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Blog #19 - Return to New Orleans

February 20, 2006

Every seat on the plane from Washington’s National airport to New Orleans was full, but the atmosphere was markedly different than my last trip to Louisiana, right after Hurricane Katrina hit last September. Then rescue workers for one agency or another filled more than half of the seats on the plane, and there was almost an electric tension as we circled the airport and landed. We were all going to help the survivors of Hurricane Katrina in one way or another, but we were also apprehensive about what we were getting ourselves into. When the plane touched down there was a collective and audible sigh as everyone let out the breaths they had been holding. Our next days and weeks were filled with hardships, joys and challenges that will mark our lives forever, and we left our assignments feeling exhausted yet fulfilled.

The second trip back to the hurricane ravaged gulf was less anxious for me, since I’d been there before, and also since I’d been talking to Red Cross colleagues there who had kept me apprised of the current situation and the progress of rebuilding. The crowd on the plane was different too.

I met several groups from various church organizations that were going down to help with rebuilding homes for the residents in New Orleans, Gulfport and Biloxi. They were full of questions and concerns. There were also a few college students in Tulane and Loyola sweatshirts, and others going down for Mardi Gras. By and large, however, the mood on the plane was almost festive. Quite a change.

As I settled in my seat, however, a sound from a couple of rows ahead of me took me right back to my flight home in October. A cat started “meowing” loudly, and all I could think of was Raggs, the cat I brought back with me from an animal shelter in Slidell, Louisiana, for a hurricane survivor living in Portland. The cat on the plane this time was returning to his home in New Orleans along with his master, both of whom had left after Katrina and were now coming home for the first time in nearly six months.

”Can you go to New Orleans?”

This trip came on a very short notice. I received a call from Joely Ross at the American Red Cross Chapter of Southern Maine about 2:30 on Friday afternoon. She had told me at the appreciation dinner for Red Cross hurricane volunteers the night before that she might have an assignment for me.

”I need someone for a Public Affairs assignment right away. Are you still available to go, and can you leave tomorrow?” she said. “It will be in New Orleans.”

”What would I be doing?” I asked. “I can’t go Saturday, because I am having a birthday with some friends over to help me celebrate. But I could go Sunday,” I added.

”You will be helping with the Hurricane Katrina six-month anniversary media coverage,” she said. “Probably writing stories and giving interviews. I don’t know much more about it than that.”

Tom Jacobson, the Red Cross photographer that I teamed with last fall to cover Katrina disaster relief efforts has been in New Orleans now since January 12, anticipating me joining him there. Every day we have talked, and what I thought was going to be an assignment there with him turned into three weeks at Red Cross Headquarters working on a Katrina anniversary report. It was very good experience and an invaluable chance to meet other Red Cross writers and managers, but a little frustrating not be back down and teamed with Tom. He was getting a little tired asking “when are you coming down?”

I had just gotten home the week before, and wasn’t too keen on leaving home again so soon. However, this was probably going to be my last chance to go to New Orleans and I was very anxious to follow up on some of the stories to see how folks there were coming along as they tried to put their lives back together. Their stories of personal courage and dealing with adversity needed to be told, and this was a golden opportunity for me to do so.

My dog Colby and I drove down to the Chapter offices on Congress Street and filled out the assignment paperwork with Joely. When I got home I called the Red Cross travel agency and scheduled a flight out of Portland Jetport for Sunday morning, arriving into New Orleans that afternoon. Then I called Tom on his cell phone and made arrangements for him to pick me up at the airport.

I arrive in New Orleans

Tom is staying at the Embassy Suites near the French Quarter and had an extra bed in his room, so I moved my bags in. The traffic in town has picked up and the downtown area is busy with people, cars, and many shops and restaurants are open. Enroute to the hotel we stopped at the only remaining mass feeding kitchen in the city where the newly established caterers were hosting the Red Cross volunteers. I was able to meet several of the people I’d only talked to on the phone as I was doing a story about the transition from the last Red Cross mobile kitchen to the catered arrangement the week before.

The Red Cross still has a number of volunteers in town in the continuing disaster relief effort, and many of them are staying at the Embassy Suites. Tom introduced me to many of them at happy hour, and I was able to get leads for at least a half-dozen stories before I’d worked my way through my first beer.

Monday is a federal holiday, but not for relief workers. Tom is going to take me around the city so that I can see what has changed, how the recovery is coming along, and to visit some of the Red Cross relief sites. I’ll tell you more about my impressions on my next blog.

Copyright © 2006, Allen Crabtree