Alysa Austin ’08 of Stamford, Vt., was one of the HWS students who worked in St. Bernard’s Parish outside New Orleans during the holiday break. Here, she shares some of her observations of what they saw and felt.
This place was stolen. Left rotting, rough, ragged. But these were just adjectives misused and overused. Their meaning melted when the newspapers and magazine clip-outs started to erode with people’s disinterest. Katrina, they may have said, what a disaster—so much destruction—such a devastation. But slowly, these words were tucked away. Just like the broken boards, the disfigured furniture, and the muddy carpets—tucked away in the newly formed mountains of Louisiana.
I arrived in Louisiana in a sweaty van, packed full with wide-eyed students, clean boots, and twenty-two hours worth of flat land and board-straight highways. Cleveland, Columbus, Louisville, Nashville—they were just a part of the roads we had already forgotten, our attention now fixed to New Orleans—and finally Saint Bernard’s Parish.
We came at night, my face pressed against the foggy window, searching for the places I had seen in the magazines. I wanted to see a car in a tree, a broken roof, maybe a beached boat—I wanted to be jolted, displaced, slapped into awe. I wanted to reawaken my sense of what is real. Already I was trying to insert myself into the pain of this place, trying to dig my own space inside of it. But I couldn’t make anything out. I couldn’t find that jolt. There was no electricity in the parish and therefore no images to threaten my comfortable seat in the van. So I watched the shadows that fanned away from the highway, watching them give way to the broken trees that climbed the distant sky with their injured branches. And I wondered what was really there underneath the dark.
I didn’t know what to expect when I got to Louisiana. Of course I thought about the mold and the water and the mud that was said to cover each square foot of this forgotten parish. But really, it wasn’t the houses or the water—not even the mold—that stamped their seal in my memory when I left. It was the muck.
For years I had known muck as mud. The slimy substance that I would spend afternoons swimming in, making mud pies, after filling my childhood sandbox with water from the hose. It was the riverbed that I would wade in. Up to my shins in its gooey texture, I’d look for salamanders hiding under rocks and crawfish that had burrowed deep, attempting to escape my pail and net. But muck is entirely different from mud.
A friend once told me that he was afraid of muck—not mud, but specifically muck. Although, I don’t believe he really knew what muck was. It made him uneasy, he said—its mystery, its thickness, the way it could cloud the water he was standing in, leaving him to blindly trust the senses in his toes.
—Who cares? I answered, young and fearless—the type of answer anyone would give who trusted that they could save the world with their own hands and heart.
—Well, there could be something sharp or dangerous down there.
—So, you could get hurt, something could cut you.
—And? You put a band aid on it and you’re fine. You’re just warned for the next time.
The people of Saint Bernard’s Parish were warned. They knew that if a class five hurricane were to come their way, then the levees would break and the parish would flood—not three feet, not four feet, but ten feet or more of gushing tide. The levees were sinking, but no one seemed to care. Built originally at seventeen feet, the dirt walls had sunken into the softening ground, shrinking to a mere fourteen.
In late August the levees did break. And they broke in Annie, our homeowner’s, backyard. When the storm surge from Hurricane Katrina hit, it came with twenty-five feet of sea water and mud that toppled over the sunken levees, eroding their backside until their was nothing left to shield the vulnerable parish from the ocean. And in came the water, rising to the rooftops of the parish homes.
We wore white suits too big for us all. With green rubber gloves—3 pairs exact, layered one on top of the other. We couldn’t risk a hole that would let the muck slide in. We wore boots, tied up around our ankles, thick-soled for the corroded nails, tucked into the white suits so our winter skin wouldn’t touch the milky air the hurricane had spit out. Goggles on top of face masks to hide our noses, hide our lungs from that black muck that floated in the air.
The smell was thick. It held its own identity, defining the Parish in terms of its foulness, much like how the mountains of garbage—mountains of a life lost—came to define the landscape. That smell held tight to the weave of my clothing, built up around the corners of my work boots. It trudged back to my bunk each night with me, caught in my hair, or smudged on my wrist or the back of my ear. But it wasn’t mud. No. This was nothing like mud.
This was the sewage in the street—streams of it, starting as a trickle coming up through the ground, collecting itself around the broken set of dresser drawers left in shards, baking in the sun that made water rot.
This was the suitcase shut tight for four months, holding papers of an old life, soaked in the orange water that dripped from its cracks.
This was the jar of white rice seething in low tide, spilling its milky contents onto the broken mirror that lay in the center of the kitchen floor.
We worked for five days, our backs to the levees and our feet leaving footprints in the muck, marking our presence across soggy carpets and down the narrowing streets of Annie’s neighborhood. I’d stop sometimes to break from the muddy air of the house we were gutting. Pulling down my white suit, I’d remove my mask, letting the sun get to my skin. I remember standing in the street outside Annie’s house, sheltered by the mounds of lonely sofas and unfinished kitchen appliances. They reached beyond my height.
—It’s just stuff, she said shrugging her shoulders. We can always get more stuff.
I didn’t understand though. The mounds of electronics and toys, broken lamps and water-logged mattresses were not just stuff to me—this was life. A life lost. I saw stories in the laundry we pulled from the washing machine. I found memory smeared across a photograph that floated in a blackened puddle. Soon though, I began to dissect the mountains, looking at each object for no more than it was. I understood what she meant. A couch, depending on how I looked at it, could be nothing more than some wooden legs and some worn cotton upholstery. And so, I grew to know these piles of broken boards, rusting electronics, and sad furniture as a part of Saint Bernard’s landscape, much like the Green Mountains of Vermont or the smooth deserts of the west. Yes, there still was pain in these piles, but it wasn’t the pain that was disturbing. For the pain was widespread, and it didn’t hide. Rather, it let itself be known in the ragged landscape of broken furniture and bare houses stripped to their skeletal frames. It was so present and so glaring that it was more impossible to deny it than to find it.
I came to Saint Bernard’s Parish as an outsider, and I left as an outsider. But I think, for a moment, I may have gotten in. I shoveled the muck, and I ripped away at the walls of a rotting house. I added my own pieces of chair and carpet and wall to the mountains that lined the parish streets. I found the rhythm of the parish and soon, what I once thought impossible—cars in trees, mountains of trash, boats in the street—began to breathe normalcy like eggs in a refrigerator or ketchup on a restaurant table.
These images followed me home. And I am left now with a nose that can’t understand the sweet smells of air and snow and dirt. I forgot what a normal neighborhood looks like—forgot what houses look like without broken windows and torn roofs. I forgot the shape of land without injured trees, forgot how to look at mountains not piled high with lonely sofas and unfinished kitchen appliances. Even now walking clean paths around Geneva, I wonder how much water it would take to buoy the brick house that sits on the corner. How much muck would it take to fill the shopping center parking lot? And more importantly—could I shovel it?
And I am left wondering where all the mountains have gone off to.