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Bearing Witness in New Orleans

Bearing Witness in New Orleans
Alumni Global Outreach volunteers lend a hand to Project Lazarus.

By Kristin Nazario, FCRH ’02, GSAS ’04

I was expecting tears. Instead, I was numb. Along with 13 other Fordham alumni, I clicked my camera shutter in an attempt to capture 360 degrees of unimaginable devastation in the Ninth Ward: entire houses on top of cars, a truck in a tree, precious possessions scattered amid rubble and empty foundations with stairways to nowhere.  This was New Orleans on Jan. 15, 2006.

Our pictures cannot adequately capture the magnitude of what we saw, however, and the damage is not isolated to the Ninth Ward. From the airplane, we saw a sea of blue-tarped roofs, and during the 20-minute drive from the airport, we noticed a distinct, brown water line streaming across each building. Even in the flood-spared French Quarter, piles of debris sit outside homes and wrought-iron balconies hang precariously. Thick stumps are all that remain of beautiful, winding trees, and most of the surviving trees are haggard and bare as November in the North. Orange spray-painted X’s and numbers mark even the most charming buildings, signifying the visit of a search-and-rescue team and the body count―constant reminders of Hurricane Katrina's wrath.

The city’s communities need a lot of help. And as much as they need help, they need hope.

Our Alumni Global Outreach (GO!) team came to New Orleans in response to that need. Our primary job was to help repair Project Lazarus, a wind-battered home for people with HIV/AIDS, run by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. Yet the physical labor was not our only task. We were also there to be “witnesses to what our brothers and sisters are going through in the Crescent City,” according to Paul Francis (GSAS ’03), a programming assistant in the Office of Alumni Relations who organized the Fordham team last fall.

“I'd been considering setting up a New Orleans GO! trip for a while,” said Francis, who worked at Project Lazarus in 1997 and 1998, when he served as a member of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. "When Katrina hit, I knew now was the time."

After the storm, all of the home's 24 residents were safely, if not easily, evacuated. During our visit in January, they were still living with friends and family as far away as Utah, eagerly awaiting an opportunity to return.

Reopening Project Lazarus poses many difficulties, however. Most of the personal care assistants lived in the Ninth Ward, so they were unable to return. And although Project Lazarus, which sits just outside the French Quarter, did not flood when the levees were breached, it suffered extensive wind and water damage from the hurricane. The main building needs a new roof, which will cost $90,000. In the meantime, buckets collect dripping water while mold flourishes on the upstairs ceiling. To make matters worse, Project Lazarus lost its greatest source of funding last fall, when it had to cancel its annual four-day Halloween Festival, which usually brings in approximately $400,000.

Despite the dire circumstances, Susan Banks, the director of Project Lazarus, was admirably optimistic, greeting us with warm hugs and a smile.

"I try to think about it one day at a time. If I looked at the big picture, I wouldn't want to get out of bed," she said. "But you are here, and you bring hope and energy."

The day after our arrival in New Orleans, we drove to the Ninth Ward to experience the worst devastation firsthand. For Theresa DeOrio (FCRH ’04), the experience was a bit like intruding on other people’s lives.

“It was really emotional for me,” said DeOrio, who earned a B.S. in nursing from New York University in December and expects to begin work at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center this spring. “I found myself taking pictures of shoes and toys, and I couldn't figure out why, but I felt that it was something I needed to do. Obviously you see the broken houses, but when you dig deep through the rubbish and you see people's lives laying there, it's really terrible. I felt like by taking pictures … I acknowledged the existence that once was there."

After we toured the Lower Ninth Ward, my teammates and I were losing hope ourselves. But that night, we were invited to a Mass at Tau House, a small Catholic community center in the French Quarter. Sister Ann Roddy, S.S.N.D., welcomed us.

"We are so happy to have you here," she said. "You may not see the effects, but many people will be blessed for weeks to come as a result."

Later in the week, we returned to Tau House for an emotional prayer circle where community members shared their stories of loss and survival while we shared our reflections, offering support. One man worked in a nursing home where 22 elderly residents died in the heat, waiting to be rescued. Others lost their homes, pets and loved ones. In Tau House, the tears I expected in the Ninth Ward finally surfaced.

"We want to move from the grieving process to the healing process," Sister Roddy told us. "And you are part of that."

Given the enormity of the situation, we wondered how we could ever make a dent. Yet we were eager to try. The day after touring the Ninth Ward, we began our work at Project Lazarus by deconstructing six shower stalls and toilets that had been set up in front of the lding by the National Guard. By the end of the day, we had helped return the grounds to their pre-Katrina state. Our hope was strengthened.

We applied the same energy to our painting efforts inside the largest of the three buildings at Project Lazarus. By the end of the week, we had painted a long hallway; the living room, with its intricate shutters and bookshelves; and the kitchen, which had become the group's central meeting place. That night, we were unsure of where to go. "There's no community without a place to meet," said Francis. So we decided to convene in the kitchen, despite the drop cloths and the paint fumes. I suppose, on a larger scale, that's what New Orleans residents are trying to do now.

It was difficult for us to leave Project Lazarus and the city of New Orleans, although we knew it wouldn’t be the end of our experience. Most of us plan to return next year for what we hope will be an annual Alumni Global Outreach trip. On the flight home, looking down again at the sea of blue tarps, I hoped that next year I will see shingles and lush trees, and that this empty, grieving city will be more lively. In the meantime, our team will continue to reflect while sharing stories with friends and coworkers, making sure that the people of New Orleans are not forgotten. We are grateful for the opportunity to help, even if it was only a week.

Kristin Nazario (FCRH ’02, GSAS ’04) is an adjunct professor of English at Iona College and a study abroad adviser at Fordham.

The Fordham Alumni Global Outreach team at Jackson Square in New Orleans: Back row, from left to right: Kristin Nazario (FCRH ’02, GSAS ’04), Savel Richards (GSS ’05), Christina Simone (FCLC ’02), Theresa DeOrio (FCRH ’04), MeghanClark (FCRH ’03), Alex Shirreffs (FCRH ’01), Daria Moringiello (FCRH ’04), Kimberly Morgan (FCRH ’04), Linda Wagner (FCRH ’03) and Karinah Santiago (CBA ’04). Front row, from left to right: Kristhian Santiago, Paul Francis (GSAS ’03) and Craig Beaulieu (FCRH ’05). Team member Charlie O’Donnell (CBA ’01) is not pictured.

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