The bus left Crossroads Community Church at 5PM for an overnight cruise from Cincinnati to New Orleans. One might think leaving that late after carb-loading on pizza would promote sleeping most of the way. Yeah…right! I honestly think the bus rides to and from New Orleans were meant to represent the suffering part of the mission journey. Can’t speak for everybody else, but I got about 3-hours of sleep in twenty minute bursts. Between the A/C pumping ice cold air into the bus and stopping at truck stops every two hours, it proved to be a long bus ride in both directions.
You quickly learned that the key rest stop tactic that proved to be best practice followed a first-in-first-out protocol. Anything less, and you were in line to pee with 200 other people who weren’t as motivated to get off the buses…and there were four really big buses in the caravan.
Upon arrival in New Orleans, we descended upon a defenseless Cracker Barrel for breakfast with another overflow scenario. We were running late and had to pump 200 hungry and sleep-deprived people through that place in an hour and change in order to make it to Franklin Avenue Baptist Church (FABC) in time for morning services. With only 20 or so folks with To-Go boxes in hand, we made it.
The morning peaked…no strike that thought…the morning rocked! Pastor Luter of FABC was as full of the Spirit as anyone I’ve ever met. Sunday morning service at FABC will get your blood pumping. If it does not, you had better check for a pulse. The choir was singing at the tops of their lungs. One woman had only one note, but she sung it loud and clear, and nobody cared because it was music to her and to her Lord. Everybody was rocking and rolling and Sunday morning was without a doubt one of the high points of our trip, and it was only the beginning of the first day.
I won’t give you a blow-by-blow of all seven days, but there are a few highlights worth sharing. The first thing that seemed to be front of mind had to do with August 29th of 2005 when Katrina came to town. Unless you were there, and being there clearly was the wrong place to be, the best you could understand came from whatever you saw on news programs. If you were not there it was happening someplace else and meant nothing to your own life. The whole thing was somebody else’s nightmare. Speaking for myself, I was far removed; an observer convinced that it must have sucked to be in New Orleans during that storm and the aftermath. I had no idea, at least not until the humbling bus tour of the Ninth Ward and other affected areas on day 2 of our trip.
The flooding did not come from the Gulf of Mexico as I thought it would; it came from Lake Pontchartrain in the form of a 33-foot storm surge pushed by Katrina’s winds. We parked on a bridge over the 17th Street Canal where the first levee broke, and you could immediately see just how much trouble those folks were in who lived close by. On either side of the levee, neighborhoods were at a minimum of 20 feet below the water level in the canal. The water in the canal behind the levee walls was at sea level. Most of New Orleans is not. New Orleans is built on land resembling a large bowl. Add 33-feet of storm surge against a ten foot concrete wall and it’s no wonder over two hundred feet of levee wall burst.
With that much water exploding into the neighborhoods, you can begin to imagine how quickly disaster struck. The houses at the point of the levee break were gone, wiped from the earth. Only concrete slabs were left. And this was only one of several levees that failed. I did not need to see the rest of them.
Those that remained behind to ride out the storm and did not evacuate perished within minutes. As the water filled 88% of New Orleans those seeking higher ground went to the second floors of their homes, if they had second floors; ultimately into their attics, if they had attics. Sadly, many who died actually drowned right there – in their attics. They were trapped. Can you imagine the terror those people felt? Some were able to chop holes through their roofs, and those were the ones we saw being rescued on TV. They were the lucky ones.
We heard of one family where the wife was able to squeeze kids and herself through an air vent to get to the roof but her husband was too large to make it. She held his hand until he drowned. Yeah, that one just crushed me too. Katrina became real for me the moment I heard and saw these things…almost 8 years later. This was a quiet bus ride to be sure, and it gave me a greater sense of urgency to make a contribution in my short week in New Orleans.
We saw high water marks on second floor walls only to learn that the stains we saw were not really the high water marks; they were the marks where the water stayed at that level for 24-days after the storm. The true high water mark was too high to leave a mark because the walls and the points of the lingering stains were under twice the amount of water. The remaining water leaving those stains had nowhere to drain off; the bowl was full. There would be no relief until the water could be pumped out of the city…but then the pumps were overwhelmed and destroyed in the storm surge. So the water sat where it was for 24 days.
There would be no house-to-house searches either. How can you search what you cannot see? We saw the disaster recovery search and rescue team markings spray painted on many abandoned houses that identified the date when it was searched and how many bodies were found…humans and pets…and here we are seeing this eight years later. Eight years later. When I decided to go on this mission trip I wondered how much could be left to do after so much time had passed. Hadn’t most of the hard work been done already? It became abundantly clear to me that there would be work to do for eight more years and then eight more beyond that.
Our Habitat work team was assigned to help build a house at 2521 Delachaise Avenue. This house would belong to Denise, a single mother, and her three daughters. Upon arrival at the work site there was an immediate sense of ownership. This was my house in New Orleans. This was our team’s house. Based on all the prayers written on headers and beams and window casings soon to be covered with sheetrock or trim and hidden from everyone – there would be One to see them all – this was God’s house too.
The house next door was abandoned and overgrown with weeds; the roof covered with growth and showing signs of caving in at any second. Other houses nearby had been refurbished or were under varying phases of rebirth, but every block had one or two houses that were falling down and uninhabitable. Each abandoned house was a potential site for a bulldozer to clear and Habitat for Humanity to come in and begin another home for someone.
I won’t run down the list of reasons regarding how I earned aches and pains in muscles I forgot I had. It’s now been a week as I write this post, and my left hand still aches from pounding nails. Calves still ache from working on a ladder. Even with those discomforts I get the same answer when I ask myself if I’d do it again next year – absolutely! I’ll be going back next year if I’m lucky enough to be picked in what I expect will be a lottery. I’ll go the year after that too, and maybe for eight years after that.
Manfred Mann and the Animals wrote a song in the 60’s about a house in New Orleans. That house was a house of evil and “was the ruin of many a poor boy”. There are many houses in New Orleans that nobody sings about. They stand empty and decaying. As they come down, like the house at 2521 Delachaise, a new house is built expanding the presence of rebirth. We prayed over this house just as previous teams, and I’m sure the teams that follow. This house in New Orleans – our house in New Orleans – is under a hedge of protection. Prayers to that effect are written all over that house. This house in New Orleans is God’s house, and we were blessed to have a hand in building it. This house and every previous Habitat house and every future Habitat house each represent another footprint the march forward of God’s expanding Kingdom.
So…a few sore muscles are but a blessing to have been a part of something that big.