Monday, March 12, 2012

NOLA Bound

Photo from here
On Saturday, I will be heading to New Orleans with a group of 40+ students and staff to spend an Alternative Spring Break participating in service and the rebuilding process, seven years post Hurricane Katrina.

As we prepare for the journey, I was reflecting on the fact that this is not my first trip to post-Katrina NOLA, but rather, my second. I visited the city back in December 2006, for a professional conference, just 16 months after the hurricane devastated the city. As a young graduate student, I did not explore much of the city because of the packed conference schedule, and the fact that I was going to be job searching soon and did not want to miss any of the educational sessions or networking opportunities. Five years later, it is striking to think about the messages that we were receiving about New Orleans while there. That despite the storm, much of New Orleans was reopened, including the area where we would be staying. That New Orleans needed us to come - it was important to be out and about in the city, injecting money back into the local economy, which relies on the tourism industry.

During the conference, one of the keynote sessions offered featured Dr. Marvalene Hughes, who served as the president of Dillard University from 2005-2011. She had started at the university, just months before the hurricane hit, and was responsible for overseeing the evacuation and subsequent rebuilding of the university.  Her speech was touching and heartfelt, as she discussed the challenges of relocating a university and trying to continue to provide students with a quality education in the midst of devastation. The personal challenges of trying to maintain a positive morale for an entire university community. It was a speech that every educator needed to hear.

What I remember most about that small glimpse that I got into Katrina's impact on the city, in just a 90-minute keynote, was how empty that the room was. It was a conference session at nine o'clock in the morning, and over two thirds of the room was missing, likely because they had spent their evening on Bourbon Street the night before. My fellow graduate students and I were told multiple times how important it was to participate in the "conference outside of the conference" and "to play the game" - that the people who were going to get jobs were the ones out socializing. Yet as I sat in the session, I was embarrassed by the poor turnout of my future colleagues who were missing this amazing opportunity to learn about the bigger picture. We were talking about values education during the day, and that seemed to fly out the window at night. Their memory of NOLA would be hurricanes and the strange smells of Bourbon Street. I couldn't wrap my head around it. I remember thinking, wow, why would anyone ever plan a conference in New Orleans?

A few of my friends decided to skip some of the session later in the day because they found a tour that would take them out to see some of the city, including the more damaged areas. I wanted to join them, but ultimately stuck to my "I have to go to everything" approach to the conference. After hearing about the things they saw, I couldn't help but feel like I had missed an amazing learning opportunity. That feeling was even stronger when we got back on the plane on Sunday, and I had no idea when I would ever have a reason to go back to New Orleans. My 23-year-old self was still pretty dualistic about things, right? Not to mention a little judgmental. The reality is that I was a tourist there, just as much as anyone else.

I am thankful for this new opportunity to experience the city in a different way, to unpack my own assumptions, and to look at some of those messages that we get as non-residents a bit deeper. As I prepare to head back to NOLA, I have been seeking opportunities to learn about the hurricane and post-Katrina New Orleans. The group has been sharing a number of different articles and videos, and I thought I would post some of them here, in case others might be interested.

A Katrina Reader - This was shared by some former NOLA residents, who spoke at our meeting. I have been digging through and there is a ton of great articles, poems, and essays, that also share some of the pre-Katrina issues that were uncovered as a result of the Hurricane.

For Dear Life - A four part series from Nola.Com from the viewpoint of doctors, nurses, patients, and family members, who were waiting to be evacuated from Memorial Medical Center.

Looking Forward After Katrina: Environmental Health Problems and Recommendations for Officials - A report that was released just weeks after Hurricane Katrina, that looks at the environmental and health/safety impact of the storm damage.

Video: The final post-Katrina FEMA trailer has left New Orleans. From CNN.

I just watched Trouble the Water, which shares a family's footage from during the hurricane, as well as their experiences following. It was I am also excited that we will watch When the Levees broke on the bus on the way down.

Our speakers last night also shared a great essay by Bill Quigley, that was meant to start a conversation with volunteers, to help them understand their role in the struggle, as they come and go from New Orleans. I will try to take this message to heart as we enter the city. I realize that we are only going for one week, so it is my hope that I can learn from residents' stories and experiences, while working alongside them as they rebuild their community.

1 comment:

  1. Great post Kirstin! One of my favorites of yours so far.



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