Ty Siddiqui, Field Manager
When Hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, it seemed like a bad omen. I stayed hunkered in my second floor apartment with no electricity and no one with whom to talk. I saw Isaac’s aftermath in the city and counted us all lucky, since it could have been worse. I was relieved when the power on my block came back on the following Sunday night, and that businesses re-opened almost immediately.
Then I heard about what happened to Plaquemines Parish.
Stories began to flood in from the news and first-hand accounts about dead animals (deer, cows, nutria, dogs, cats) littering the streets. Homes had been lifted up off their foundations by flood waters and deposited on the levees. People had stayed in their homes to ride out the hurricane, assuming that the levee would protect them. Most of those households were rescued by neighbors with boats, while a few unlucky individuals were dead. For me, it was a complete flashback to Katrina.
While driving through it, I noticed that Chalmette looked like New Orleans-proper did…untouched by hurricane wind and water. People were driving to their jobs or homes, school buses careened onto local streets, and the looming refinery’s rusted cooling towers released giant clouds of steam and chemicals into the sky. The sun was shining… a stark contrast to my gloomier thoughts. I’ve learned things about Chalmette Refining, which include its abhorrent safety record, its disregard for the health of the surrounding community, and its multiple accidents per week. All of these things happen because the proprietary company (Exxon Mobil) won’t invest money to sustain the facility… they only slap a temporary fix on something broken, and wait until it breaks again.
We turned off of St. Bernard and on to a local highway which passed St. Bernard State Park. We made our way down some twists and turns, and then began driving next to the Stolthaven facility. There were large indentations like pregnant chads (gifts from the winds of Isaac) on the upper portions of several tanks. We also watched as metal workers welded new panels onto the sides of three broken chemical tanks. This situation wasn’t a chemical emergency to them… it was just another day on the job.
Past Stolthaven, the area became more residential. Homes began to rise in the foreground, and the sight of them was enough to make one cry. Houses were “hulk-smashed” and laying in pieces, while others had just the roofs ripped off. A few had escaped virtually unharmed, except for having parts of their foundation washed away (the roofs now look like valleys instead of plains). The other stories were true as well. Entire homes and sheds had been picked up by the floods and dropped onto the levee wall… a testament to the force of these flood waters.
These visuals began to invigorate me and my volunteer friends, and we continued downthe road for another 10 minutes or so, until we arrived at our rendezvous point… the parking lot of the local Catholic church, where the Archdiocese and United Way had erected a tent. They were busy organizing canned goods and others non-perishables into boxes for residents. My crew and I stepped out of the car, took a few pictures (to commemorate our time spent together that day), and waited for instructions.
Andrew approached our group and told us about the house we’d be working on that day. The home was in the middle of a subdivision, and the neighborhood had been evacuated. Most of the gutting work (removing drywall and the like) had already been accomplished by a previous crew of volunteers, so all that remained was pulling nails and cleaning up. The home was a 10 minute drive from the rendezvous point. We loaded back into the car, and began following Andrew back the way we came.
As we drove down the highway, I remarked to Jay (researcher for the Bucket Brigade) about the numerous citrus orchards we were passing. Jay began telling me about the farmers in the region who grow mostly organic citrus. Apparently, they out-produce the rest of Louisiana in citrus and are THE citrus provider for local Crescent City Farmers’ Markets, including Holly Grove Market. Or at least, they were. With this latest chemical spill, many of these farmers will lose their organic label, costing them thousands of dollars in future earnings and doing “God only knows what ” to their produce.
I ruminated on this depressing fact until we reached our work site: a very pretty Ranch-style brick home behind a road check-point manned by St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish sheriffs. Andrew’s briefing about previous volunteers’ work was accurate; the trash pick-up in front of the house was piled high (three to four feet) with the guts of the interior. Furniture and household nick-knacks littered the front yard, and there was no presence of glass in the windows. Large televisions were lying abandoned on the lawn, and the only remaining evidence that this home was loved and lived in was a fake decorative face on the tree in the front, smiling and welcoming us inside.
I could tell that this house used to be beautiful. We walked through the front entrance into a foyer with bright and expensive tile, an immediate signal to me that “Mother Nature” doesn’t discriminate between the rich and poor… everyone gets hit with a hurricane. The foyer took us to a recessed and large living area with a broad fire place, and French doors that led onto a covered back patio. The pool was filled with brown water and covered by a layer of green algae. Standing in the center of the home, I felt the moisture that the walls continued to hold. The sky became overcast, and what little natural light there was fell away. This home where people lived just felt like a musty and empty basement. Looking at all the hard surfaces, I realized… this home was specifically built to take on floodwater with little structural damage. Obviously, the residents here expect their home to flood every few years or so.
I made several trips with the wheelbarrow to the sidewalk, dumping piles of sheet rock and a few pieces of insulation. Emily and Vivek (a newly-married couple and close friends of mine), Jay, and Bart (another member of Lamplight Circle) were either on ladder or on their knees, removing nails. After most of the sheet rock was cleared, Al and I removed the baseboards and rolled up the soggy carpet and pad underneath. With a giant “heave-ho”, we loaded up this last remnant of the room, and carted it outside.
It was important to take a mental break from the depression, and allow our youth and vigor to provide needed distractions. Bart began talking about his history as a lyricist, and broke out with an impromptu rap (with rapturous applause following it). I let slip a muffled guffaw when Jay swung his hammer to extricate a nail, only to catch the porcelain light fixture on the ceiling, which released a pocket of Isaac floodwater on his head. Emily, Vivek, and I found a large abandoned monster truck tire on the side of the road, and Emily proceeded to crawl inside it and model. Each of us found a way to abate our sadness over the damage. We then took a break for a quick bite.
With our work finished, some of the nuns from Catholic Charities came by to pray with us,and thank us for our work. We took a group snap shot (I try not to miss a group picture opportunity), and began packing up our equipment. We took our final look around the house, took a few more pictures, said goodbye to Al, and went on our way.
People in the flood plain of Plaquemines know that another storm will hit them and they’ve accepted this reality; however, the help that we provided was only a quick fix to a constant problem. Wouldn’t it be a greater help to create an unbreakable levee system? Or a foundation that won’t rock? Or a home that won’t flood? Just as Chalmette Refining uses weak and temporary clamps to seal up leaks in chemical pipelines, we are only providing a temporary solution. We are becoming too reactionary, and not being innovative. Because of this, the culture of this region now includes one staple: damage is a part of everyday life, and we must simply accept it. Maybe what gives Louisianans the strength to carry on in times like this is also their weakness. Perhaps their ability to just “accept” damage (like hurricanes) has made them turn a blind eye to the wrongdoings of other things (like local industry). I will continue my work at the Bucket Brigade and hope that the next time I visit Braithwaite, their situation will have a sustainable solution.