Every year now since 2004, ATA participates in the annual Tourism Cares for Tomorrow project, when over 300 volunteers from all over the country converge on one historic site to help restore and preserve it. Past projects we have worked on include Mount Vernon’s woods, the Gulf Coast (post-Katrina), Virginia City, NV, and yesterday–Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans. (For more information about Tourism Cares, see website: www.tourismcares.org)
Our ATA team included Kriska Belicano, Alexandria Whaley, Randall Salisbury, Jonathan Tramontana and myself (Kate Simpson). We had each indicated which level of arduousness we were prepared to take on for this project. Randall and Jonathan had both checked medium or intense as options. The rest of us selected medium.
We began our day with the famous chicoree and beignets at the Cafe du Monde at 7:30am. Then we headed to Jackson Square to listen to some music and get ready for our parade through the French Quarter, bandanas waving, to Louis Armstrong Park. The quarter was just waking up from the late (and no doubt rowdy) night before. Sky-blue plumbago, pink oleanders, and deep purple petunias draped from the intricate rot-iron balconies, while lazy cats scrambled from their perches as 300+ volunteers descended on their short-lived peace.
Upon arrival at the park, we headed to our assigned groups. All of us, except Randall, were in the “khaki bandana” group. Our mission: scraping, wire brushing, priming and painting the tall iron fence around the park. Randall, a member of the brave “black bandana” group, became a expert tree-cutter within minutes… Not an easy task, made all the more hazardous by the poisonous caterpillars that live in the oak trees being trimmed. Thankfully, Randall escaped unscathed, but several members of his team were not so lucky and displayed long welts across their arms. One was stung in a tender spot through her corduroy pants!
We set to work across the park. Some raked, others picked up trash, some painted lightposts, and many of us worked hard on the fence–a vast project as it encompassed the 33-acre park! Many on our team were from Louisiana and expressed great appreciation for our coming down to help. One gentleman from New Orleans got off his cell and cheered, as his wife had just informed him that their FEMA trailer had finally been removed. He told of waiting four months for the trailer, living in a damp and moldy house. When the trailer finally arrived, they entered it and immediately held their breath, their eyes tearing. The air inside was poisonous–they opted to remaind in their flood-torn house. It was months later (after plumbers and electricians had fully installed 100,000 of these trailers) that the government admitted the trailer homes were uninhabitable due to noxious formaldehyde gases emanating from the glue used in building them. All trailers were to be recalled and destroyed.
It was clear from the speed and expertise of those who worked with us that many had spent the last few years doing similar projects at home. This was a familiar task, and their spirits were unfailingly positive and hopeful.
After unveiling the Louis Armstrong statue, newly restored and dedicated by Tourism Cares for Tomorrow, we enjoyed some refreshments and spirited commpany in Congo Park, a small plaza in the park. Later, the ATA team celebrated our day of work at a delicious dinner in a small bistro on Dauphine Street. The chef came out of the kitchen to welcome us and ensure he understood our needs. We decided to share a plate of frogs’ legs to start–a tribute to the French Quarter. Delicieux!
I left my team that night, as I had an earlier flight to DC to catch. On my way to the airport, I had an interesting conversation with my cab driver. He was a civil engineer from Ethiopia who had moved from DC to New Orleans after Katrina to apply his skills to rebuilding the levees. He admitted his dream of building his fortune on this $11 million project had been dashed by corruption. He worked hard, loading trucks with materials for the rebuilding, and advising the Army Corps of Engineers that theye must do more than pile on more dirt. They must add metal bars, gravel, sand and build a structure that will last forever. He was nearly fired from the project and told that the budget didn’t allow for these materials.
His understanding was that there was no interest in building a levee that would last forever. This would dry up a source of revenue to the local parties involved. Plus the margin left, after expending so much on materials, would be too limited for all those involved to benefit.
He described a truckload of rebuilding material as being worth, for example, $150. By the time he was paid for his services, he was left with $55–not enough to cover the fuel, labor and materials cost. Too many pockets were being lined along the way.
My Ethiopian friend is returning to the DC area in August, before hurricane season starts again. He has no faith that the levees will hold, nor that a viable evacuation route exists. Nor does he believe in the local schools. He has a 2-year-old to consider.
So it is on a sad note that I leave behind this beautiful city. It sounds like the clean-up that is really needed to ensure New Orleans’ future has yet to be embarked upon.