Katrina’s Legacy MAG

By Jill Conte, Natick, MA

Even the faintest familiar smell or mention of the Gulf Coast sends my mind reeling back to that week in New Orleans. I traveled with my church youth group to see what twenty pairs of hands could do to help. We had naively assumed that a decent amount of progress had been made after a year and a half. We were horrified to discover hundreds of wrecked houses still filled with moldy and decaying food, clothing, and family treasures that had been buried under seven feet of water for months.

On our first workday, we found ourselves in the abandoned wasteland of the Lower Ninth Ward, miles from the hustle and bustle of the pristine French Quarter we so readily associated with New Orleans. The gutting crew put us to work immediately, knocking down rotten walls and throwing the life possessions of a 70-year-old woman out onto the curb. After countless wheelbarrow trips, old newspapers, school notebooks, and unrecognizable family mementos lay in a heap on the sidewalk.

The supervisors told us the meaning of the spray-painted marks on the side of a house. Each signified the rescue group, the date the house was checked, and how many people were found dead inside. Most of these numbers were zero, thankfully, but the occasional one or two sent chills down our spines. We finished the rest of the week in silence, speaking to each other only to request help with a heavy wheelbarrow or to shout a warning as a ceiling – and our spirits with it – came crashing to the floor.

We did have the opportunity to visit the French Quarter for a taste of New Orleans cuisine and to experience some Mardi Gras festivities. On Bourbon Street the contrast of the two halves of the city was striking. People here partied with reckless abandon, while those on the other side lived in run-down FEMA trailers next to what remained of their homes.

On our last day, we took a lunch break and visited a neighborhood grocery store. A woman came up to us and, in the typical Southern way, started telling us her story: “Two cars, a home, and an entire material life were lost. But,” she said, “I still have my seven children – and people like you who are helping us.”

Our group returned to chilly Boston the following day with lifted spirits and warm hearts. We had done some pretty nasty work, but knowing we had changed lives made it worthwhile. Nothing can compare to the experiences of that trip to New Orleans, where a ray of hope still shines on the faces of the residents, waiting for people like us to come and help.

Similar Articles


This article has 1 comment.

Margo BRONZE said...
on Mar. 8 2010 at 11:22 am
Margo BRONZE, Fort Dodge, Iowa
2 articles 0 photos 3 comments

Favorite Quote:
"The writer writes in order to teach himself, to understand himself, to satisfy himself, the publishing of his ideas, though it brings gratification, is a curious anti-climax." Alfred Kazin

My mom went down to New Orleans for Habitat for Humanity. She said pretty much the same thing. It's sad to know that people have forgotten about New Orleans when they still need our help.


MacMillan Books

Aspiring Writer? Take Our Online Course!