Times Talk: Following in the wake of a hurricane

Among the many things that make Minnesota a wonderful place to live is relative safety from natural disasters. Of course tornadoes aren’t anything to take lightly, but cataclysmic events like earthquakes and hurricanes are far enough away that we can simply view the destruction from our living rooms through television or computer screens. Because we don’t experience such events in person, it is hard to comprehend just exactly how devastating they can be. The unimaginable scenes seem more like some end-of-the-world movie than anything we might actually encounter in real life.

Watching the coverage of Hurricane Sandy, however, I was reminded of the opportunity that I had as a college student to travel to New Orleans to help with cleanup in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2006. When I first heard about the trip, which would take place over our spring break, I naively wondered whether there would be any real work for us left to do nearly seven months after the storm had come ashore and left over 1,800 people dead. Of course the damage had looked overwhelming in the news coverage immediately following the storm, but as time went on the story faded from the major news outlets and life apparently went on as normal. This was not some third world country, after all, and I had a hard time believing that major storm damage could linger so long after the actual event.

As our caravan of vehicles, loaded down with sledgehammers, rakes, crowbars and other tools approached New Orleans, however, it quickly became evident that there would be no shortage of work for us to do. First there were the billboards along the side of the highway. Even miles away from the city, many of them were ripped, twisted, or partially collapsed. Then there were the trees. Strewn across their branches were plastic bags, bits of clothing and anything else light enough to be blown far inland by hurricane-force winds.

Closer to the city, the full picture of devastation began to unfold. Boats in various stages of disrepair dotted the highway median — carried there, I suppose, by some unfathomable storm surge. Gas station canopies hung precariously from one or two support pillars or were absent altogether. In every direction stretched an apocalyptic landscape littered with small personal items, ghostly remnants of everyday life before the storm.

We spent a week in a church on the city’s outskirts, traveling into some of the hardest hit suburbs during the day to gut houses and prepare them for reconstruction. The neighborhoods were eerie, almost completely deserted. The contents of homes spilled out of wrecked structures to the curb of the street, and many of the piles reached as high as the single-story rooftops. The streets had been cleared for the most part, but the areas between were a complete wasteland. Searchers had gone house to house looking for bodies after the storm and hastily spray painted symbols on the front doors to indicate which homes had been searched and what had been found. Thankfully, most of the homes we saw had the “no one found” symbol, but others had become watery, mud-filled graves.

Inside the houses, greasy green lines on the walls clearly indicated the high water mark during the flooding. In some cases, the water had nearly reached the attic. Mud filled the hallways and rooms and caked every inch of furniture, everything that hadn’t simply floated out ruined windows and doors with the receding tide. We shoveled out the mud, carried out the furniture and ripped down the drywall until all that remained in the homes were the bare wood studs where walls had once been. While the process was difficult for the homeowners to watch, the purging at least gave them a starting point for a new beginning.

As insignificant as our work might have been in the broader picture, similar efforts are probably underway today in portions of New York and New Jersey, and will continue long after the storm has faded from the headlines.

Paul Downer is the community editor of The Norwood Young America Times.