This past week, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in an Alternative Spring Break trip to New Orleans, Louisiana with 37 other members of the Western community. The aim of this service learning trip was to assist Habitat for Humanity NOLA and Camp ReStore with restoration projects following the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. The following series of posts are a glimpse into my experiences and thoughts throughout this time.
ASB Day 1 (February 14th, 2016): Tourist Thoughts.
After an exhausting 22-hour bus ride from London, ON, we reached Camp ReStore early Sunday morning. Following a quick break to rest, shower and refresh, we were on our way to explore the French Quarter in the heart of downtown New Orleans. Upon arrival, I was amazed by the flamboyance, colour and liveliness the city carried within itself. Tiny shops lined the dense alleyways and sold everything from voodoo dolls to antiques to sweet pralines. The St. Louis Cathedral, with its magnificent white architecture, rose in prominence above the bustling activity of the city. Street performers, musicians, tarot card readers, magicians, poets and local artists occupied every corner of the cobbled streets. We witnessed astounding musicians playing a plethora of jazz tunes, with my favourites being a Kora African Bass Harp player and an animated, dancing trombonist.
The most striking street act I saw was a young, black boy drumming a powerful beat on an upside-down paint bucket, while passing tourists dropped loose change in another. The boy had his head bent, eyes closed. I was struck with the realization that underneath the ostentatious beauty and vibrance of the city, or perhaps parallel to it, lies intrinsic tribulation and a struggle for survival. A situation where a young child is forced to be the family breadwinner is unfathomable to me. I will forever remember this as the first of many instances in NOLA that bear testament to my immense privilege. I also wondered how street performers would respond if I asked them whether their spectacles are out of love of craft or simple, elemental need– I optimistically hope it is an equal mixture of both.
Next, we visited The Presbytère, part of the Louisiana State Museum. The main floor featured an exhibit on Hurricane Katrina, which was eye-opening and informative. As I walked through, I read about NOLA’s paradoxical history with bodies of water (ports help sustain the city’s economy by allowing trade and transportation, but also create greater susceptibility to natural disasters), listened to eye-witness accounts of the hurricane and the calamity that ensued, and saw demonstrations highlighting every level of infrastructural failure following Katrina.
I quickly realized how little I knew of the social, political, economic and environmental factors that had contributed to Katrina. The pernicious effect of the hurricane was largely due to an inability of the institutional and organizational framework of the city to respond effectively. Despite early warnings and climate change concerns, there was insufficient planning and preparation to deal with large-scale natural disasters. The catastrophe was further exacerbated by a lack of communication between the various task forces recruited for disaster management – this was most evident to me when I read that almost 20,000 people had gathered at the Convention Centre for assistance, yet the federal government had been completely unaware of this fact until three days after the hurricane struck. How an institution that has been created primarily for the protection and progress of citizens failed so fantastically still baffles me.
My favourite part of the museum was the last exhibit: it was a film display with multiple screens highlighting the response of NOLA residents to Hurricane Katrina. I was moved by the resiliency and optimism of the citizens, and inspired by their commitment to restore NOLA to its original vibrancy. I was also struck with the realization that the essence of a city lies within its people. Architecture, art, music have little significance unless they embody history and culture, both of which are created, cherished and disseminated by the unrelenting vigor of human spirit – and it’s going to take a force much stronger than a hurricane to destroy that. What a liberating realization this is – to know that amidst destruction and strife and terror, amidst angst and frustration and hopelessness, what we value most is essentially indestructible.
Before dinner, we had the pleasure of listening to the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The band constituted a group of supremely talented musicians, with most belonging to dynasties of musical excellence. Listening to their performance, I felt that I was experiencing the epitome of authenticity of this city. The music was spectacular – deep and exciting and colourful, each instrument playing its unique part in bringing the tunes to life. I was thoroughly impressed (perhaps most by one particular musician who had the warmest smile I have ever seen on a human being). The clarinetist enlightened us on some jazz history: jazz and blues stemmed from music created during slavery. Slaves were forbidden from tasks as simple as playing music or dancing during work so they communicated using songs that often contained secret codes. I love that such vibrant, dynamic music has emerged from such cruel, dire history. The human ability to create beauty even in the depths of darkness is incredible.
To be continued,
**All images courtesy of Jordan Coop