Home of the Owls

NEW ORLEANS — Come, see for yourself. My fellow conferees and myself, being journalists, have read about The Storm since it blew in Aug. 29, 2005, and refreshed ourselves before coming to town. Even though we’re writers, some of us very good, none can explain the devastation and slow recovery as effectively as being here. Even the terrific pictures by Ted Jackson and other Times-Picayune photographers, worth a thousand words each, don’t convey walking around or even being bused around.

We were bused through several districts then were met at Chalmette High School — Home of the Owls — by its principal of 34 years, Wayne Warner. His 15-minute presentation went for more than an hour, at our request. We needed to hear someone like Mr. Warner, and he was glad to help.

Our two buses each had a guide who survived the storm. It’s odd to have docented tours of flooded out areas instead of explaining historic sites or pointing out Homes of the Stars. This is about two months’ shy of the third anniversary of The Storm, but even the famous graffiti X’s still were on a great many homes in the Lower Ninth Ward and St. Bernard Parish.

It’s deliberate. The homeowners who didn’t lose their homes outright or until now — a number of homes are designated to be razed now, being posted with a yellow sheet of paper on which is a large red X — don’t want passers-by to forget.

Guardsmen or similar personnel went through each home as soon as they could to search for survivors and for bodies. The color did not matter, “whatever paint was at hand,” our guide said. The left gap of the X was an abbreviation of the Guard unit (T-FW means Texas-Fort Worth; the Louisiana Guard did not help as they were in Iraq at that time). The top of the X had the date, for example 9-something as the searches were in September 2005. The right side was usually blank but it would carry the Guard unit symbol if the house or apartment was inspected a second time. Below the X was a numeral to indicate the number of dead people inside. Saturday, I only saw zeroes but My Beloved spotted an X with a “2.”

The rough estimate is 2,000 dead, we were told. So the 2-foot to 3-foot X’s remain as do, faintly, the line left by the water. The gray to yellow line was not the high point of the water, but the level after it receded to a stable point, to the height where the water stayed for the days until it fully receded.

Among the various government grants, homeowners could request money for foundation pillars to raise their houses six feet. “Katrina over there,” our bus guide said of one street, was 15 feet. Six feet will get you through a rainy day.”

What Mr. Warner emphasized is that St. Bernard Parish district administrators realized is that few residents would return if no schools were ready to take the children. His high school was able to begin accepted the few students — of all grades — around that November. They were taught in the least-damaged classrooms while workers repaired the others.

Mr. Warner’s passion, sincerity and love of children exuded from his face and body language. He looks like Sen. John McCain but a little younger and with just a few more pounds. Mr. Warner lives in a FEMA trailer near the school; he lost his home. His wife lives outside of town (their kids are grown), and he goes there on weekends.

One of his sons lives nearby and also lost his house. Zack Rosenburg of the St. Bernard Project, speaking after Mr. Warner, described his own New England family as fairly close in spirit and geography but:

This is Palestine. This is the Middle East. These people are tied to the land.”

Extended families are what comprise southern Louisiana, he was explaining. What Rosenburg found when he came from D.C. to help then ended up staying and created the Project with partner Liz McCartney was primarily that a full recovery is possible. “This is solvable,” he said repeatedly. He found the residents were not lazy, were not just waiting for handouts, yet “Rebuilding at this point requires people, funds and supervision.” The last refers to coordination, but it was surprising to hear oversight listed as a top requirement. Of course he is right. Good intentions with no strategy and no checklists collapse on themselves.

The project has benefactors as well as volunteers and local folks to provide them room and board. The tour ended with lunch at Dooky Chase, hosted by chef Leah Chase. The Rev. David Crosby, with the Baptist Crossroads Project of Musicians Village, and a regional spokesman for Habitat for Humanity spoke, and their remarks were similar to Rosenburg’s.

Can a volunteer, or two dozen volunteers from some nearby city or organization, make a dent in the problems. The answer continued to be, yes. Thousands of homes were lost, and these various groups are finishing up only hundreds. It’s still a way past zero for rebuilding. The columnists were not asked to hammer nails, though. From more than one person, we were asked to write about New Orleans. And, of course, to spend some money while in town.

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