Heidi Isern

writer. thinker. whiskey drinker.

Interview with a Katrina Disaster Worker

Location: St. Bernard’s Parish, Louisiana

Mileage: 2,600

Meal: Muffaletta sandwich

Music: “This Tornado Loves You” by Neko Case

After switching hotels (my other one was surely haunted), I drove out of the crowded French Quarter into an expanse of pastel painted homes, dog barking yards, and neighborhood po-boy sandwich shops.  St Barnard’s parish wasn’t exactly a rich area, most of it just recently rebuilt after the Katrina devastation, but it was a friendly one.  As if to offer the area hope for an industrious future, the world’s largest sugar plant rose high in the skyline, smiling down on the grids of reconstructed wooden homes.

Crystal came to me by way of a craigslist posting.  I had asked for disaster relief workers and she replied to my ad right away, noting that she had been managing volunteers post Katrina for over 4 years.  Chrystal overwhelmed me with her generosity.  Not only did she promise me a lengthy conversation, she also invited me into her home and offered me a full Nola style lunch and freshly made iced tea.

Crystal and I sat down in her refurnished kitchen, a comfortable abode with polished floorboards and bright Mexican tiles.  Over large bites of Muffaletta, we talked about her work with the Katrina disaster.

Pre-Katrina Crystal lived in San Diego where she owned and managed a large high -end hair salon.  However, once she heard about the disaster in Louisiana, she couldn’t stay in California merely watching the horror on television.  “My original plan was to volunteer for one week,” she said. “ However after two days of working Crystal called her salon and told them that she may need to stay a few weeks longer. “It was total devastation and there were not enough people to help.  I couldn’t just turn back so soon.”

Crystal described a situation that represented the apocalypse.   The people of St. Bernard’s battled darkness, stench, hunger and fear.  “People were crammed into trailers. There were no restrooms, there was no food, and there was no indication of when help would arrive.” She recalled.  “And it was not as if people could just get money and leave.  There was no money!  Banks and ATMs were either underwater or ripped apart!”  There were a lot of suicides and a lot of abuse.  Chrystal knew that help was going to be needed for a long time into the future.

Thus, after another month of working, Crystal flew back to San Diego to quickly tidy up her business, and grabbed the next plane back to New Orleans to continue helping the St. Barnard’s community.  Rather than stay mired in her own internal quagmires, Crystal got out of the muck and looked only outward, eager to give whatever she had to the world around her.  “I needed to spend one year here.  I was so empowered by what I was doing and the differences I could make daily. It put everything else in perspective.”

Almost 27,000 homes in St Bernard’s Parish were destroyed.  Crystal performed all types of work from cleaning out the damaged homes to eventually building new ones.  Cleaning out the waterlogged homes was the most challenging. “You go through these damaged houses and take out people’s worldly possessions to be thrown away at the curb.  There were many times I found find wedding rings.”  Crystal also provided emotional support for the victims. “In all the loss, sometimes the things such as memories were the worst.  I remember taking out ruined photo albums and watching a mother cry and cry and cry as she leafed through the destroyed images of her family.”

In addition to providing much needed assistance, volunteering changes your life.  Crystal told me the story of a young paramedic that, aghast at the lack of available doctors, suddenly decided to go to medical school so that he could do more than ‘just carry bodies.’  She told me another tale of a beefy tool-clad construction worker who came to ‘fix things’ but broke down in tears ‘not expecting to find some much love and compassion around him.’

It changed Crystal as well.  “I remember going back to San Diego to check on the salon and heard a girl complain about how her wedding shoes were not dyed the right shade to match her wedding dress.  I thought, ‘I just wish I had an extra pair of shoes to give someone back in New Orleans.  A pair that fit and were not wet.’” The more glamorous parts of her past became trivial. “I stopped getting my hair and nails done. I looked carefully at how I spent money and always thought of the other more profound uses it could go toward.”  Eager for a life with more meaning, Crystal decided to extend her ‘volunteer year’ and see St. Bernand’s completely rebuilt. Thus she made one of her stylists partner and on-site manager of the salon, and moved to Louisiana permanently.

Due to her business background and management skills, Crystal eventually started organizing the volunteers in Camp Hope, directing money and elbow grease to the appropriate projects.  Crystal worked with thousands of people at Camp Hope. “I met wonderful caring people from all over the nation and world.  I felt so fortunate to see this beautiful slice of humanity that most people so rarely get to see.”

One important part of the rebuilding effort was to create a renewed sense of community. “We needed to put things in place that would bring people together.” Camp Hope helped build pavilions, park benches and other types of areas that would enforce a sense of neighborhood and belonging among the destruction.

In addition to finding a lifelong dedication to volunteer, Crystal also met the love of her life, a firefighter that had worked in the trenches of Katrina with her.  “I was in my 50’s and had given up on men…and suddenly it happened!”  Crystal describes her boyfriend with tender eyes.  “Mike is real, he is genuine,” she said.  “It is really important to surround yourself with the types of people that you aspire to be.”  After years of sleeping on cots and bunk beds, Crystal and Mike now own their home in St Bernard’s Parish and plan on remaining there outside of other trips to volunteer around the world together. “I think I want to go to Haiti.  I really think my experience at Camp Hope would be beneficial there.  Plus there have a true need for help.”

When I asked Crystal why she first volunteered she said simply “It was just the right thing to do.  If everyone stopped their daily tasks and gave just one week of themselves to volunteer, think of the changes we could make!” And she was speaking of the outward changes to the word.  The inner changes to ourselves were boundless.

Current volunteers at Camp Hope

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“Interview with a Katrina Disaster Worker”

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