There were around two hundred of us in a caravan of three tour busses followed by plodding pickups lashed to heavy equipment trailers. They had asked for volunteers at Church to help with the cleanup from Hurricane Katrina, and the response was enormous. Thousands were coming to the devastated areas from all over the United States and Canada...
I looked, disengaged, at the darkness. I've never been all that much of a joiner, especially when it comes to handyman type work (of which I have little experience and less skill), but I couldn't not go this time. The shadows trudged back past my deadened foot, and the diesel engine growled as we pulled away. I loudly cracked my neck, and pretended again to sleep.
After a quick orgazational meeting at the church, we were split into work teams and shuttled to various areas around the city. My team would be clearing fallen trees and debris in a formerly middle-upper class neighborhood. As we snaked along short stretches of highway, the horrible force of the hurricane was apparent...the Golden Arches of a McDonald's sign had buckled and twisted into some archaic character of an obscene tongue, boats were overturned in trees miles from any water, entire sections of town were obliterated.
When we got to the worksite, I remember thinking that the houses didn't look that bad...until I got to the back, where half of the house had been torn away by floodwaters and a section of pier that had been torn from its mooring and sent careening into the house. Rich or poor, Katrina had forced an ugly equality of squalor on all in her path. Engines roared and chains bit into hundred-year old trees that tangled into each other and crashed into the earth. Slowly, log by heavy log, we hauled them away. After ten hours, a van picked up our aching, despondent crew, and took us back to the church, where I greedily inhaled a helping of gommed-together spaghetti, crawled into my tent, and fell fast asleep in my jeans at seven thirty.
The next day, Sunday, we got up at five o'clock, hastily ate whatever we happened to bring along for breakfast, and eased past the mountains of cases of food, water, and diapers sent for humanitarian relief into the chapel for a quick sacrament service. I was dressed in a t-shirt and my dirty jeans from the day before. I still smelled of swamp and decay. Even the leaders conducting the meeting were filthy, yet infinitely dignified. Simple words of thanks and determination, the passing of the sacrament, a prayer, and we headed right back to work.
We were bussed to a subdivision beside the river, where floodwaters had risen to the rooftops of most of the houses. One guy told us how he and his family had taken refuge in their attic, but as the water started to seep up through the scuttle entrance, he was forced to break out a window and swim his family over a hundred yards to a taller house across the street. His six-year old girl clung to his leg as he told us. He had carried her.
Our task was to clear out the houses. As I walked inside the first house, I saw what I knew must have been very old wedding pictures, the veil and tuxedo now just vaguely recognizable blobs inside the dripping frame. The smell was indescribable. I took a shovel, fought off my gag reflex, and began shovelling the sludge of rotting food, excrement, and filth that had festered in the fetid Mississippi heat for a week. Breathing through my nose only worked for short spurts...eventually I could taste the smell.
We tore out everything...I shovelled entire lives coated in mud and grime into wheelbarrows and dumped them unceremoniously onto the mounting heap in the street. We tore out molded wallboard and insulation, trying not to notice the gigantic insects that had newly made themselves homes in the rotted walls. We left skeleton houses...gutted and soulless, devastated by forces that make us all puny. The fact that our service in the aftermath of destruction was just a more necessary destruction was a bitter irony that didn't sit altogether well in my already churning stomach. There was no doubt that what we had done was needed...but as I toted my gear back to the waiting bus that afternoon, I felt insignificant in the face of the desolation of the storm. All I had managed to do was finish its grim work in a tiny speck of its path.
Almost to the bus, one of the neighbors caught up to me and thanked me for what we all had done, even though his house wasn't one that we had been able to clear. He told me that he doesn't believe that God sent the hurricane...he leaves that to meteorological chance...but he said that he knew that God had sent us.
Now, writing that in my usually ultra-cynical blog, his comment seems pithy. But then and there, as he clasped my hand in his work gloves, there was no room for cynicism...only regret that we couldn't stay longer.