New Orleans, day 6


Given the sheer trauma that New Orleans has endured during the past year, it’s easy to forget its gaudy reputation as a party mecca. All kinds of groups and travelers visited just to snag bundles of beads and drink in the streets.

After all, conventions and bowl games brought in millions of dollars to a economically poor, culturally rich city.

Katrina put a temporary end to the tourism. Until today.


Our volunteer team heads down to the Morial Convention Center along the riverfront. Hands on New Orleans and Hands on Gulf Coast will have a shared booth on site for four days to spread the word and pull in donors and sponsors.

It’s part of the National Association of Realtors’ annual conference, the clumsily named NARdi Gras. The locals have been buzzing about this one, the first major convention designed to show the world at large that the city is once again safe for uninhibited vomiting and/or flashing.

I wanted to see for myself the notorious site, in which thousands of stranded residents waited out long, hot days in the week after Hurricane Katrina. No supplies, no buses, no air conditioning, no news, no relief, no hope.

And people dying in lawn chairs along the sidewalks.

Few know why citizens began heading for the convention center in droves, believing that it would serve as a shelter or pick-up point amidst the chaos. No sooner had people fled their homes and rising waters when they were faced with equally harsh prospects: starvation and heat exhaustion.

Naturally, all signs of this terrible event have long since been erased. The streets and sidewalks along the front appear the same as ever, a dull concourse of concrete and glass.

Inside, the center seems like a palace, with miles of new carpeting and spacious exhibition halls. It’s a grand facility that serves its city and its visitors well.

And yet, it’s a little creepy.


The loading docks along the rear of the halls buzz with activity, as carts and forklifts zip along in the final day of setup for the convention. We carry the booth (assembly required) crate by crate, piece by piece from the tool truck.

And so the morning is spent putting together a booth to tell the story of rebuilding, of need, of desperation. It is both high-tech (flat-screen TV set with DVD documentary, laptop to process instant online donations) and low-tech (crates, tools and T-shirts).

I have the thankless task of shirt inventory and organization, which after an hour, I want to throttle one of the coordinators. She reminds me of a joke:

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

Control freak. Now you say, “Control freak who?”

But I remind myself, it’s for the sake of the organization. I sulk, but do so quietly and passive-aggressively.

The booth is done, and it stands out. But it’s only the beginning, as volunteers will staff and schmooze tonight and the next three days. Their success means the difference between nourishing a growing effort or shutting it down from lack of funds.

Just like the convention, it all depends on bringing people back to the New Orleans they know, love and remember. This place of suffering, this convention center, can do some good despite its recent troubles.


I’m not sticking around for the booth. It’s my last day on the volunteer crew. The week has flown by.

But my work here, our work here, is far from complete. I have more stories to share, more projects to work, more people to shake out of complacency.

Working with Hands on New Orleans has been endlessly inspiring. And being back in New Orleans has been unforgettable.

Learn how you can volunteer with Hands on New Orleans, one of many nonprofit organizations helping to rebuild the city. Or make a tax-deductible gift. For more information, visit, e-mail or call (504) 899-5589.

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New Orleans 2006


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