Hammering Out the Meaning of Katrina’s Destruction

Chet Turnbeaugh ’14 — Two years ago, I decided to tag along on the yearly spring break trip to New Orleans.  I was ready to enjoy the summer-like weather and to hopefully rebuild, what was in my mind, a broken city.  As a freshman, this trip was eye opening in many ways.  The irony of a city, which had been built and maintained by the resourcefulness of its ports, nearly destroyed overnight by water, seemed surreal to me.  How tragic it was to think of the loss that had occurred in a city as majestic as the Big Easy, how even more tragic it was to witness first-hand six years after the first winds of Katrina.

Nearly eight years since disaster struck, I approach the topic of New Orleans much differently now.  Having been here once already, I knew some of what to expect going into it—boarded up windows, caved-in roofs, magenta and olive colored shutters, red and black x’s on the doors, and beads of all colors imaginable.  Yet, what I wasn’t expecting to find was the depth of meaning that I found in my physical labor.

This time around we have partnered up with lowernine.org, a nonprofit organization that pairs local homeowners in the Lower Ninth Ward—the poorest and worst affected portion of the city—with volunteers to help return original community members to their homes.  My team was placed on a house a few miles outside of the Lower Ninth, that belongs to a gentleman who has done a lot to help in the rebuilding efforts, but has received little in return.  His home, which his family has owned for over thirty years, is in need of a new roof.  During the storm, his garage and most of the interior of the house were rendered uninhabitable.  My time has been divided equally between replacing rafters on the roof and destroying he remnants of the garage. In these seemingly opposite natured tasks, I have encountered the duality of the universe: creation and destruction.

On the morning of the third day, we were standing on a wobbly roof and by three o’clock the entire structure was dismantled.  The astonishing fact about this was that every board remained in tact, because these would all be salvaged to reuse on other portions of the house in order to diminish costs.  As I was hammering, sawing, and pulling boards apart I was reminded of the strong winds that originally broke windows, doors, and roofing tiles.  Consequently, I realized that until the boards were all taken down, which meant the death of a once functional garage, they could not be reestablished to their new position on the roof. Sometimes, destruction is necessary to learn to appreciate and accept all that is, before allowing it the grace and flexibility to naturally take shape in a new form.

In the case of one homeowner on Franklin Street, the destruction of a garage means the rebirth of a roof over his family’s heads.  Similarly, perhaps the destruction of New Orleans was to illuminate the real Road Home—a world where humans recognize their connectedness to other humans’ needs and are more than willing to help restore the wounds beauty suffers at the hand of fate.  If this is the nature of the story in New Orleans, than maybe I am not as distraught as I was a few years back.  This week, I have enjoyed breaking down the useless to reform the useful and I walk away with a better appreciation for the benefits that can come only from dealing with loss.

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