Thursday, August 27, 2015

"I heard you calling out and had to come over," she said. "I go to Tulane..."

File:Superdome Roof Damage FEMA.jpg

This weekend marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans.

One of the deadliest hurricane's ever, Katrina left a trail of destruction in its wake--both literally and figuratively. Beyond the loss of life, the hurricane became the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, with damage topping $100 billion. There was also a political price to be paid. Katrina effectively ended George W. Bush's presidency just seven months after he was inaugurated to his second term. A decade later, New Orleans still hasn't fully recovered from the hurricane. The city's population is down nearly 25 percent from before the storm.

Somehow, it's simultaneously hard to believe that it's already been ten years and that it's only been ten years. I haven't given the storm much--if any thought--in recent years. But the coverage of this week's anniversary takes me back.

When Hurricane Katrina made landfall, I was just days away from starting my senior year at the UW-Madison . The storm had already caused damage throughout the Caribbean and in Florida, but the question on everybody's mind that last week of August was whether Katrina would make a direct hit on New Orleans. When it became increasingly clear that it would, the world watched and waited to see how severe the impact would be on a city already situated below sea level.

When Katrina reached the Louisiana Coast, I spent most of the night glued to cable news coverage with my roommate Jay. As the storm drew near, it was amusing to watch reporters kill time or conduct interviews with stubborn, sometimes crazy residents who refused to leave town.

The amusement, of course, wouldn't last long. When the storm finally passed, daylight revealed that the city had suffered massive damage. The levees failed, and 80 percent of the Big Easy was under water. Countless houses were destroyed. Refugees scattered about the country found themselves without homes to which they could return.

And they were the lucky ones. Around 1,500 people who tried to ride out the storm didn't make it--their bodies strewn about the city.

Meanwhile, survivors looked for hope. About 26,000 were holed up in the Louisiana Superdome while others roamed the streets. While news coverage showed clips of stores being looted, reports trickled out indicating that the Superdome had become a house of horrors. Rumors (later revealed to be false) of widespread violence, including murders and sexual assaults filled the airwaves. Tremendous human suffering filled the 24-hour news cycle.

Moved by the horror unfolding in New Orleans, I decided that I would get involved in whatever relief efforts popped up on campus. When none did, my then-fiancee Laura and I hatched an idea. We'd buy Mardi Gras beads in bulk and hand them out for donations.

We thought it would look a little sketchy collecting donations as individuals so we enlisted the support of our Pastor, Fr. Randy Timmerman, at St. Paul's (the other Badger Catholic) on campus.

"What do you need?" he asked when we pitched the idea. I could tell he wanted to encourage us but wasn't sure how much support the church would be able to offer.

"Nothing," I said. "We just want to run our program through St. Paul's so it has legitimacy. We don't need any money. We don't need any help. We just want your blessing." His face lit up, and we received the green light.

For the next few weeks, we spent every free hour we could with a table set up on State Street in front of St. Paul's. We found a few other volunteers to assist us, and one of our fellow students provided us with a CD of Cajun music to accompany our cries of "Beads for New Orleans!" Another friend arranged for a local business to distribute beads and collect donations while some of our professors let us solicit students after class.

The reactions to our fundraiser ran the gamut. A lot of students, faculty, and other passersby gladly left $2, $5, or even an occasional $20 bill in exchange for some beads. Others hurried by, pretending not to notice. Still others missed the point entirely: "What a rip-off! I could buy those beads for a quarter at the store!"

On the other hand, our fledgling campaign led to some more encouraging interactions. "Scanner Dan"--a local celebrity best known for his poor hygiene and for making inappropriate comments toward female students as he loitered around campus--contributed. One afternoon, Laura fought back tears as a blind man heard us and navigated his way across the busy square to chip in. A homeless man even shared some of the income he'd made by panhandling.

"I know the sign says $2, but yes, $.48 is absolutely enough to get some beads."

I saw that man wear them day after day. Though we had little in common, a string of Mardi Gras beads and concern for the suffering people of New Orleans forged a small bond between us.

Ultimately, our fundraiser brought in a little more than $1,000 for the Salvation Army's hurricane relief effort. While $1,000 is a drop in the $100 billion-worth-of-damages bucket, I'd like to think that it provided a little bit of comfort--perhaps by means of fresh water or clean clothes--for folks during the worst week of their lives.

But I've also come to wonder whether the fundraiser was a worth it. Was it even a good idea?

While a lot of effort went into it, there wasn't a great deal of sacrifice involved. How many people could have...should have...done more, but threw in a couple bucks and felt they had done their part? At best couple measly dollars in the bucket on the way to Starbucks for a $5 coffee or Chipotle for an $8 burrito seems to define the term slacktivism

At worst, it was pure sentimentalism.

As human beings we long to be part of something bigger than ourselves. But that sense of belonging comes with a price. We need to love our neighbors. We need to defend the widow and orphan. We need to give of ourselves. We need to enter into real, human relationships. This is the only way to build legitimate community.

I began to wonder whether we might have created a counterfeit community.

For the low, LOW price of $2, you can convince yourself that you made a difference. BUT THAT'S NOT ALL! You'll also have the self-satisfaction of feeling that you're helping others! AND IF YOU CALL NOW, we'll throw in a bonus string of Mardi Gras beads! DON'T DELAY!

Our $1,000 might have temporarily met the physical needs of those suffering after the hurricane. But did it do much to soothe the deeper longing of storm victims--their need for love and consolation during a time of crisis?

I continue to ask this question because it's difficult to figure out how to respond to tragedy in a personal way--particularly with disasters far beyond the communities in which we live.

But it's this same question that ultimately led me to conclude that our "Beads for New Orleans" program was, in fact, a success. Because the most powerful interaction that September wasn't with Scanner Dan, the homeless donor, or any of our other supporters. It was with a young woman whose eye we caught from across the street.

She made a beeline for our table and introduced herself.

"I heard you calling out and had to come over. I got to Tulane," she said as she reached for her wallet to pull out not only a donation but her student ID.

I had no idea where Tulane was so the significance of her school  and her ID card was lost on me...but not for long.

"I just transferred up here after the storm," she said before bursting into tears. "Thank you so much for doing this!" Our conversation continued for another minute or so, but no more words were needed.

I may never know whether the thousand dollars we raised helped bring healing to the people of New Orleans, but I have no doubt we helped bring healing to a refugee making a new home in Madison.

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