Monday, February 04, 2008

What can we do?

Hello everyone! Though they’re all grown up now, my sons’ friends still call me Mrs. C. and I live in South Florida (hate to rub it in, but as I write this, the temperature outside is a toasty 72 degrees and the sun’s not even up yet!. A comment on my blog from your teacher led me here and before I go any further, I just want to say how very proud I am of all of you! Your comments here merely confirm what I’ve believed all along – young people do get the fact that we are all our "brother’s keeper!”

Your teacher has truly done an excellent job of engaging you guys in some living American History! As Margaret Mead said, “For the very first time the young are seeing history being made before it is censored by their elders.” Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” bears that out. Like you, I watched the documentary, but it was back on the first anniversary of the storm in 2006. I’d like to take up some space here if I may, and share a newspaper column I wrote about two months after seeing it:
"A Year After Katrina, Entire Gulf Coast Neighborhoods Are Still Uninhabited."

Watching the HBO documentary, “When the Levees Broke," I was taken aback by the enormity of emotions that had obviously lain dormant as I’d gone about my everyday life from August 29, 2005 to August 29, 2006. Glued to the tube for the entire four hours and fifteen minutes, the sheer genius that is Spike Lee allowed the story to tell itself. If his aim was to elicit support by infuriating the masses, shaming them to care or inspiring them to act, he achieved it - with me.

I just could not wrap my brain around the fact that almost a year later it seemed nothing at all had been done in this major U.S. city. I was certainly infuriated as so many people, most of whom looked like me, were left hanging by a system of government more concerned with bureaucracy than responsibility. I was equally ashamed at how anesthetized the souls of many of us had become, our compassion measured by how much we could or could not relate. All I could think was, “There but for the grace....”

On the way to rage, though, something wonderfully inspiring happened. I realized how proud I was of the resilience of a people ignored by those elected and selected to serve them. I was humbled by the resolute spirit with which they could still see a future in the midst of such devastation. And as they expressed their disappointment and utter disbelief - uncensored - I felt an odd sense of joy at the no-holds-barred freedom losing everything had given them. It triggered that familiar “quiet riot” feeling I get deep in the pit of my stomach when something patently wrong needs to be in some way addressed. And in that moment, I decided it was time for me to go and see for myself.

I volunteered to gut houses with Habitat for Humanity who’d taken over an abandoned school for their operation. Situated in the very devastated St. Bernard Parish in Violet, LA, the aptly named, Camp Hope offered basic living necessities fashioned from whatever had been donated and constructed by the ingenuity of its inhabitants. Communal living at its best! I went to bed early, nervously anticipating the 6 a.m. call to action, worrying whether these 50 year-old bones could stand up to the task.

There was no way I could have been prepared for what I saw though we’d gotten the “Katrina A Year Later” orientation the evening before. I was at once overwhelmed and invigorated as we rolled up to our first house in a somewhat affluent neighborhood. The two-story home had at least 10 rooms, three full baths, two kitchens and a pool in the backyard facing a canal. Out of all those rooms, the amount of salvageable items could fit on the hearth of the fireplace. The debris pile rose to the height of the first story and wrapped around the corner. Completely gutting someone’s home seemed to me like a surgery that ended in death. You save what is vital hoping it can be used again and send the remains for burial - only in a landfill instead of a cemetery plot.

If the house had not yet been touched, flood-soaked furniture and personal items were the first order of business. After countless wheelbarrow trips to the pile, layers of mud were shoveled out so we could get to the carpeting that lay underneath. I’m here to tell you, there’s nothing like the smell or feel of what we fondly referred to as “Carpet Juice” all over your clothes as you threw it on the pile.

Swollen drywall crumbled to the touch as we tried to remove it in sheets from the studs. Refrigerators had to be sealed shut with duct tape before moving so the putrid stench of rotten food mixed with flood waters didn’t seep through your mask causing the inevitable dry-heaves or worse, the real thing. We were on constant look-out for snakes, rats and those Brown Recluse spiders for which the rubble had provided a year’s worth of safe haven.

Like most of you, I’ve seen the aftermath of hurricanes. Hurricane Hugo rocked my home of Charleston, SC with four feet of water inside my mother’s dining room. And that was after climbing six steps up to the porch! Hurricane Andrew decimated Homestead rendering the home on the base where I’d raised my sons during their early years unrecognizable. And yes, I’ve seen the waterlines, the FEMA trailers and the work some of my friends had begun after the wrath of Hurricane Wilma. But in none of these catastrophes did I see neighborhood after neighborhood so eerily and entirely empty, a whole year later.

My initial motivation for writing this column was an attempt to solicit volunteers. I thought, “Who better to ask than those who had some idea of what it was like?” But after talking about it with a few people, I knew it was more important to share what impacted me most and let the chips fall where they may.

I’ve posted photographs of my experience at They tell a far more powerful story than I ever could. Hopefully, they will bring the magnitude of this loss back into focus and help keep the citizens of this forgotten city in your thoughts and prayers.
Almost all the people with whom I volunteered those two weeks in September were from AmeriCorps -young people just like you. And when I went back in October on a rebuilding project, the same was true (Props to the men of the NYC Fire Department though, they were everywhere!). Your History teacher is 100 percent correct - you guys CAN be the change you want to see in the world. It really is all up to you. I’m going to keep checking back to see what you decide.


Deb said...

Hey everybody, Mrs. C. here. What a pleasant surprise to see the column posted here! Thanks so much for taking the time to read and discuss it!

What can you do? You've already begun! You've gotten engaged, begun to search out your own truths by reading other sources of information and started to think your own thoughts about what happened in NOLA. Keep it up! Here's a link to a fact sheet provided by Levees.Org (
that will give you even more information to help you continue on the path to well-rounded, informed opinions.

What else can you do? Use those informed opinions to talk to your parents, friends, churches, synagogues, mosques - anyone who will listen so that New Orleans and its people are not forgotten. Ask the hard questions of those who will be voting for our new president. Explain what you've learned about Katrina and ask them to ask the HARD questions of the nominees themselves. And if you will have reached voting age before November rolls around, REGISTER TO VOTE! Accountability for your future begins now young ones.

Finally, Spring Break is coming and so is the Summer. As broke as I am, I'm trying to figure out how I can go back to NOLA this Spring and roll up my sleeves again. :-) As a matter of fact, I just heard from one of the guys with whom I volunteered in September of '06 (Yes, we've all kept in touch!) and he's trying to go down as well. Something to think about! Take Care.

Anonymous said...


Hi alot of views, opinions, and thoughts of mine have changed after seeing the 4 series of "When The Levee's Broke", My eyes were tainted from what the media showed us on T.V. from the whole looting images to images of people being saved in a ordally conduct. Which wasn't true at all people were desperately in need of help for a matter of weeks where they took it into there own hands and did things too survive. We got the real picture of what was going on in N.O. from an international broadcasting channel which left me questioning almost everything I see on our news channels, because I would never know what is the truth and what side someone wants us to see. I dont think us as an country dont care as much as we should about the situation. I think that if every citizen of the United States donated $.25 to $.50 cent we should cover a good percentage mof the cost to recover N.O..

Vickie said...

I agree with Jamaal that we cannot take ever piece of information we hear or see on T.V. or even in print as the truth. I read in a book once, you must be a filter not a sponge, and we must always remember that in or life. we must filter the information given to us keeping in mind who is giving the information, what side of the issue they are on, and what information they are NOT giving to you.
We as a class do not have the resources to all go do to new Orleans, or the other areas struck by Hurricane Katrina. We may though be able to raise the money to send one or two people to represnet us as a class. There were so many new facts I learned about the aftermath of Katrina from watching this viodeo, information that I am sure most people don't know. I think if we all make an effort to tell two people what we learned about Katrina, now there are at least sixty people who have their eyes open to the situation. The first step in making a change is spreading the word of the unjustices that were done to the victims of Katrina.
What is the most important new fact you learned from the video that you would tell others?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jamal. My opinion also changed about the Levee's broke. The images that were shown were from before, not after the hurricane katrina disaster. It was just shown to exxagerate the whole situation. I think we can help out and fix everything if we give a little amount of money. We can make a difference and make a whole new society all over again. Even 25 cents per day can make a difference.
-Simran Kaur

W Brown said...

I loved Vickie's idea of everyone telling at least two people. We could even do this right here in our own school.

What questions would you ask of politicians after watching this documentary?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Jamaal and Vickie we don't know all of the details. After we saw the video Mr.Brown showed us in class I think we have a better understanding about what happen instead of what the news showed us or what we read in the newspapers. We really do need to find a way to help these people. I know if I was in the same position as them I would want help from other people. I would want them to be aware of what we are going through and how the government is treating their own people. Also how the news is portraying by calling us refugees.

-Kristen Fitz

Anonymous said...

I would ask politicians what the hell was going through there heads when they decided it wasn't important to rush to the aid of these people in need. I will never understand why the goverment fealt it wasn't nessecary to help these so called refugees in need. I wish i was in the position to go to new orleans and help those in need.

Matthew Morrison

Mr Tesler said...


This is great.

I am going to assign my classes the task of putting together a plan to aid the people of NOLA in their rebuilding efforts.

You've got some very civic-minded students. Great job to all!

Anonymous said...

Courteney Richardson

I remember when hurricane katrina happen i was in the country of Trinidad & Tobago & it really never hit my mind on how serious it was. I never thought that all that damage happen. It took me over a year to seriously see whats really going on. When hearing about the hurricane, I never really realized that the victims were not being helped at all!!

It amazes me how another country across the world recieved faster help and aid from the united states then the united states itself if you understand what im saying. It took them over a week which doesnt sound long but being in their shoes it probably felt like years. Being only a teenager with thoughts and ideas of what i wish* i can do really cant put new orleans back to what it was. But what i can do is make little steps of trying such as donating clothes & money to the red cross of hurricane katrina victims. I know if i continuously do that goal i can make about 3 families happier.

To me , spike lee brought us into New Orleans and let us get a first class seat of whats going on.I think if it wasnt for him we would never have known really what needed to be pointed out. Also i really like the way spike lee had different victims speaking from the same point of views. He also pointed out how every congressman , first lady , former president etc .. after effect was to the hurricane. For example , Condelezza Rice & the presidents mother who thought the victims were okay & condelezza was out buying shoes.

the question that stays in my head is WHAT CAN WE DO IF THE GOVERNMENT WONT EVEN DO ANYTHING?

Anonymous said...

I would like to answer Cortney's auestion,we can do a lot by doing a fund-raiser, or gathering clothes, and writing letters to Katerina victims. I f we rite letters to the victims they will feel that their are still people who have not forgotten about them.

Manpreet Kaur

W Brown said...


I love the idea of a letter writing campaign to let them know they have not been forgotten about. Who is going to od the research and find an address of either a church or an other organization that might have access to victims?

What about the preacher in Queens who was in the Spike Lee video? He would probably know who to contact.

Manpreet this would be an amazing thing to organize, great IDEA!

natalie said...

something that we all can do as a school community to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, is maybe donate a dolor or less each and find an organization that we can send all the money to for whatever needs they choice to use the money for. another thing we can do to help is send school splice for the children form books to write on to anything that kids in our schools can give and come up with. There are so many different things that can be done we can maybe plain a trip over the summer to go and help out with cleaning up and setting new things for the people that have lost everything, something else we can do is get in touch with a group of people and hear them out and do what they ask us to do to help them.

wjps student natalie slavova

Courtney Wilson said...

I agree with Jamaal and others who have agreed with him. When watching "When The Levees Broke", I've been keen on the media's nistakes. They've portrayed victims of a natural disaster as refugees and they've embelished on alot of news stories related to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. For example, when they talked about the victims being moved to Houston, they said the city's crime rate was going up because of it. But in actuality, the city was already one of the worst cities when it comes to crimes.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Natalie. I think every one should give a little bit of money to an orginization we know will help out the people still in desperart need. We should also et some big companies to donate materials that they aren't using and they dont need and we could, or any one else, could go there and start to build houses again for people that are still homeless. And we should also raise money ofr schools there, and get kids textbooks and things they need.
Christina Wylie

Anonymous said...

I agree with Christina Wylie and think we should donate money for good use such as school material for the kids, for clothing and other materials they need. I think that education and school is important and the kids of New Orleans need something to take their mind off of what is going on around them. We can also have volenteers to sew clothing for the children (and adults as well) so they dont have to wear the ripped shirts or pants. I think that these things can improve New Orleans and help it become what it was before
Kristina Papa WJPS student

Shazia R. said...

I agree with Mr. Kaur. I think his idea on writing letters to victims of Katrina is a great idea, but it would be even better if we can write to kids our age that are in this mess and to let them know that we are there for them and that they have someone to talk to that can help lift the stress they have on their shoulders. I think we can accomplish this if someone has a connection with a person that knows someone that is a resident of New Orleans and knows a group of kids of our age.

~Shazia Rahaman
A WJPS student

Anonymous said...

There are many things that we can do to create a plan to help out with the community. They are actually already doing something in New Orleans. I just found the information about it. It is an association with Habitat For Humanity in New Orleans and it is called the NOAHH. They have built 95 homes since 2006 and want to build over 200 homes by this year
(2008). I think it would be great to have my school and even other schools to have a fundraiser to donate money to the NOAHH because they need it to pay for the supplies and the house, since they are a non-profit organization and take donations. We can make a lot of money, and we are helping to build more homes, which is fantastic. The cost to build one home is 85,000. I think having a big fundraiser with the entire school community will be great and you can give as much money as you want, an you can put in a check or any form. This money will go to the NOAHH. Maybe we can even get other higher organizations to help also.

Anastasia Papis WJPS student :)

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mr. Kaur. I think his idea on writing letters to victims of Katrina is a good idea.I also think the school should have some type of funraiser in order to raise and send money to homeless katrina victims.

Wjps student Billy

AMANDAA_P.901 said...

I agree with Mr. Kaur and Shazia's idea about writing letters to kids our age who are katrina victims . I think that it would help them a lot to know that people are thinking about them and are trying to help them out.
One idea i thought of is to start a fundraiser to raise money to send building supplies over to the victims. I think that it would be really helpful and they could start to rebuild their house. There is not a whole lot of people going there to help them build new houses and if they had the supplies to do it themselves it would help them a lot.

- Amanda P.
WJPS student

Anonymous said...

Maria Q.
A WJPS student

I agree with Christina when she said to raise money for schools and donate school supplies. I also agree with anastasia p. when she sais to donate money to the NAOHH
to help them built houses for the hurricane katrina victims.

Anonymous said...

Tori Kramer
wjps student

i agree with christina whylie and natalie. i think that it would be a great idea to find A organization that we could donate clothes,money,school supplies ect. i think that if everyone or every school did somthing like this that it would make a HUGE difference and would help every one who lives in new orleans. I also love the idea of writing letters to the kids of new orleans because since we are around the same age or the same age we would be able to relate to them. what i also think that we should do is that are school wjps and Mr. Kaur's school should start a fund raiser and put all the money together and buy things that would help the victums and send it down to them.

Mr Tesler said...


I'm pretty sure I speak for Mr. Brown when I say that I'm very impressed with the responses to this post. I've seen some very good ideas posted.

Perhaps this can be something on which our schools can work together. Maybe we can create a "Katrina Club" between the two schools? We could meet up at each other's schools, and work on these great ideas. Hopefully, we can even enlist the help of other schools in our districts, our regions. This could be the start of something big!

Anonymous said...

I agree with every one my opinions changed too when I saw the documentary on Hurricane Katrina it made me feel bad that those who needed the most help, which was the poor area of New Orleans didn't get the help they needed and didn't get it right away. It bad how the media don't really show us what was really going on there. They made it look like they were helping and the people were acting like criminals. It so sad how they were calling them refugees when they weren't form another country. I mean they from N.O last I checked that was part of the U.S.A. I agree with every one on donating money, clothes and writing letters to the people of N.O because that is was a citizen should do when another citizen is in need of help. After all we can't really always depend on the government to do it all. maybe if the government is seeing how we citizens is doing every thing we can to help out when theres problems in the states than maybe that can encourage them to want to take action when there own state is having problems to.


Anonymous said...

I agree with vickies idea alot. The media kinda showed us a unclear, tainted picture of what was going on in new orleans when the tragedy took place. The documentary really helped me see the truth and gather a whole other perspective on the situation. I think we should have somewhat of national memorial day to let the people of N.O. that they were not forgotten. On that day we can celbrate triumph and acknowledge the stregnth and determination of the new orleans people to make it by.


Melissa I. said...

I think that the students in WJPS and in as many schools as we can spread the word to should all have some sort of Hurricane Katrina month. There are certain times in the year when certain things are dominant. For example anywhere from September to December unicef is very big. So are penny harvests, can drives, clothing collecting, school supplies collecting, etc. There are even events such as earth day. I think we should somehow get the word out and schedule a Hurricane Katrina month. Like some earlier ideas I think everyone should tell at least two people from schools besides theirs about this. They should talk to their principal, teachers, parents, etc. Even if in the end we only get two or three schools involved it still is something. During the month we should collect as much money as possible, have coat drives, clothing drives, furniture drives, blanket drives, canned food drives, school supplies drives, etc. Basically put all the ideas into one month. The theme being hurricane Katrina. In the beginning of the year my school had a pizza event at a restaurant where some of the proceeds went to my school but only for that day. If somehow we could get a restaurant to do that for the whole month and allow more than one school to participate we can donate the proceeds to habitat for humanity or some other organization. We can take many ideas from many people, including writing letters to victims our age and up. I think this is the best idea because we can have more than one thing and more than one idea to raise money. We can come up with even more than what I have here if we put our minds to it.

Melissa Iachetta, WJPS student

Anonymous said...

I agree with Melissa's idea. We could put all of our fundraisers into one HURRICAN KATRINA MONTH. I think it would also be really cool if we were able to raise enough money through sponsers and funraisers to pay a visit down to New Orleans. We could all help the children and clean up whatever mess is still down there. We could go to schools and help decorate it. I think the people of New Orleans would be so happy to see all of us kids actually going down there to help. It is one thing to mail things down there, but it is another thing to actually go down and help out.


Deb said...

Hey Guys!!!

Mrs. C. here - did I miss the graduation??? If I did, I so, so apologize (life sometimes gets in the way of us staying in touch and on track - no excuses, just the facts)!!

Just want to say again how proud I am of the resolve you and your colleagues have regarding our kids by giving them a real-time, real-life education. It's a beautiful thing!!!

Somebody let me know how everything's going and has gone since February. I got a comment on another post today from a young college student in CA who intends to be a school counselor. I'm sharing this link so he/she will know how absolutely possible, wonderful and passionate the possibilities of education can be for a newbie!!

Keep in touch please and if any of the kids who posted here are in touch, tell them I asked about them and that they are more than welcome to post, tell me their stories, their fears, their hopes, their dreams, their successes and failures. Across this techno-existence, I want them to know I care.