common Ground to continue their good work! Perhaps I should send them some. Perhaps I will just try to remember to use it!

Bad news. I may kill or severely injure or maim people by the end of the trip. I think a week in close, rather uncomfortable, quarters/situations is testing the patience of people. It's testing mine and I have a great deal of patience. I'm a professor, god dammit!

Our Visit to the Other Sites (Part VIII)

Today is a treat, if you can call it that. One of my fellows profs., Mike, is coming to pick me up and take me on a tour of the other sites. I am going with my brother-in-barracks, Father Bob. I joked with one of my fellow profs at home, Brother Basil, about going on the trip with his Brothers. I told him he better warn them about me. He apparently didn't because Father Bob hung out with me. I expect if he knew about me, he'd be praying. In fact, now that he does know me, he may be doing just that!

One of the things that struck us was the contrast between debris and brand new casinos.  The pictures below show this contrast in detail.

St. Bonaventure had close to 300 alumni, faculty, friends, and students at five different sites (I think five, although it could have been six). Those are pretty impressive numbers. We had wanted to see other sites to see what else the hurricane did. Father Bob and I were familiar with St. Bernards Parish and its devastation but wanted perspective.

Near the casinos, a statue had been hauled off its base.  Picture below.  Also, the infamous bridge that is no more.  



Immediately, Mike mentioned that St. Bernards Parish and the 9th Ward were worse than he expected and certainly worse than their location in New Orleans. Their biggest concern was of security. People didn't wander at night. Our biggest concern was the flood aftermath. The mold and other toxins that were contained in flood waters for 2 weeks and likely seeped into everything.

It was also nice to get out knowing we would eat something other than beans and rice. I loved beans and rice. Loved - past tense. If I see beans and rice I will toss them at the chef. Really. And we ate a burger and fried at Dairy Queen and I got a cone. Yummy!

Our first stop was Bay St. Louis, MS. I had no idea what to expect. Let me say this, their facilities were the Hilton compared to our camp. The damage was also much less intense. But I have to constantly remind myself that the damage is six months after the fact. St. Bernards Parish has barely been touched, while MS has repaired much. Much, but not all.

Houses were being gutted but were not in nearly the shape our homes were in. And I am thankful of that for all the residents having to suffer. Thankful that their cleanup job is relatively easy, although they would likely not feel that way. And this town was historic. Its charm was so cozy and quaint.

We then headed to the shore. People had told us that most of the damage occurred to homes on the shore. And the homes on the shore are as you would expect. Million dollar plus homes directly on the beach. Homes that had front stairs to nothing. The home itself was completely gone. Vanished as if someone just took it brick by brick or piece by piece. Stairs to nowhere, I kept saying.

Stairs to nowhere.  Coastal homes in need of .... homes.



We saw one particular home that made us pull over. A woman was working on her home with some student volunteers from Atlanta. She talked to us and during the conversation a couple friends pulled up. The spirit of the victims is contagious. It is inspiring. The couple told of grabbing valuables that were within reach - pictures off the mantle, underwear (not the good ones, the ones that were more holy than righteous, as she said), her slip (she is a good Southern girl who wears a slip under dresses), jewelry (mostly costume) and whatever else she could think of. In fact, she put her jewelry in a safe deposit box. When she was looking for her slip, she couldn't find it, but managed to find it in the safe deposit box. Hey, valuables are valuables and it's all relative. Her husband had a heart attached as a result of the storm and then suffered 4 bouts of pneumonia. He was on oxygen as we spoke. Mike retrieved another oxygen tank from the trunk as we talked and she joked that he's the only one allowed to take a bottle to church.

It is this spirit that I envy. I am not sure I would have my sense of humor in this case. I hope that I would maintain my humor, but who can say? The human spirit is a funny thing. You don't really find out who you are or what you are about until tragedy strikes. And even then....

Another resident was showing off her two new knees. She had knee replacement surgery before the storm and was proud of her two new knees. These people were obviously wealthy and were living in FEMA trailers. They were also disgusted with FEMA and government. Ironic since everyone we had spoken with expressed concern that the wealthy were benifiting while the poor had to suffer and wait for FEMA. Turns out FEMA does not discriminate its incompetence. There is plenty for everyone of all classes and races!

All we spoke with were concerned about their communities more than themselves. All expressed that their communities were their lifeblood. Condo developers had long coveted the shore. Now they had a chance with increased taxes and the increased likelihood that people wouldn't rebuild. What a shame in this historic town. We can only imagine what the houses and the shoreline must have looked like pre-Katrina. To be replaced by condos because government is more concerned with money than ethics. I'm not surprised but it disturbs me no matter how often I hear about it.

The most horrific story we heard was of the couple's son. He decided to brave the storm. As I recall, the wall of water came off the gulf (20 feet high) and wiped out houses. Just wiped them out. That wasn't just a 20 foot wall of water, it was a 20 foot wall of water and debris. His house was lifted from the foundation and carried him while it filled with water. He swam to the ceiling by following the light on his smoke detector. Then he tried to find his way to the roof. He made it out of the storm by jumping from debris to debris to safety much as I would expect someone jumped from rock to rock in a stream to cross, or ice piece to ice piece to cross a near frozen river/stream/ocean/other body of water. He is alive by the grace of God, they said. And they are so thankful that we are there to help them. They have had no support from anyone but volunteers.

In past days I had been thinking that I wasn't making a difference. I had helped to gut two homes. To two families, that is the world. To the survivors on the coast, the idea that we are there helping is the world. We didn't help them directly, but we are helping their community. That means everything to them. Words cannot express how humbled I was. And how grateful I was I decided to take this trip. It has been life-altering.

Stella and Paul LaViolette (we initially stopped and talked to Stella) have a website. He is a retired oceanographer which makes him really cool to me. He writes books and she writes cookbooks. They write not to make money but to "stay out of trouble." He is writing a book about the experience of Katrina. Firsthand account. Their website is here. Check it out and support them.

We also heard stories about prisoners in cells. Many died because the guards couldn't get to them. Also, there was trouble keeping prisoners. Those with minor infractions were let go while those with major felonies were held - or at least guards tried to hold them. But records are lost so many are let go because of that.

Driving to other sites we saw metal billboards on the highway (I didn't get pictures because we were driving) were bent in half. The top half containing the advertisement was bent in half at the pole.

Many in New Orleans also believe that the barge ran into the levee which damaged it and caused the flooding. So many theories abound it's hard to keep track. Suffice to say it was a disaster.

Not a barge, but a shrimp boat.  Imagine this on your house and in your front yard.



But Biloxi was different. Biloxi was odd. Casinos used to have to be contained on barges. Now they can be housed on land. You will see devastated areas right next to a brand new casino. Several of them. And you can also see the barges that were cast up on land. One barge, in fact, landed on a small hotel killing 5 people. Imagine sitting in your hotel room weathering the storm and having a barge land on you. And these barges are enormous!

It was an interesting trip because the devastation was so different. We see flood damage and much destruction. They see nothing. Houses and buildings were completely wiped out. Devastating no matter how you look at it, but different.

The day we were making our pilgrimage to other sites, G.W. Bush was visiting New Orleans. I said, did someone tell him there was a hurricane and he thought he would check it out? Or was he hoping to get drunk in the French Quarter. I have never been a fan of G.W. but this had exacerbated my disdain for his administration and him. It would be impossible to experience the spirit of these people and see the destruction and not be moved to some sort of action and right now that action is I want to beat the president with a brick or let a barge land on his Texas Ranch.

At this point, many students see me as one of them - I think. At least that's what they let me believe. We talk about anything and say anything. I wouldn't even think of reprimanding them in this situation. I want to hear their thoughts and have them express their opinions. One student, who argued on the van ride down that mass media may have been to blame for much of the hype and then realized his error when he remembered I teach in the J/MC school and quickly backtracked, had much to say. He thought the federal government was getting too much heat. He thought more responsibility fell to the local and state governments. I told him I agree that local and state need to take responsibility (Ray Nagin is likely to not get reelected according to my informal poll of residents, by the way) but that government at all levels needs to take some responsibility. Levees fall under the federal jurisdiction, I believe. At least in terms of monetary support. I could be mistaken. I often am. But it shouldn't be a matter of placing blame. That won't solve the problem. Communities and people working together is going to solve this and help.

I enjoyed conversations with students. I think to give up your spring break for this undertaking is more than admirable. The students will forever have my gratitude and admiration. Kudos to St. Bonaventure. And kudos to the leaders particularly Jim Mahar (finance professor and head hurricane relief dude). His leadership was exemplary. This is an incredible testament to the Bonaventure community.

Driving to New Orleans we stopped at a rest area and ran into alumni making the trip themselves. It was inspiring. I am so proud to be a member of this community!

Tarot Will Send You Straight to Hell! (Part IX)

Wednesday was a rather trying day. We returned from our trip to the other sites to find a group meeting that got out of control. I became quite upset with leadership and had to remove myself from the situation. That night a student decided to get rip roaring wasted and pissed on a cot. Or on the floor. He pissed on something that wasn't the bathroom. Earlier in the week we had a dumbass try to buy beer in MS with a fake ID. He was promptly sent home per the rules and regulations signed by everyone.

Our pisser's punishment can be debated, and was. I put my two cents in which never seemed to matter and doesn't need to be discussed further in this blog. Suffice to say that my experience with certain things got in the way of my experience in New Orleans and I don't like that it did. I wasn't here to suffer through internal politics and bullshit, but I did. And survived - I think.

Today we went into New Orleans and the French Quarter. I was responsible for a group of students. I had to walk with them to make sure they didn't do anything against the vows they took to come on the trip. I would have loved to have taken them to get hurricanes (the drink) but knew better. They may read this and come and beat me in my office at Bonas, but that's the way it goes. Perhaps another time.

I worked with this group on the first day when we gutted houses. I continue to be amazed at the students. They are awesome! I told them that I had been to New Orleans before and have seen what I need so they can do whatever they want. I would just make sure they stayed out of trouble. One guy joked that he wanted to go to a nudie girlie bar. I said, fine. I would prefer not to, but if that's what they want, okay. No drinking though.

We didn't do that. We found a wonderful little diner/hole-in-the-wall to eat in. We also discussed all kinds of things that will stay in New Orleans - it is spring break after all. So shut up group of mine!

Actually, we were so tired, we sat in the lobby of the Sheraton in these wonderfully plush and comfy chairs watching people walk by. Most of the group - or perhaps all - had been to New Orleans before and just wanted to relax - or drink. That narrowed the choices.

When we returned to camp, the wind had picked up and there were reports that thunderstorms, hail and perhaps tornados were headed our way. I thought this would nicely cap our week in New Orleans. Luckily that was not necessary.

I read tarot cards for students for about 3 hours that night. I creeped many of them out which is always a bonus. I find that I am eerily accurate. They thought so too. I got tired, because I'm old and need to go to bed before 11 p.m. so I told them to stop at my office and I would remember to bring a deck to work. I am not sure how the dean will feel about this. Perhaps I should ask first! Actually, I will ask first. I would hate to get reprimanded for this. In fact, one student that is actually mine told me he wanted to schedule a meeting to discuss his Capstone and wanted a reading at the same time. Whatever works, I guess.

We are Leaving (Part X)

Friday is bittersweet. We are excited to leave to return to some degree of normalcy. But also upset that we are leaving the area. There is so much that needs to be done that cannot possibly be accomplished in one week by 60+ people. What we did was admirable. And what we did was appreciated. I was excited to board the van to leave. But I knew I would be sad.

After some delay we were on the road. After many, many, many hours, I arrived home. My first order of business was to get some chicken fingers and milk! When I pulled into my driveway I cried. I cried because I had my choice for dinner. I could walk to dinner if I wanted. My house is standing and is as cute as I left it. My dogs were barking inside and were alive to greet me. I didn't have a giant "X" on my house. It was a gorgeous day and kids were biking, skateboarding and running. My community was whole. And I was whole. My family and friends were a convenient phone call away. And I was grateful.

I loved my dogs when I opened the door. I loved my house, I ate my dinner, I drank my wine, I showered (a long shower). I greeted my boyfriend who disappointed me, but he was around. We had dinner and I fell asleep for hours. I woke up and read the Sunday paper and drank my coffee. It seemed as if the past week was a dream because I was clean and had gotten sleep and was home.

I am so very grateful for my experience. I am excited that the students who joined us are members of the Bonaventure community and will make an exceptional mark on the world. I am so proud of everyone involved and I am proud of me for going.

I saw the front page of the Saturday Buffalo News with an article about alternative spring breaks and a picture of some of our group. I smiled.

Sense Of Humor

Despite the devastation and the tragedy, humor seemed inevitable.  We did notice signs of it throughout the affected areas and even found ourselves partaking.

My favorite sign had to be in the shop window to the left.  It is difficult to see in this photo, but reads "Katrina, you bitch, don't even talk to me."

My group in New Orleans had some fun with statues along the waterfront.  My glasses are on the youth to the left in the picture above.


One of the sites in Mississippi had a totem pole type directional.  I tried to find St. Bonaventure or Olean on the pole but surmised that our group hadn't gotten that far yet.  I enjoyed this piece of art.

 

"She likes to have goals that no one else can imagine, so they'll shut up about how they understand exactly what she's going through."
Brian Andreas from StoryPeople

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Last modified: 01/08/12