This past summer, my wife Crystal went to New Orleans for a couple weeks to volunteer doing relief work. She was devastated those days as we watched the news channels and saw the floodwaters rise and drown her beloved city. She contacted several relief organizations, asking what she could do to help, and their response, donations! Donations of any kind: food, blankets, clothing, tools, vehicles, even trailers so that these poor people who had lost everything they owned could have a warm, dry and safe place for their wives and children to lay their heads at night. She began at once to round up donations. A few months later, a Machesney Park heating and air-conditioning company was willing to donate a van full of plywood, cleaning supplies and prayers. The organization was so excited by her efforts that they invited her down to see the work they were doing. We talked about it, and I could see how much it meant to her to go, so, of course, she should go and help. She came back to me a changed woman. I could see the hurt in her eyes, hear it in her voice, and when she asked me to take her back for another week, I knew she needed to see the parts of the city still alive, the French Quarter, the downtown areas. She needed a week of life after spending weeks surrounded by death. And I knew I needed to see what had happened as well.
A few of the days she drove me through the carnage, but mostly we spent the better part of the week as tourists, enjoying the night life of the French Quarter, spending money the city needs so desperately, eating the incredible Cajun delicacies, laughing and dancing in the bars. I love jazz, and the city moved me to my soul. We visited little local shops, we talked to the people, we enjoyed their hospitality and smiled as they smiled, despite the pain apparent in their eyes. They want so much to believe, we want to believe, the city will return. We returned home, and she has dedicated her life to the rebuilding of New Orleans. It was now nearly a year later, and for weeks she went to area businesses, to hardware stores, to the motor home retailers, to anyone she thought could help. At night, Id hold her as she cried; the response from all had been the same. We gave once, when it first happened.
We gave once, when it first happened.
One time is not enough. One time is just not good enough. Would you pray just one time to God? Would you tell your child you love them just once? If you saw a man drowning, would you throw a rope to him just once? One time is not enough. This is America, the richest, most prosperous nation that has ever existed on the face of this earth. This is an American city; these are American people. Americans like you and me. Americans with families, husbands, wives, children, families like yours who have worked hard for years to establish themselves, to buy homes, furnish them with those things we all take for granted: refrigerators, stoves, washing machines, televisions. These are Americans, like you and me, who have worked even harder to buy the luxuries of life that this great nation has to offer: stereos, DVD players, nice furniture. Look around your home and look at your prized possessions. Look at them good, and now imagine them all gone. All of it. Everything you ever worked for, everything you ever dreamed of, everything you ever wanted to provide for your family, swept away in a flood, and all you have now are lost memories as you look at a water mark on all your walls as you stand shin deep in mud. The television does not do it justice; all you see are images. Imagine stepping out onto what is left of your porch and looking around and seeing all of Loves Park, all of Machesney Park destroyed. Homes knocked off their foundations, walls buckled and roofs removed. Not just one image on a television, but street after street for blocks upon blocks, entire neighborhoods, entire towns destroyed. Look at every home; envision it devastated, every home with the same death marks spray-painted by each and every door. A date of when the house was searched, a name of by whom, a number indicating how many dead pets were found, a number indicating how many dead family members were found, carnage and death marks as far as your eye can see. Youre lucky, you can turn off the television, go to your refrigerator and get a cold drink, make a warm meal, put a movie in your DVD player, and go back to your safe and secure life.
My wife cries, and I dont know what to tell her. How can I stand here and be proud to be an American? We have turned our backs on our brethren. All Ive heard are feeble excuses. They should have known better than to build below sea level. My response, the United States government told them it was safe, that the levees would protect them. I hear, Its just a bunch of people on welfare. My response, maybe, some of them, just like there are people on welfare up here; the rest, hard-working AMERICANS who go to work, buy homes and love their families. Just like you and me.
It is a major metropolitan city, it is one of our major port cities, it is an American city. And so many have turned their backs on it, its yesterdays news, its already slipped from the minds of the masses. The news networks, with their always looking for something shiny and new to dangle before our eyes philosophy, have turned their backs on New Orleans. Our government has turned its back on the Crescent City; we have forgotten The City That Care Forgot.
I dont know what to tell my wife. All I can do is dry her eyes and tell her that by the end of the year, well be living there, trying to fix what America has forgotten.
Once is not enough.
Nicholas Rieff and his wife, Crystal, are residents of Loves Park.
from the May 2-8, 2007, issue