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When we got to the back room of the house that we were gutting, we found a deep freeze turned upside down. The woman who owned the house had told us that she had some seafood gumbo that she had kept there. It made me sad to think that they had made plans – not just for the gumbo but for so many things in their lives, and now it was all gone. I thought of the scripture in James 4:13-17
"Now listen, you who say, "Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money." Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, "If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that." As it is, you boast and brag. All such boasting is evil. Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn't do it, sins."
How many plans do I have? How many things have I stored up in my home for later? How many things have I put off to do when I have time? How many people have I wanted to thank or express my love and appreciation? I have so many plans, but I am not promised the time to do them. I don't want to leave gumbo in my freezer while I am eating bologna sandwiches. I don't want to look back and roux (little LA humor there) the long list of things that I didn't do because I was too focused on things that are more urgent but less important. I want to enjoy the present and not put so much stock in the future.
Wow! There is no way that I can begin to describe tonight what the last four days have been like. We see news reports about the lasting impact of Hurricane Katrina, but I would never have imagined the incredible devastation that continues to exist 9 months later. Businesses are closed up and may never reopen. Homes are being gutted and torn down. Wal-Mart is still closed, and Home Depot has a temporary store set up in what used to be their nursery. We go to Home Depot every day because it is the closest place for us to find a bathroom, and that is set up in a converted mobile home.
We are working in Chalmette, which is a suburb of New Orleans. It is in a parish that was totally destroyed by the Hurricane. It is on the east side of the city, just beside the canal where most of the water came in. They had over 20 inches of water standing for over 20 days. Of the 26,000 houses in St. Bernard parish, only 4 were untouched by the water. They estimate that 10,000 of those homes will be torn down, and only 6-8,000 will be able to be inhabited anytime soon. They expect to be gutting houses and disposing of the debris for another year and a half. Then they expect their population to be back to 50% in 10 years.
So many things strike you as you come here. The ghost town quality is most apparent at first. There are fast food restaurants, retail stores, shops, and gas stations that are totally deserted. Some are gutted, others are not. Some stores, like the Walgreens and the Shell station proudly post signs reading "Now Open," but even then they are at a diminished capacity. I haven't yet seen a grocery store. If you did find a store, you wouldn't be guaranteed a loaf of bread or a gallon of milk. Those who own the stores often owed had borrowed money to start them. Now they can't borrow any more to rennovate and open a new business, so they have to move or take other jobs to pay off their loans. They didn't have flood insurance because they weren't in a flood plain (insert ironic laugh here). One man I was talking to said that on the day of the storm he lost over $2 million because of his two businesses, his house and three vehicles. He said "I'm 65 years old, and everything I have ever worked for is gone."
Another thing that I won't soon forget is the smell. At this point only about 40% of the homes have been mucked out, or gutted. The house we were in had bowls and pots and pans and other things full of water that has been sitting stagnant for 9 months. Food has rotted and refrigerators have who knows what in them. We couldn't get away from it. We had to eat lunch with that smell, and drive home with it on us. The worst for my group was the back room. There was a refrigerator and a deep freeze. The refrigerator was closed, but when it shifted the water poured out, and there is nothing quite like that stench. The deep freeze had landed upside down with the top open, but all of the food had fallen out and was laying on the floor. I didn't think it would be too bad since it had been open, but I was wrong.
But the most depressing thing is the personal aspect. We met our homeowners and heard their story. We talked to the EPA contractors and the FEMA contractors and heard their stories. We saw up close the hopelessness that is felt here. One woman stopped me on the street. When she found out that we were working with disaster relief, she started crying and said, among other things, that she was thankful to know they haven't been forgotten – that people still care and are willing to come to help them. I hope that we were able to spread a little hope this week and let people know that they are a part of us, and we are a part of them.
I have a lot of spiritual-type applications that I'll write at some point. I can't forget. But the one that I have focused on today is this…We often make a huge mess of our lives. Maybe because of our poor decisions or our actions. Maybe it isn't our fault and something happened to me because of someone else or because it just did. I can mourn that for a little while, but I have to deal with it. Katrina hit this city and many others like it, and it left a huge mess. Just like this couple that we worked with weren't able to do anything about their mess, we aren't able to fix the things that are wrong in our lives. We may feel like we are cleaning the windows on the outside of a house that is a wreck on the inside. But, we know one who can help. We have a relationship with the One who can take away the old and make us new.
Before I head to bed, I just want to say how thankful I am that we have had this opportunity to come here. I don't know yet what kind of impact this will have on me, but I am certain that it will be substantial. To be a part of history, and to see first hand what the news will never show, is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I hate so much that the people of New Orleans and Chalmette and others had to suffer in this way. It is truly beyond comprehension. But through this tragedy people of faith have put aside their differences and focused their time and energy on serving God, and we have grown because of it. I just pray that God will bless the people who have lost so much, that they will take this opportunity to lean more heavily on Him for their strength and deliverance.
If you want to see pictures of our trip, you can go to www.youth.greenwoodpark.org and click on the word "Gallery" on the left side of the page.