plain china: best undergraduate writing

Volume One : Issue One

Remaking Do: Reflections on Relief and Aid in the Gulf Coast

by Kyle Winslow

Untitled by Brittany Sugarman

“Do not hire a man who does your work for money, but him who does it for love of it.” — Henry David Thoreau, Life without Principle, 1863

“$116 billion is not a useful number.” — Stanley J. Czerwinski, Director of Strategic Issues, Government Accountability Office, 2007, on the lack of federal aid to the Gulf Coast region

The man whose name I never could remember came over to me on the lawn in the Upper Ninth Ward. We were putting together a staircase—cutting, pre-drilling, fastening treads and risers, then unscrewing them and complaining about the way the stringers were put in place, or about the unlevel ground and the foundation of the house. Previous volunteers had dealt with that part of the project, our collective jigsaw puzzle. It was easier for us as a group to disown what was wrong with the houses we were supposed to be finishing up if the basis for most of our frustration was the handiwork of those before us. But there were strings attached: the construction advisors to those groups were the same ones now advising us. And just because we hadn’t done the poor job on the stringers didn’t mean we wouldn’t have.

The man whose name I wouldn’t remember, for example, came over to me because I had destroyed the head of a screw when trying to back it out of a riser board. The stripped piece of metal turned with the resolve of a compass needle near a magnet.

“Stripped it,” the man said. “That’s not coming out. Well—.” And then he hurried away to the back of the work truck, housed with toolboxes in all colors. He returned with a set of pliers to grab the screw from the other end.

“Try it now,” he said, adding, “though even if we get this out, we probably can’t use the board.”

With that in mind, I tried. The screw slipped from the pliers, unfazed by our plans. It had served its function, as far as it was concerned: it was in the board.

We finally resorted to hammering out the screw, which was now bent. It splintered the board around the pre-drilled hole, but only slightly, and the man decided he had seen worse, and the riser was put back into place, when the time was right. You got the sense he had done that before, had weighed the costs of finding a new board—the actual monetary cost of the wood, the amount of that cut of wood left, the time it would take to measure and cut and pre-drill again, the demoralization of throwing the board into the “if, then maybe” pile—against the costs of making do with this one—namely, being done with the stairs, and moving on.

I had distracted him with the stripped screw scenario, and as soon as it was resolved he was back inside the house, working on trim or other odd jobs. Outside, we finished the staircase. We were relieved when we could all gather on those steps and snap a farewell picture, and not a little uneasy about our handiwork.

That man was a volunteer, too. He gave up his weekends to drive a half-hour or more from his home—which had been flooded to the second floor during Hurricane Katrina—to the Upper and Lower Ninth Wards. He was introduced to us by our worksite advisor, but none of us would remember his name throughout the course of the week. He had worked with other students from other schools, and had at one time remembered their names. But when they left to make room for the next groups, he had stopped learning names. He would not try to remember ours.

He was not married, balding, probably in his sixties, with glasses. He also had food in his teeth—something like bread—near his gums on the one side of his mouth. You could see that because he was always smiling, pleased with conversation.

All of those things, however, were cursory observations I might have made when chewing the fat with anyone, vague evidences of being human. Besides hearing about his former career as a photographer and his perception of the hurricane, we really didn’t know much about him.

I never felt so welcomed in a place. Most homeowners, business owners, and relief workers all gave the same greeting: at its most emphatic, We’re so glad y’all are here—spend money, and don’t forget to come back; or else, It means a lot to us that y’all keep coming down here.

And it wasn’t an embellishment. Their concerns for their homes and the places they grew up were sincere, as was their thankfulness. They were encouraged to see progress being made, even if it was three houses at a time on the corners of Feliciana and Tonti Streets. Three houses on two blocks, with about two-dozen houses to a block and more than 300 blocks in the Upper Ninth Ward alone—that makes the picture bleaker.

Many of the people who lived in those houses weren’t there to wonder why Bucknellians had so much time on their hands. Plenty of houses remained virtually untouched more than three years after the storm—still abandoned, with no one to claim ownership for the property or responsibility for the cleanup. Often, the only indicator of any current resident was a spray-painted message over a house’s façade: stay out have gun will shoot, or the pleading, do not demolish. And even those words might have been years old, out-of-date messages speaking to an orphaned community.

The man whose name I couldn’t remember stayed with friends for the months his home and community were flooded. But unlike so many others, and for reasons no one in our group seemed to understand, he came back.

He explained to us how Lake Pontchartrain, sitting north of New Orleans, had overflowed its banks and poured into the city because it filled with the foreign waters Katrina had pushed north from the Gulf of Mexico. He explained how the pumps that were supposed to pump water back into Pontchartrain had been useless, because water instantly flooded back into levees and drainage canals—and streets and homes—from the overflowing lake. Flooded out of his house and community, he had simply had to wait as the lake drained and, finally, after three weeks, returned to its normal level.

There was no popular way to fix the problem, he said. There was a debate over whether to slash Medicaid funding or the Army Corps of Engineers’ resources to pay for the job. There was also a debate about what to spend the money on. Although some said that, in addition to rebuilding destroyed levees, building additional levees would be the best bet, there were skeptics. They said that would create a bigger problem, that if more levees were built it could erode natural storm protection, like wetlands and barrier islands.

I think it was out of my curiosity for what New Orleans used to look like that I searched for images of the vulnerable city before the storm. I was distracted instead by the details, articles, and government reports of an ill-equipped city. All of these seemed to me like familiar stories that were told, at least in part, by the man in the Upper Ninth Ward.

There were the consequences of building levees and drainage canals, for example. A commercial opening that lessens the trek for barges from the Mississippi to the Gulf by about 40 miles, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) had eroded—that is, grown wider—by some 1,400 feet since the 1960s when it was constructed, destroying wetlands and displacing sediment to the tune of 19,000 acres. The headlines told the story: Levees funnel14- to 17-foot storm surge from Gulf of Mexico. After the storm the levees were mostly rebuilt, maintained. Federal money was spent on fixing up a commercial barge channel that washes plumes of sediment out to sea, instead of being spent on coastal restoration—like building up marshes and rebuilding barrier islands—natural defenses from storm surges, washed away by man and by hurricane.

Or this headline: Federal Emergency Management Agency becomes political hot potato. Article after article covered the White House’s suggestion to shift FEMA jurisdiction to other branches of the federal government: the Department of Justice, or Health and Human Services.

And while the debates were going on, some people—like the man who gave up his weekends to help relief efforts— slouched back south to rebuild their lives. Eventually they took on that responsibility for others, too.

His presence there threw the concept of “aid” to the wind. What was aid, where did it come from, and where didn’t it? His story complicated the question of who was rebuilding whose house and for what reasons. Volunteers had become the lifeblood of the post-Katrina reconstruction, and, as members of the Katrina Recovery Team, we knew we were helping. But was this the best we could do? As recently as February 2009, FEMA was still being criticized for its lack of aid—this time for denying 650,000 Texans help in rebuilding their lives after Hurricane Ike. By now, the headlines had become commonplace: FEMA, Underfunded, Must Choose Priorities; or, FEMA Denies Aid for City after Storm.

There was a fine line between selfless servant and indignant worker, and he showed us how to sidestep that issue altogether: Don’t take this personally, and don’t think of it as charity. Take responsibility for the work, and move to the next job.

“Why do they make all these different bits?” one of us asked once, wondering why manufacturers make a square-headed bit in addition to the Philips-head and flat-head.

“Do we know what we’re doing?” the man asked, then answered himself: “No, we don’t—the more options we have, the better.”

Once, as an aside capping a brief autobiographical exchange, he said, “Your occupation shouldn’t be who you are.” Our staircase was taking shape and we were lining up one of the first risers against the stringer for pre-drilling.

If we weren’t busy hanging the riser, I would have asked him why he was there. A new occupation? Paying down others’ debts? But I didn’t know his name, and, besides, I was trying not to strip any more screws. He was already moving to the next job, saying, “And thank you for building me such a nice staircase.” He smiled, climbed back up the riser-less treads into the house, and turned the corner from the hallway into the bathroom, where we left him.

About the Author

Kyle Winslow

Bucknell University

Kyle Winslow graduated from Bucknell University in 2009 with a B.A. in English. He currently is pursuing a Master of Public Policy degree at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., concentrating in science and technology policy with focuses in defense, energy and the environment.

Honorable Mention

"I was knocked out by the skillful way this writer told the by now familiar story of being part of a New Orleans Rehab project."

Susan Cheever