PRIDE: (IN THE NAME OF LOVE)
April 6, 2006
Pride (in the name of love)
By Melanie Lidman | April 6, 2006
Thornton Drive in Chalmette, La., looks a lot like any suburban street in my hometown of Lexington. In the Thornton Drive of my imagination, I can see children playing soccer in the yard, neighbors walking their dog, perhaps someone mowing the lawn.
But the houses we saw on Thornton Drive were all abandoned. Like every one of the 65,000 houses in Chalmette, the houses on Thornton Drive sat under 12 feet of water for more than a month after Hurricane Katrina. Today the houses, overtaken by decay and black mold, are uninhabitable.
I never fully appreciated the community service requirement at Lexington High School while I was there. But it must have meant something, because here I am, 1,300 miles from home, encountering a reality I only saw on the news and in the papers.
My current school, the University of Maryland, sent 130 students and staff to volunteer in Louisiana over spring break last month with the National Relief Network, a nonprofit that brings groups to disaster areas to help with rebuilding efforts. Rose Golder-Novick, another Lexington High graduate, and I were among those seeing the devastation of Hurricane Katrina firsthand.
Our work for the week, as for the majority of volunteers in Louisiana these days, was gutting houses. Everything had to go, from the beds to the broken dishes to the door frames to the drywall, even the kitchen sink. ”We don’t demolish or destroy houses, we disassemble them,” our guide John Gholson of the National Relief Network explained. ”It’s not just about rebuilding homes, it’s about rebuilding lives.”
I could barely walk into our assigned house because everything was in disarray: Beds were overturned, refrigerators were upside-down, and the family’s possessions were everywhere. The water had come so high that the ceilings disintegrated, leaving 3 or 4 inches of shredded brown insulation over everything. ”We saw a boat that was stuck between the roofs of two houses,” said Alana Yoffe, a participant from Baltimore.
I tried to imagine a boat stuck between two houses in Lexington. The devastation in Chalmette was so incredible that it was sometimes hard for me to remember that the place we were working was someone’s home, a place that holds thousands of memories about people we never met.
Within the first hour of work, I found a yellow envelope that I almost threw away. Inside the envelope were moldy but still readable love letters addressed ”To My Darling Wife.”
Cleaning someone’s home without knowing them was like putting together pieces of a very personal puzzle. ”It was weird learning about the people while we were working. We found his yearbook from 1939, all their CDs, their old china,” my friend Rose said. Chalmette resident Yvonne Landry had lived in her home for 22 years and said it was ”heartbreaking to see all your belongings out on the street. It’s like someone evicted you, and I guess it’s like Katrina did.”
Hearing the stories of the residents was an incredibly moving part of the week. Resident George Dowd, who lived in Chalmette since 1958, was sure that all but ”five or six” residents will come back to live on Thornton Drive. ”I weathered Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and it’s been 40 years between [the hurricanes], so I figure I’ll be dead by the next one,” he laughed.
But resident Donald Fraught disagreed, saying very few people will come back to Thornton Drive. He planned to stay in his federally supplied trailer until he can move far away from Chalmette. ”I always said we’ll go back and rebuild, but when I finally went back, I was like, ‘no way,’ ” he said. ”I still have grass stuck to the ceiling of our washroom.”
At the end of the trip, we reflected on the work we did and the things we learned in Chalmette. One group of 92 students finished gutting 11 houses and started a few others. ”It’s not just about the 11 families you affected this week, it’s also the people driving by who yelled ‘thank you’ out the window,” said Scott Harding, who founded the National Relief Network 12 years ago.
We got back on the bus for the 22-hour ride home bruised, battered, and tired, but with feelings of accomplishment and pride. I’ll return to Lexington someday with a view of Louisiana that I could have never gotten on the news.
Meanwhile, another group will come to Chalmette every week and clear the memories out of more houses. Katrina may have been seven months ago, but there’s still much work to be done.
Melanie Lidman, a 2003 graduate of Lexington High School, is majoring in Spanish and journalism at the University of Maryland in College Park.