I met a number of people on the first anniversary of Katrina, but two of them stand out. I met the president of the United States that day. I have an autographed photo to prove it. I also met Miss Carolyn, a long-time New Orleanian. She’s not rich or famous, but I’m happy I met her just the same.
On Aug. 29, 2006, the seminary community spread out across the city to work at 25-30 different sites. Seven hundred students, faculty and staff gutted homes, cleaned lots, mowed yards, cut down high weeds, and built houses. My plan was to visit at least a third of the sites and write an article about all the ways the seminary served the hurting community. It was a great day
That morning, I heard that George W. Bush might make a stop at the Habitat for Humanity/Baptist Crossroads site. I quickly went to the site, because I knew that it would be locked down at some point if the president was really planning a visit. The students and professors were already at work when I arrived, so I began taking photos and interviewing them as they worked. I even had the chance to cut a few boards and nail up siding. No word of a potential visit from the President. We did see lots of Coast Guard and military helicopters throughout the morning. For a moment, I thought I saw a Secret Service agent in the third floor of the abandoned William Frantz Elementary school building two blocks away … but that could have been my imagination. (Lagniappe: Google William Frantz Elementary for a great history lesson.)
About mid-morning, the Habitat staff asked us to take a break and moved us to the parking lot near the front of the site. As we left, the Secret Service moved in to secure the area. We were informed that we would be meeting the President shortly. They made us leave our cameras and cell phones and ushered us to a line of big, menacing Secret Service agents. I tried to play the media card and bring in my camera, but it didn’t work. I had to leave my camera.
Once the site was secure, we returned to work. Before long, we were separated into two groups and President Bush came out to greet us. I happened to be wearing a Yale University shirt. The shirt immediately caught his eye. As you probably know, Yale is Mr. Bush’s alma mater. I didn’t even think about what I was wearing until Mr. Bush asked me, “Are you a Yale man?” It was one of the first things he said to the group.
I made some stupid response. What I should have said was: “No sir. Country hicks buy a t-shirt when they visit Ivy League schools – so I bought a shirt when I visited.”
Mr. Bush discovered that we were from the seminary and thanked us for what we were doing to help the city recover. His words were brief, but thoughtful and kind. Then he came and spoke to each one of us and shook our hands. Before he left, our group prayed for him. You could tell that meant a lot to him. Mr. Bush struck me as a person who really cared about the people of New Orleans. His grateful response to the prayer let me know that the men who serve in the top office in our country carry a heavy burden (so remember to pray for Mr. Obama – now he’s carrying that burden). Of course, I wrote an article about our brief visit with the President. About three weeks later, I received an autographed photo from the White House.
It was exciting to meet the President – a rare treat for someone who grew up 17 miles from a town of 325 people. But the real treat of the day was meeting Miss Carolyn. Carolyn lives just across the street from the Baptist Crossroads Project. I met Carolyn and her daughter as we were preparing to meet the President. Carolyn and her daughter had made a number of signs to commemorate the anniversary. Some of the signs were critical of FEMA, others were hopefully messages of faith.
I told Carolyn that I was writing an article and asked if I could interview her. She agreed to the interview and shared her story. Her small, but well-kept house had flooded during the storm and she had been struggling to repair it ever since.
Her family had waited three weeks for an electric meter. They could not get a FEMA trailer until the meter was in place. Work had started on her home, but it was a long way from completion.
“There are days that I am very hopeful. There are days that I think it’s not going to happen,” Carolyn told me. “I’m praying and asking God to get us back, to make us whole again. I’ve got to be hopeful, I can’t be nothing else. Look, we’ve already been down, there’s nowhere else to go but up.”
Carolyn was carrying lots of pain that day, but she still had faith and hope.
After she shared her Katrina story, she asked to hear mine. So I shared. She was genuinely concerned about me and my family. Miss Carolyn represents what I love about this city – the people.
Although we lived only about three miles apart, we lived in vastly different worlds – before and after the storm. I lived on a beautiful, safe campus with lots of trees and a majestic chapel. Before the storm, Carolyn’s neighborhood was plagued with blight and crime. After the storm, her neighborhood was a moldering mess. My world was already put back together, hers was not. But for a moment, on a street in the Upper Ninth Ward, we were neighbors – New Orleanians – and we shared the same disappointments, hopes and dreams.
I prayed with her, gave her hug and went on my way. Miss Carolyn played a prominent role in my article.
One year later, I went back to see Miss Carolyn. Things were so much better for her on the second anniversary. She was back in her home and her words (and the signs) were more hopeful than the year before. It was a great reunion. Again, Miss Carolyn was the star of my second anniversary article.
Links to the articles mentioned in this note: