On August 29, 2005, millions of Americans watched in horror as the wind, rain and flood waters wiped away the homes, businesses and livelihood of citizens along the Gulf Coast of the US. In the days that followed, a record number of volunteers flooded disaster response agencies, government agencies, churches and local outreach organizations with calls to find out how they could help. I was one of those volunteers and what I experienced changed my life forever.
Three years later, much of the region remains abandoned. Repair of city infrastructure and tourism (the primary economic source for this part of the nation) are slow and stagnant in much of the region. We will be successful in turning around these trends only if we come together and rededicate ourselves to this effort. As part of the Black Googlers Network (BGN), 32 colleagues and I traveled to the region for what was initially slated as a Katrina Rebuilding Outreach Trip. As New Orleans slowly comes back to life, we will be standing side by side with the proud and resilient residents of this amazing city to help them repair the lives they've worked so hard to rebuild, sending a clear message that they are not forgotten.
As our group planned to deploy so quickly after Hurricane Gustav, most agencies were still shut down because their employees were evacuated to other parts of the country. Notable exceptions to this shut down were two organizations to which I have personal ties - St. Bernard Project and The Idea Village.
St. Bernard Project is a nonprofit, community-based organization that began rebuilding homes in August 2006 (boasting 177 projects to date) that were damaged by flood waters from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana. St. Bernard Parish is a working class community and was one of the hardest hit parishes of the city because of its location just 5 miles from the now infamous Industrial Levee.
The Idea Village is an organization working to accelerate the growth of the entrepreneurial community in the embattled New Orleans region. During our visit, BGN assisted with the development of the launch plan for their 504ward $200,000 business plan competition by employing our business savvy, creative thought processes and Google product knowledge. Launched on September 25th, this competition hopes to keep the thousands of young people who have flocked to New Orleans since Katrina engaged by soliciting ideas on how to develop a strong foundation of entrepreneurial ventures. The Idea Village's motto is "Trust Your Crazy Ideas," but I don't see anything crazy about wanting to rebuild one of America's greatest cities.
The highlight of the trip was that at each build site, the families whose homes we were returning to their former grace stopped by to say hello, offer their gratitude and recount the stories of survival. Andrea was the owner of the home I was rebuilding. She was the mother of two small children and was anxious to return a sense of normalcy to all of their lives. Andrea told us of the time her adventurous son wandered into the deep grass behind her home only to come face to face with one of the region's indigenous deadly snakes. He curiously inspected the snake, only to be whisked up by his attentive mother just as the serpent was preparing to strike. This snake's venom could kill a full grown man in 20 minutes. The closest emergency room, as a result the devastation, is over 45 minutes away. Even with all of the progress made to get people back into their homes, communities are fractured and without basic services and business opportunities.
On the final day of our trip, we went to the Upper and Lower Ninth Ward, the areas most devastated by the hurricanes. The neighborhoods were absent of life; there is little or nothing for residents to come back to. But signs of hope included children riding bikes, families and neighbors barbecuing on the front lawns of their homes (many still tattooed with the post storm FEMA markings) and a few bold projects such as the The Musicians' Village and Brad Pitt's Make it Right project. These things remind me not to view New Orleans with sadness or pity, but with respect, dignity and a pledge to offer a hand in their greatest time of need. In our case, 64 hands.