New Orleans — No Katrina Redux — Whew!

“In 2006, I took a little trip

Along with gutting buddies down the Mighty Mississip

We took some hammers and we took some jeans

And fought the mighty mold in the town of New Orleans”

Okay, let the raspberries fly. I wrote this newspaper column in early 2006 after my second post-Katrina trip.

Hurricane Barry blew pass New Orleans and focused its fury on the center of the state, south to north. Only the sparsely populated Plaquemines Parish, southeast of New Orleans, suffered from breached levees. New Orleans did not.

New Orleans is my adopted city.

During nine trips between 2006 and 2008, I helped gut 16 homes, build eight Habitat for Humanity homes and a playground, recruited 34 friends (many who returned up to four times), and helped launch an NGO, Katrina Corps, which brought college students in over Spring Breaks.

I went because I had to. I do not recall it being a choice.

I stood in horror upon entering my first water-swamped home. My gutting team smashed windows just to breathe. Two days later the gutted, reborn home was but a skeleton of its former self, a roof, two by fours, and a concrete slab; its moldy, toxic, rotting core carted off by trolling garbage trucks to some unknown heap.

I saw endless ghost streets and thousands of blue tarp roofs, sailboats washed onto streets, and battered homes, some swept across streets and onto cars and other homes. I winced at the heights of water lines stained onto the exteriors and the National Guard’s spray-painted cryptic survey summaries on doors: the date of inspection and the guard unit. A zero meant they found no bodies. I read journalist Chris Rose’s book titled “1 dead in attic.” I saw thousands of refrigerators curbside, temporary FEMA-trailer towns and FEMA trailers parked in front yards.

On my second trip, my friends and I joined 75 others building the first homes of the Musicians Village in the upper ninth ward. Music legends Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. purchased enough land to build 75 Habitat homes. Their idea; get the music back to New Orleans as soon as possible. One day President Bush stopped by with a caravan of unmarked SUVs, a sniper truck, a governor, congressman and mayor. The governor lost her next election and the congressman and mayor ended up in jail. I did not vote for him, but I shook the president’s hand and thanked him for coming. A second day, the Dave Matthews Band showed up, not to play, but to check the progress of a project they had pledged $1.5 million to. Dave graciously posed for pictures.

All in all, I left behind 20 contaminated, ripped or paint-splattered jeans and shirts, lots of moldy boots, and returned home four times with Katrina cough.

Near the end of 2008 one estimate totaled two million volunteers. A senior Habitat official estimated that 700,000 workdays were donated to Habitat.

I perplexed many friends and acquaintances as to why I would waste so much time helping recover a city they view as a waste of time. My first rejoinder was always, “It is their home.” My second act was to unfriend them.

The Times-Picayune ran a weekly series titled, “The Kindness of Strangers.” That series featured me one week, a pleasant surprise.

While not mired in the muck, I breakfasted at Camellia Grill and Café Rose Nicaud, lunched at Willie Mae’s and Crabby Jacks, supped at Galatoire’s, Emeril’s NOLA, Redfish Grill and Jacque-Imo’s, slid down dozens of Acme’s fresh oysters and downed adult beverages at Pat O’Briens and Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge.

I rode the circuit of the rickety, rejuvenated St. Charles trolley line, toe-tapped to Preservation Hall jazz, zipped around to Zydeco at the Rock’N’Bowl, and sipped wine in The Columns’ parlor while enjoying local artists. Mardi Gras beads hang next to my home office computer station.

There is something about the Crescent City. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Yes, there is the contextual, rainbow history, joie de vivre, food, smells, and the jazzy live-in-the-moment rhythm. It is more, and a bit frantic at times. Maybe this is nurtured by a repressed sense that all could be gone in a flash (or a flood), and Orleanians are driven to cram as much living as possible into each day. Sort of like a Po-Boy with everything or Emeril adding spice to a recipe — BAM!

New Orleans may not channel the Las Vegas slogan, “What happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vegas,” but it’s close.

Thankfully, Barry blew by. I only want to keep returning for the joie de vivre.

Check out my web site: Keith Frohreich

Writer of books, columns and blogs; historical fiction, humor, satire, social commentary. Cook (the good, bad and oops). Disaster relief volunteer. Traveler.