With only about seven weeks before DRI2012 kicks off in New Orleans, I can’t think of much that I haven’t told you about the town, the people, the food, the shopping, or the music that we haven’t already touched on. So, today I’m taking you down a slightly different path.
When I first volunteered for Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans (the first spring after Katrina), I was taken by the unbending spirit of the people looking to return their town to normalcy. The homes impacted were being gutted and rebuilt slowly, but with determination and love. The restaurants were trying their hardest to serve the waiting patrons outside their doors – but with few servers, even fewer cooks and chefs – the task was tall indeed. As the city inched back with the first Jazz Fest eight months after the storm, people wanted to return to the city and its music. It was a difficult time indeed, but people wanted to shake loose of the anguish and ride the vision of hope. With so many lives lost, so many people who had left the city (perhaps forever), and so much to rebuild, many thought New Orleans had sung its last song.
But what the naysayers didn’t know was that there were many people who knew differently…who knew of the strength and determination of the people. From common man to the stars and local heroes, each had a quiet confidence that things would be alright. Working on my first home in the Musicians Village in the Upper Ninth Ward, I was teamed with a bunch of guys from the music business in New York. They wanted to help the musicians of the city – those gutty, tough, blues and jazz performers who sing about real triumphs and tragedies – and they came to New Orleans with a determination to make a difference. We hauled rebar and pressure-treated lumber, and swung our hammers building the structural bases of homes. We framed the underside of some of the first houses in the Musicians Village. We, of strong spirit, and little construction knowledge were helping to get New Orleans music back on track.
We built homes by day, and went out to music clubs at night. We partied almost as hard as we worked and made many new friends as we did. And being a part of the first Musicians Village homes to rise from the rubble, we were happy and proud to be there. It was somewhat surreal working alongside the eventual home owners who had endured considerable hardship during Katrina and after. One woman that I met while taking shelter beneath the frame of an in-progress construction (they build the homes four to five feet off the ground level to allow for the next flood so we could scurry beneath with plenty of clearance) told me her story as storm clouds deluged the spirited volunteers. As the water seeped through the yet unfinished floor boards on the home, Mary told me of how she evacuated with her disabled brother and 85-year-old mother. First to Houston she went, and then to Birmingham, and later to three or four other cities – always with the hope of returning to her beloved New Orleans.
As she told me her story I realized just how much I didn’t know about the hardships endured. And then she said, “After I got back to Birmingham again, that’s when I found my two children.” They had been separated for months and didn’t know each other’s fate. I listened intently as she matter-of-factly provided me with the details of her struggles. Tears rolled down my cheeks; she reached over and took my hand and said, “It’s okay, baby, we are going to be alright now. I’m going to have a house now, and we’ll be together again.”
And that’s the spirit of the people of New Orleans. In the many years that I have come back to New Orleans since Katrina I’ve heard many similar stories – people losing everything and pushing forward to rebuild and rejoin the community. In that first year back after Katrina, one evening after I cleaned up after a long dirty, hot, sweaty day at Habitat for Humanity, I ventured out to a small park to listen to some music. As I entered the park Marcia Ball and band were singing the Randy Newman song “Louisiana 1927 (They’re Trying to Wash Us Away).” The crowd listened mesmerized by the words of the song written long before Katrina – and roared their approval at the end when all proudly realized it wasn’t going to happen.
New Orleans and its people have spirit and determination. So do we. We will be working to speed their recovery because that’s what business continuity professionals do. We work to ensure resiliency, and we can learn something about resiliency from the people of New Orleans.
All the best,
Director of Volunteerism