Finally, I’m making myself sit down and write about my trip to Waveland, returning to Katrina ground zero 10 months later.  I’ve found that after both trips, it’s really hard to sit down and write about everything that has happened.  I’m experiencing the “accidental relief worker’s fatigue”, which I first heard Grace coin the phrase during our BlogHer conference call.

For me, this trip was more emotional than the first (10 yr high school reunion, seeing my childhood home as if it were never there, watching residents slowly succumb to the bitterness of living in a FEMA trailer for almost a year now…)  The first trip was along the lines of “WTF is going on?!  Is everyone alive?  Is there anything you need?”  The initial knee-jerk emotion was easy for me to share, as anyone can relate to the craziness of not knowing about the status of friends and family.  This second trip has been about dealing with the aftermath of a catastrophic event, watching people’s careers evaporate, listening to the endless stories of frustration,  knowing that the town will come back, but in a very, very different sort of way.  This trip was on a deeper, more personal level that totally caught me off-guard. 

Photos from the trip

Before we go any further, you can view the photos from the trip under the Waveland 10 months later set.

Upcoming Entries

Knowing I won’t get to everything in one session (or I’ll never get this posted), here’s a breakdown of my upcoming blog entries about my Waveland trip…

  • Return to Hurricane Katrina Ground Zero 10 months later– Trip Overview (this entry)
  • Analysis of Anderson Cooper’s book “Dispatches from the Edge”
  • Before and After Photos from Before Katrina, Day of Katrina, 6 weeks after Katrina, 10 months after Katrina
  • Waveland and Blogging – what do people think about blogs and the internet down there?
  • Tour of a FEMA trailer
  • Outline for my BlogHer panel discussion

In case you missed the preamble above, this has been a very tough entry to write, so bear with me…

The Race to Rebuild OLA

Arriving at the airport on the wrong day is usually a tell-tale sign of a trip about to go poorly, or that you’ve been working way too hard, or both.  My red-eye flight left SEA at 12:30am Thursday night.  Can anyone figure out the flaw in that statement?  Fortunately, there was no idiot fee, and 7 hours later, I was flying out of SEA to GPT (Gulfport, Miss).  I arrived Friday afternoon, instead of Friday morning, but no big deal.  Until that night…

I was informed the city water (aka tap water) was drinkable and had about 24oz Friday night.  I’m sure it was technically safe (I hope) for drinking.  Between the 10K run (the race to rebuild my high school) completely dehydrating me and drinking water the locals won’t touch, I was miserable for about 5 days.  Couldn’t eat or drink anything until Wednesday night (and I got there on Saturday), and believe me, I was dying for some seafood.

Photo before the 10K run

Even before the 7am race Saturday morning, I asked the ambulance guys if they would be around afterwards.  Of course, they said they would.  But as I entered into the last half-mile of the 10K, I saw them drive by, actually waiving “good-bye” to me.  I was seriously considering being treated for dehydration when I got back to the finish line, but apparently not anymore.  I would have gone to the ER had I known how sick I was about to become.  Still boggles my mind the people hosting the event would send the medical people away with runners still out on the course.

Photo after the 10K run in the hot, humid Mississippi summer weather

Then the awards ceremony.  The MC distributing awards actually debated whether the award for the “person who traveled the farthest” should go to me, an alumnus from Seattle who took a red-eye to get here, or a relief worker from Germany in town for a couple of months.  It hurt.

But for those 30 minutes where I was running along the beach, smelling the bay water, daydreaming of all those years of sailing, thinking about everything I’ve done to keep Waveland on the blogosphere radar, and being able to totally let go and just run towards freedom on an unreachable horizon, it was totally worth every minute of the heat exhaustion that week.

10 year high school reunion at Chili’s

Only one teacher was in-town to assist with the “race to rebuild.”  At least it explained why no one seemed to care about the alumni in town.  We contacted the webmaster for the school regarding the reunion plans.  The week before the Crab Fest / Reunion / Race to Rebuild, it showed “the 10 year reunion plans will be announced soon.”  But the info was deleted from the site with no explanation.  I just wished they would have committed to a statement, one way or the other.

About 4 of us got together for lunch after the race at the Crab Fest.  I was amazed how much and how little people change over the years.

One of my friends (my partner in crime back in h.s.) and I found a teacher from Ocean Springs (about 1.5hrs away) who was willing to meet up with us.  So, we put together our 10 yr reunion Take 2 at a Chili’s near Biloxi.  It was surprisingly a lot of fun.  It was our religion teacher who finished his PhD in religious studies and just started teaching in college.  My first question at the table was, “The DaVinci Code – How true is it?”

Progress Is in the Eye of the Beholder

That’s the best way to sum up my trip to Waveland.  It all depends on who you talk to.  To some people, very little progress has been made.  While driving through New Orleans East (which looked exactly like it did in October, minus the smell), you think about just how much progress has been made in Waveland.  I never thought how much seeing a train

Progress appears in subtle, easily-taken-for-granted ways.

10 months later, there’s still a glass ceiling on the social ladder for most things.  Most people seem to be at the same place rebuilding their house.  All the houses have been gutted and sprayed down for mold.  Now people are waiting to put up their drywall and being painting.  Availability of supplies and physical labor makes for an excellent glass ceiling.

The key differences between Waveland now and then
• The trees (thank g-d) are green again
• There are no soup-kitchens, no parking lots upon parking lots of police, first aid, etc.  The Super-Walmart is open, with a signing bonus at McDonalds.
• There is no rotten sewage smell, no dead body smell, no Katrina smell anywhere.
• There are no endless piles of debris everywhere.  The lots are just vacant. 

Childhood home cleaned up

It reminds me of seeing someone in ICU versus in observation.  There are clear signs that they are doing better, but you know they are not completely out of the woods yet.

French Quarter

Driving into the French Quarter was surreal.  Even though the Twin Span is open in both directions now, it is bumper to bumper, kinda like 520 around 4pm.  But at least we had some drama.  My aunt got out of the car to smoke, and she screams, “There’s a tornado out there!” (Photo)  It is an interesting question.  What do you do when you are in the middle of a long bridge (miles long), and there’s a tornado heading right for you?  Not to short change the drama of the situation, but the water spout dissipated pretty quickly.  But it was some good drama while it lasted.

Sad French Quarter

The Quarter was deserted.  It was unbelievable.  About 1 out of 5 shops were opened, the rest were forced to close because lack of tourist = lack of money to pay rent. I had just heard on the local news how businesses were taking out loans to pay rent. 

We walked into a shop on Bourbon, and the owner screams out, “Tourist!  I’ll give you discount on anything in the store!”  I responded, “Tourist, no.  But discount, yes.”  I know I could have gone to the Flea Market and gotten the Mardi Gras masks for a much, much cheaper price, but I wanted to do what I could, even if it is just a few extra bucks to a small shop owner.

The Shrimp po-boy was sweet nectar from the gods.

Food for Thought

To wrap this up before my morning scrum meeting, I wanted to leave off with pieces of a conversation I had with a classmate from Waveland.  She’s been down there the entire time, prior to Katrina, during Katrina, and afterwards.  I had asked her in the car what more I could be doing.  Heavily paraphrasing here, she said that she didn’t want people to forget about Waveland, and that hearing the stories about how people have worked so hard to get the story told and what they have done to help has been amazing.

I’m wearing a green Bay St. Louis bracelet (like the livestrong yellow ones) to remember what she said about keeping Waveland on the map.  If all I do is tell the story of a Microsoft Employee that grew up in a small town of 4,000 people who became an accidental relief worker when Katrina destroyed her hometown, maybe I’ve done my job of giving back to the community that raised me.