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Ties that bind: Lessons from the storm

It felt strange last week to email friends in Manhattan, Massachusetts and Connecticut to offer empathy in the wake of a major hurricane.

Six days post-Sandy, a friend on Long Island was still living without electricity, while another in Connecticut had gone unscathed, though several neighbors had roofs bisected by fallen trees.

But … New York, really?

“If you have any questions about power outages, battery-operated radios or how long food lasts in a dead fridge, let me know,” I wrote.

“With every day, my understanding of what you must have gone through grows,” replied my friend Gail, a native New Yorker, writing from a Dunkin’ Donuts with working wi-fi. “I was gaping at my friend’s house around the corner with a tree through the top floor when she and her husband drove up in a state of shock and horror — and that’s just an upstairs repair with their property intact. Another neighbor with a tree through the top floor told us that it fell into her 16-year-old daughter’s room with the kid inside it. They had to pry open the door to get her out.”

Watching news reports about storm surges and wind destruction from south of the Mason-Dixon line turned my world view topsy turvy. Others seemed to appreciate the irony. A letter to the northeast on watching things from “the other side,” by NolaVie associate editor Anna Shults, drew more than 4,000 likes on Facebook.

As I write this, some 900,000 people are still without power in New Jersey, and NBC news is reporting that the outages may last another 10 days. That puts our own five-day blackout after Hurricane Isaac in perspective; in retrospect, it seems whiny to have complained at all.

There are some, however, who continue to suffer the effects of Isaac. They are Louisianans who live outside the federal levee system, whose lives have been disrupted in a considerable way by a storm that many of us already have forgotten.

In LaPlace, 6,900 homes were flooded in surges that hit 10 to 12 feet. And some 700 more were damaged in Braithwaite in Plaquemines Parish. Those numbers may not have the stunning impact of the millions without heat or light up north, but for the people living the aftermath, statistics hardly matter.

Like many other local religious and non-profit organizations, RHINO (Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans) from St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church called for volunteers to help with recovery after Isaac. Buses from the church have been heading to Braithwaite every Saturday, gutting and rebuilding homes with expertise honed by Katrina.

And they’re still at it.

RHINO program manager Avery Strada emailed me about the experience after her first trip south:

“This past weekend, a group of SCAPC folks headed down to Braithwaite to help the Dennis family, whose home was flooded by Hurricane Isaac. I should preface this by saying that I had no idea what exactly we would see or just how bad this area was affected. But, as we were waved through by the police officer, and drove into the neighborhood, I was in total shock. And as we turned the corner and saw their home, the shock turned into disbelief. But we had work to do … a house to clear out … and a family to help and love. So, we did it. Everyone put on their gloves and masks and did our best to save what could be saved — all the while, hearing memories of life and this home from the Dennis’.  Yes, incredible work was done. But I think the most important part of the entire day was just being there, being in community with these new friends as we laughed and even as we wanted to cry, thinking about what comes next in their lives.”

Later, I asked Avery for an update on Braithwaite.

“It dosen’t feel as raw as the first time we went down there,” she replied. “But the farther down 39 you get, the worse it all looks. The smell is definitely getting worse and worse as the muck/water/stuff sits for longer. It’s incredible how grateful people are for the help you can give them. Their stories of being rescued by boats in 10 feet of water from their houses are exactly what I remember hearing from Hurricane Katrina. They are thankful, too, that it’s not as widespread … and that you can drive 3 miles and get something to eat and civilization, whereas after Katrina, you had to drive hours to find an open restaurant.

“I am always surprised at the power of water. It’s so forceful and can cause so much destruction. These are beautiful homes, places these people rebuilt after Katrina, hopeful for protection in the form of big levees, but that did not happen. It’s like life washed away … animals, china, clothes, pictures, memories, everything. It makes you really grateful for the small things. And the memories you have inside of you.”

The lessons of destruction are not ones you want anyone, anywhere, to have to learn. But for those of us who do – those of us in this unwieldy and happenstance family – there is a sense of reflection and recognition that bind us. And strength, always, in burdens shared.

We were there. You are here. And we will all go on.

This gallery of photographs from Avery Strada chronicles the ongoing Hurricane Isaac recovery work of RHINO in Braithwaite, La.


Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie.


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