8.29.2011

Update from the Boss! - Katrina Anniversary

It has been 6 years since Hurricane Katrina changed our lives. PNOLA (myself specifically) have never been known to make a big deal out of the anniversary. I of course realize its a great opportunity to remind folks of what happened and how much there is left to do, along with a way to re-engage some supporters and become known to some new ones...that said, it's also always been a day I've kept to myself to reflect on and sometimes (usually) avoid the memories.

I only lived here about a year and week before the storm hit. From day 1, I've never claimed to have been nearly as affected as the families who have been here for generations and whose existence in its entirety has always been defined by this place (I did lose my t-shirt collection, clearly the centerpiece of a 19 year old's worldly possessions). In fact, to this day when people ask me why I do what I do my response is still the same as what it was the first week I came back after the storm: I only lived here a year and I didn't have dependents so I could come back early on when it was still rough and not worry about where I was going to sleep (gutted out church) or what I was going to eat (some mush the hippies called TVP) and it was still so painful to be away for just the few short months that I was gone...when I think about multiplying that by many lifetimes of history here and a much tougher road back home I feel compelled to do what I can to help people come back. In any case, I have a lifetime of loving New Orleans and doing right by our people still ahead of me as any native or long term transplant does and I am grateful that I live somewhere that people don't see it as an obligation but rather their birth rite to work together to build or rebuild community.

I also have always felt strongly that you can't live in New Orleans and claim to love it if you don't have skin in the game. People here are fanatical about here...believe me you wouldn't stick around too long if you weren't. After your car flooding during a heavy rain or your shocks being destroyed by your daily commute, your more rational person is already looking for the next flight out of here. Obviously New Orleans' problems run deeper than transportation woes, but anyone here wouldn't trade it for the world and that is only emphasized and enhanced by the fact that everyone here has fought to be here one way or another. I imagine no one complains about the cold on the top of Everest and I think that definitely applies in this case.

In a rebuild industry where a lot of groups are wrapping up their commitments (I mean this with complete sincerity...these groups went above and beyond what their mission ever was by doing so much for over 5 years and their focus is now needed in Haiti, Joplin, etc. so I wouldn't ever harbor ill will toward any group who is ending their program here) and donations or other sources of funding are dwindling, it would be easy to feel tired and convince yourself that things are coming to an end. Then you walk down the street to our office and you remember that for many families the end is nowhere near and the job is not done. By now I'm pretty sure I am one of the few remaining relics (you can tell who we are using a simple test: Remark on the grossest thing you've ever seen/smelled and if they psshhh your story then they were probably gutting down here after the storm) still doing this work full time ever since 2005 so it would be easy to justify moving on, but my initial and continued motivation for this work precludes that from being an option: other people more important to New Orleans than me are still waiting to come home.

Also, as you may already know, my PNOLA partner in crime (so to speak), Ryan Porcelli, who is responsible for me not spinning off the radar and giving up on the effort back in May of 2008 just before we merged organizations, suffered a serious brain injury back in April. In a way I can't completely explain, I feel compelled to keep working hard to help people recover from the storm while he continues his struggle to recover from his own hardships. I figured out that I spent over 10,000 hours working side by side with Ryan to build this organization for the purpose of helping as many people as we could (this does not include our 'business meetings' at Pal's Lounge, by the way). Ryan does not have the luxury of not working hard to get back to normal and I feel that is true of anyone who hasn't been able to do so after the storm.

I sometimes think that most Executive Director's jobs involve creating written content that are essentially one big guilt trip: mission accomplished. Perhaps on a bit more of a 'positive' note, I want to tell a story I haven't told in a long time:

My first week back after the storm I worked with a Pastor named Tyrone in Plaquemines Parish. Our goal was to clear an area to make way for a number of FEMA trailers to be brought in as temporary housing for the people whose homes had washed away. When Tyrone was 13, this same devastation had ravaged his community in Hurricanes Betsy and Camille. He recalled being angry with what had happened and wished his Dad had not made him go to work every day helping to rebuild what he clearly thought of as lost forever. Tyrone spent the next 30+ years essentially rebuilding back what had been lost and in the process developing further what had always been dreamed of. On August 29th, 2005, Tyrone's own son was 13 years old and had a remarkably similar reaction. Tyrone told his son that this storm would provide him purpose and forever lash him to his community, as it had done for him his whole life, and that while he did not know how many more times the town would have to be rebuilt, he knew that the process of doing so along side with your neighbors was the purpose, and those bonds couldn't ever be washed away by a flood. This premise was the foundation for mine, Paul's, and Ryan's efforts for creating what we have and as we move forward I only hope we have the ability to continue to pursue a purpose similar to Tyrone's and his son's.

The storm was 6 years ago and you might expect that most of the work that needs to be done is already done and now we are just doing the finishing touches. That is not the case. PNOLA is the type of organization that is always better this year than it was the year before. More efficient, better skilled, more prepared, with a more robust vision for what we can accomplish. As of March 1, 2011 we had 7 staff (including AmeriCorps) - as of Sept 1, 2011, we will have 21! I could be wrong, but I believe we are the first and only organization to ever have an entire AmeriCorps team (all 10!) who have all done AmeriCorps before and all but 3 of them have done at least a full year of rebuilding work here in New Orleans. The sharp increase in capacity coupled with the amazingly low learning curve is going to allow us to do things that will literally blow your mind. We did this because of a renewed sense of urgency to go big or go home while so many people remain waiting for us to give them what they need to get over the hump and get back home. Welcome to all of our new folks...I'm very excited about the great things we can do together!

I did not end up taking today off (as I usually have for the Anniversary) but I kept at the front of my mind all day what this date means to my home. Please remember those who have been lost, those whose hopes of coming home have been dashed, and those who have scratched and clawed to come back home. I am proud to call these folks neighbors and regret the noticeable lack of BBQ's that I attended today.

On a side note, as a NY born, Virginia raised, New Orleans awakened person I want to say how happy I am that most people fared well during Irene. If anyone is out there who needs advice on how to move forward if your family or home has been affected, please let me know and I'd be happy to share anything we have learned down here. jim@pnola.org .

There's no word/modifier to put in front so I'll simply say: anniversary. Business as usual tomorrow.

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