Wednesday, July 4, 2007

New Orleans: Construction by Day, Carousing by Night

sister is known as the bra lady of New Orleans, so she tells me. Like me, Jane has been a regular visitor over the years. Soon after Hurricane Katrina, she canceled a family vacation to Italy and went instead to New Orleans, where she tried to make herself useful. Now she returns when she can, always bringing whatever donations she can wring out of her friends and colleagues in Indiana. On a trip last fall, it was bras. A member of her congregation was the proprietor of an upscale lingerie shop, and she loaded Jane up with 300 bras. Fancy ones. A negligible contribution in the scheme of things, but greatly appreciated by women who had lost everything to the floodwaters.

You will find lots of people like Jane in New Orleans, ordinary citizens who come whenever they have time, to do whatever they can. Some mount their own personal relief initiatives – from making Easter baskets for homeless children to helping survivors interview one another. Others sign up with one of the many established projects like Habitat for Humanity (New Orleans). At "Musicians' Village," Habitat workers—no skills necessary—are putting up housing for displaced New Orleans musicians. Already one side of one street is filled with compact two-and three-bedroom cottages in bright tropical colors.

I visit one of these building sites just as three women from Casper, Wyoming finish stapling a protective layer of Tyvek onto the bare outer walls. Chrisa DeGraeve shows me how the front walls came out smoother than the back, since they're learning as they go. The women are old friends, they tell me, and they decided to celebrate a birthday by volunteering at Habitat. Their program for the week is construction work by day, carousing by night.

Can any of this make a dent in the enormous problems facing New Orleans, I wonder? What use are Easter baskets, or fancy bras, or new pink cottages, for that matter, in the face of inadequate levees, toxic sludge, and the lack of a coordinated recovery plan?

These are good questions. But the government's conspicuous absence has led to a remarkable presence. New Orleans is now home to the biggest and most long-lasting volunteer movement in American history. If you want to be inspired by the good-heartedness of people, this is the place.

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