Jeanne attended the Librarian's Convention in New Orleans and I asked her to share her thoughts and observations with us. . .
The verger’s e-mail was waiting when I finally got home. “Here are the lessons for july 2... Jeanne has first and pop at 8:30. Absent mindly I printed out the lesson, then slowly read the first few words – “Moses said: If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight fisted toward your need neighbor…”
I’ve just returned from a week in New Orleans. 15,000 publishers and librarians stood by a commitment they had made years earlier, that in 2006 we would meet in New Orleans for our annual convention, and descended upon the Crescent City -- the first major convention to return to the Katrina ravaged coast.
What I saw and experienced in those few days will live with me forever.
At first, the drive in from the airport seemed to show a city recovering. Signs heralded a new shop opening here, jobs available there. Then you slowly spotted the “other” signs. Atop the Super Dome—a few men continued their repairs – the gapping holes still visible from the highway. Cars were stranded along the side of the road – but then you realized they had rusted in place, the sun beating down on their ravaged frames for months on end.
The business district seemed to be bustling – but when the streetcar trundled by you noticed that its once gleaming finish is now dented and worn. A large sign greeted our arrival at the hotel – and the bellman thanked us for coming.
When you stayed on the main thoroughfares it looked like business as usual, but step a block way and you would discover the entire back of a building was missing, the air conditiong system hanging by a few braces, slowly slapping against the frame. Stores were boarded up – high water marks waist high
The convention center is a series of buildings united by a hallway. The building A door was shuttered, the glass cracked, and so it was at building B and C and D. Nine months after the devastation they
were still picking up the debris. This amazing structure – that could accommodate 50,000 conventioneers – was the last refuge for so many who couldn’t get away and for so many who wouldn’t see the next dawn…and their few possessions could still be found
Everywhere people thanking us for coming, often by staff that had been hired the day before to see to our needs…for you see this was the first time they had been able to find gainful employment in the last nine months.
I chatted up the shuttle bus driver. “Yes mam,I’m from N’Orleans. I live in Houston now – that’s where most of my family is at. They called us here, me and a bunch of my fellow drivers, to come back and drive you folks to your hotel. It’s only gonna’ be for a week ,but I’m so glad to be home.” But “back home” means a cot at the local community center and a hot dog cart . And it was just for a week – he would return to Houston when we left - because there just wasn’t enough work.
Days were filled with meetings – but also extradorinary reunions as librarians who had fled across the country for safety found each other wandering an aisle. They were living with aunts, or friends, or in FEMA trailers, but they had returned because this was the future, this was hope.
A school librarian talked about her principal who was so distressed by the governments lack of response that she went ahead and procured campers for her teachers and put them in the parking lot so that the teachers would have some place to live while they attended to their students. She couldn’t and wouldn’t wait.
We debated going out into the ravaged areas – were we exploiting the situation? We decided to hire a cab and asked this quiet little gentleman if he would drive us around. Proudly he told us he was Hungarian…but he had lived in New Orleans for the past 25 years. He didn’t leave during the hurricane because he wouldn’t leave his cat. He rode out the hurricane and the days of turmoil that were to follow in the attic of his brother’s house. His brother had left, but he and the cat were ok.
We slowly turned on a highway and then realized this was “the highway” where thousands had escaped in their cars and others sat in the blistering sun unable to leave. The road was clear, but below were the shirts and shoes and toys that had been left behind. Swinging off the next exit – the world changed. First you noticed the graffaiti – no they weren’t gang colors – No but you realize that their graffiti simply and graphically tells the life and too often death tale of each and every house, each and every person -- building by building-- when it was searched, how many people they found alive and how many people they couldn't save and would need to be carried out.
You read about the “blue tarp communities” in Florida where roofs need repair. They don't have blue tarp roofs in New Orleans -- as they don't have roofs to tarp.
“See that house there – the driver pointed to a house tipped on its side – that was over there.” And he points to a foundation 100 feet away. The boat atop the garage, “No those folks don’t own a boat “ that came in off the delta.
The stories went on block after block – people he knew and strangers he would never know. I’d been in New York on 9/11 and was witness to that destruction – but it was to one area – you had hope when you could look down a desimated street and see the Chrysler building. There is no view in New Orleans – no matter which direction you look you see mile upon mile of totally destroyed
And when you step out you are overwhelmed by the silence -- no traffic, no people and not even a bird. Just mile upon mile of destruction with a few glimmers of hope. A little beat up hot dog trailer on the side of the road with a sign that read "Thanks librarians for commin down."