The first thing you notice when you enter New Orleans, Orleans Parish and cross over the Industrial Canal bridge into the Ninth Ward is utter devastation … still, even four months after Hurricane Katrina! The Category-4 storm struck New Orleans with a glancing blow on Aug. 29. But, when several of the levees collapsed later that day, the resulting floods delivered a knockout punch to the east of downtown New Orleans that is reverberating even today. To the untrained eye, it looks as if Katrina struck only last week — the damage continues to boggle the mind.

Harlon Brock, a flood victim and resident of Chalmette, best voiced what most New Orleans residents feel, “People cannot know what it’s like until they come and see this for themselves.”

Still, much has been accomplished since Katrina. Many houses have been gutted; the city continues to clean up the resulting refuse piles. The levees are back in place, the floodwaters have dried up, but in the areas affected by the deluge, about half of the residences are abandoned. Many of those who have not returned to their houses were the ones who rode out the storm, and were so traumatized that they have vowed to never return.

Obviously, the telling of one’s story is cathartic.

Peter Ruiz, of Arabi, like hundreds of others, stayed for the storm. We met Pete on our first day in St. Bernard Parish. We were working on a couple of houses trying to “acclimate” to the devastation that we saw around us. These houses were already “gutted” and we were pulling out wiring and prepping the studs for power cleaning. Pete drove up and asked for some help. He had been “ripped-off,” he said, by one of the many disreputable house gutters that were springing up all over.

Pete reminded me of a tough old Mainer — with a strong Louisiana accent. He is an 81-year old New Orleans native who has lived a colorful life. He had crabbed and shrimped, been a security guard, and had taken various odd jobs to survive. As Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Pete had taken refuge at a niece’s house several blocks away. After the power went out, while Pete was sitting in her living room, he heard a large “BOOM!” To his horror, the front door and back door simultaneously crashed in as a 2-3 foot wave inundated the house. The water level rose quickly and he frantically scrambled up into a crawlspace of the attic … trapped under the roof. Within 10 minutes, the floodwaters had reached 10 feet. Pete said, “I thought that this was the end.” During the next two days, he fought in the pitch black to survive. Just as he was about to give up, he reached down and “by a miracle” his hand felt a boat oar (which he proudly displayed for us to see). The water had receded by about 3 inches to reveal a small attic window. He broke the window, crawled out onto the roof and was finally rescued. Since returning to Arabi, Pete has been living in a “tent city” across town [Note: In January, the temperatures can get into the 40’s at night.].

Four months later, when we met Pete, his house was a real mess. It had not been touched since the storm. None of us, including our rugged builders and contractors, had ever seen anything quite like this.

Reaching the open doors and windows of Pete’s house, we encountered a compacted, 3 to 4-foot high pile of putrefying debris, which we worked our way through foot-by-foot. Everything — furniture, electrical appliances, personal belongings, papers, rotting food and supplies, the ceilings with moldy insulation — was jumbled together. We hauled and shoveled out all the refuse right down to the beautifully polished concrete terrazzo floors. Pete was ecstatic.

Like Pete’s residence, many of the houses in Chalmette and Arabi are salvageable. Though much was ruined, he wanted to see everything as we pulled out the house’s contents. We were throwing away a lifetime of Pete’s memories and heritage. However, we were able to find one positive moment in the whole ordeal by locating Pete’s false teeth. It was the only thing he had hoped we would be able to find.

Though, for many of us, the two days we spent with Peter Ruiz’s became the defining moment of our New Orleans relief trip, others also had stories to tell. Lymon Worthy, in his 70s, survived the storm inside the attic of his Ninth Ward house for three days with his dog. As we spoke to him, his story-and-a-half wooden house was being gutted. He wants to save it and he hopes to “fix it up and rent it out to someone else.” However, the City of New Orleans has other plans for most of the Ninth Ward. It wants to completely bulldoze this whole area, as well as other devastated areas. These potential actions are leading to great anger and tension within the poorer neighborhoods.

Raymond Mitchell, in his 40s, lives about a block away from Mr. Worthy. Raymond survived the flood by climbing out onto his roof with his wife and elderly mother. His family, all non-swimmers, was finally pulled to safety by others onto a schoolhouse rooftop. For days he watched as debris including dead bodies floated by in the floodwaters.

These descriptions and stories are just a taste of the devastation that the people of New Orleans and indeed the whole Gulf Coast are continuing to endure. Much has been done, but so much more needs to be accomplished. It will take a long time to rebuild this area. But as one New Orleans resident said, “For the longest time we haven’t even seen the light-at-the-end of-the-tunnel. But, at least now we’re just beginning to a see just a little glow in the distance.” It was hard leaving New Orleans and coming back to Maine knowing that so many more people need our help. But, it was a privilege to help!

How to Help

Sending money is appreciated, but what the people of St. Bernard and Orleans Parish desire most is physical assistance. Individual citizens need to go down, volunteer and give of their time to help gut, clean and rebuild the New Orleans neighborhoods, one house, one block at a time. Below are a few assistance and faith-based organizations that are looking for volunteers and/or donations:

Mike Herbert is Publications Marketing Associate at the Island Institute. In January he spent a week in New Orleans working with a group of volunteers from the Mid-coast area.