My cousin Anna, a 25-year-old from Vermont (formerly from Andover), has been helping out with the reconstruction in New Orleans, and heads back today. She sent some of her impressions around to the relatives — I had some questions, and she was kind enough to be very generous and complete with her answers.
Charley: In your first email, you mentioned “Mamma Dee” — who is that?
Anna: Mamma Dee, or Dyan (Diane) French, is a local woman who lives in the Seventh Ward, a short distance from the French Quarter. She stayed in her home through everything- the evacuation, the hurricane, the floods, and the “rescue efforts”. She is a pillar of her community. While I was there the first go around, people from around the local area would spend hours with her talking by the campfire. She is a small woman, maybe 5 feet at best, but is larger than life. The compassion she holds for her community is incomparable to anyone I have met yet in the area. When I say local, Iâm talking about the people who lived down the street, around the corner, a few blocks away, the ninth ward. She doesn’t work for anyone but herself – she started the donation center out of her basement which now includes the porches of a few neighboring houses: Food, clothing, kitchenware, cleaning products, personal hygiene, childrenâs toys and books. She is grassroots all the way, with the support of a group of volunteers who come mostly from Wisconsin (Sandy, Matt, Kevin and Ashley), but also New York City (Josh), Vermont (myself), California (Curtis, who is also running is own grassroots program called Follow Your Heart, in which he has started a pen pal program and does runs of supplies from the west coast), and Israel – Davidi.
Charley: What kind of work environment have you experienced down there? What kind of daily routine did you have?
Anna: Mamma has a sixth sense for people who actually want to work, and are not there just to see all the terrible things that have gone wrong and have been left wrong. On first meeting her, she knew that my friends and I were there to work, to give of ourselves. And for that, she feeds you and watches out for your well-being. We may not have electricity or hot water in the house the volunteers live in, but it is safer then most places I have spent long periods of time in. I know without question and without anyone telling me so, that if anything happened to me while I was there, that Mamma and the other volunteers would be there to take care of me.
As far as daily routine: whatever needs doing was done. Maybe there is a house to be gutted, in which case most of the boys would head off in Sandy’s truck, loaded with crow bars and chainsaws, full coverall suits, respirators and goggles, work gloves and various tools of all sorts. If they are really on the ball, they get the job done in two days. There are regular calls for the removal of trees, which we take the byproduct for our campfire. Meanwhile, there is a local bar a few blocks away pulling itself back up on its feet, where we have painted the walls the most fabulous shade of lavender you have ever seen, with dark purple trim. More clothes have been dropped off to be added to the “Boutique”, and a family down the street has given us a sofa and love seat. I spent most of a morning cleaning out the front room of the basement to set up a living room with carpet. Itâs a welcome space for people to be in when they drop supplies off for us, for the volunteers to relax on with a few precious beers at the end of a long day. We salvage whatever we can from the endless piles of trash that have been piled up on the street in front of the houses that have been cleaned out: Boxes of nails, shelving, dressers and chairs, baby cribs and whatever else is in good shape. And as I am a woman, I find it easy to take care of the “household chores”, cleaning the bathrooms, hand-washing dish towels and cloths, making the houses that surround Mamma’s house look lived-in and welcoming.
When the search and secure crews came through, Mamma wouldnât let them spray paint on the front of the houses the cross with info stating whether of not the people inside were alive or how many pets needed rescuing, or were dead. Other then the four-by-four-foot holes dug up out of the street which are supposed to be for fixing the gas lines, her block is one of the few places that doesn’t feel like a war zone. Her street is one of the old avenues that lead to the big plantation houses long ago. It has huge beautiful trees with limbs three feet around that wrap their way around corners. If I were a child, and even now, I see so many places for possible tree houses — or hours of pretending to be monkeys.)
All day people from around the area come in for supplies, who have either just come back for the first time, or are starting the long process of cleaning up. Bleach. Rice. Toilet paper. A hot water heater came in the day I was leaving, Sandy and Matt jumped to work, waiting for the first hot shower in two months. Dinnertime rolls around and we start cooking, usually I found Sandy and Davidi in the kitchen creating something out of the ridiculous amount of dry food goods that we keep for ourselves. We have limited refrigeration, so fresh isn’t usually an option. Rice is always available; if we are lucky we might have some sort of meat, sausage usually.
Charley: You mentioned there was a rally when you first arrived.
Anna: The rally just happened to be planned for the day we arrived. It was amazing to be witness to the coming together of people who are trying so hard to fight for their right of the American dream, something that should never be limited to the white and privileged. We took part in the march, and then among others, Mamma spoke with such power that the crowd gathered closer before my eyes. We biked to the rally, through empty streets that once held bustling lives. Only 10% of the original population is back in the city. It will take 10-15 years for the area to grow back to what it was, to what was taken away in of matter of days. These people gathered to stand up for their families, for their homes, for their right to live in the community they have called home for generations.
Charley: What else did you do?
I filled boxes of food and supplies. I pulled nails in a house that is getting ready for reconstruction. I rebuilt the campfire for better airflow to fuel the fire and easier water boiling and tea making. I sat with people at lunch and listen to stories about who they are and where they come from. I listened to their bandâs last CD or their improv rapping. We were there for them to come back to when they needed us again.
Here is her email from a week ago, New Yearâs Eve.
One week to go. My train leaves January 7 and 8:30 am from Boston. I stop in New York and then on to New Orleans, or rather, N’Olands. Hopefully I’ll get some time in the dark room this week, but depending on my work schedule â¦ we’ll see. I’m okay with that. It was really intense processing my film. It made everything I saw so concrete. I leaned my head against the film dryer and felt like I was going to throw up. I want to take something back to show the people I work with, and I know that it was healthy to work some of that out for myself. A lot of it scary. It makes me angry with humanity and frustrated with people who are blinded by money.
Thankfully I have been around good people the last two weeks. I have had friends I haven’t talked to in months call and give me a hand. A guy at a coffee shop in Burlington talked to me about doing here in the northeast the same kind of work I will be doing down south. The world around me is telling me itâs a good thing I’m going. I’m listening.