The police officer hollered at a man driving by in a white pickup. We were standing together on the porch of a young man's house, deep in conversation. "Go with him," said the young man. "He’ll show you."
I approached the man behind the wheel who smiled warmly through the open window. “I’m here to see how the recovery from Katrina is going,” I explained. “I came to New Orleans for a conference but I can’t go home until I see how you all are doing.”
He responded briefly, then told me to climb aboard. “I knew he’d take you,” the young man called. I waved thanks to two new friends, and we drove off.
I’d walked over four miles so was glad to get off my feet. My trek had begun at a fancy hotel on Canal Street in the French Quarter, continued through the charmed French Market (where French toast was my breakfast) and on through the bohemian Bywater district, finally crossing the ancient St. Claude Avenue drawbridge over the industrial canal. On the other side I descended into a desolate neighborhood, looking for people to talk to, hoping to put a human face on an inhuman disaster. I had arrived at the 9th Ward, a low-lying section of New Orleans that was arguably the hardest hit part of the city when Hurricane Katrina came ashore in August, 2005.
My first encounter in the neighborhood was with a man whose t-shirt and clipboard explained why he was peering into the windows of a newly-restored house. Foot soldier in a movement to restore the 9th Ward, he encouraged me to talk to an organizer at nearby Greater Little Zion Baptist Church on Chartres Street. My gaze en route took in an unsettling mix of abandoned homes, overgrown lots and construction projects, punctuated oddly by intact homes, most of them modest—signs of hope four years after the desolation. What I didn’t know was that this area had suffered “only” 3-6 feet of seawater, and that my journey would soon take me north to where broken levees had completely submerged two-story houses.
Three kids were lazily tossing a football in the street. They’d been back for about a year, one explained.
“Where did you go?”
“Tennessee,” he said, with a look and a tone that suggested he’d been exiled to a distant planet. He proudly pointed out his house nearby, a house that displayed few signs of the trauma that had driven him and his family to another world. I greeted other returnees, passed the (closed) Baptist church, then spied a police officer enjoying casual porch conversation with a man in his twenties.
Welcoming me into their circle, the two men took turns telling stories, an antiphonal litany of heroism and suicide, financial ruin and new beginnings, high-level corruption and grassroots brokenness. To my dismay, they both believed the barge that broke loose from its moorings and punched through the flood wall had been purposely used to insure that surging floodwaters poured into the 9th Ward and, more to the point, away from upscale (and less black) sectors of the city. Whatever the “facts” of the matter prove to be—litigation continues—this dark conspiracy is part of reality in the battered and bruised 9th.
That’s when the guy drove by in his truck. With his new cargo on board, "Mack" drove a few blocks to the sole reopened convenience store in town to buy cigarettes. Then, further down and further in, we descended into the lowest, hardest hit section of the Ward, the battlefield of a past Armageddon.
“See the holes in the roofs? That’s how people escaped their attics. Not with pickaxes. With butter knives. And here is where people clung to phone lines waiting for rescue. Over there is where the barge broke through the floodwall. This field here used to be one of our schools, but they’re not rebuilding it. How can families return if there’s nowhere for kids to go to school?”
The scene was depressingly apocalyptic even now, four years after the storm surge had tossed cars and floated houses. Mack pointed to a six-foot high tree claiming territory in the middle of fractured, overgrown pavement.
“This used to be a street. Nature wants the neighborhood back.”
We drove past lot after empty lot, many scraped clean by demolition crews except for the tombstone that was once the front porch. A line from a song by David Wilcox came to mind: “stone steps rise to nothing in the air.”
“Did you notice that man?" Mack asked, as we drove past a few waving returnees. "His three year-old slipped off their roof and drowned.” Everyone in the 9th, it turns out, knows Ward “Mack” McClendon. He is a hurricane of grace. A bundle of honesty and hope. A man on a mission: former owner of auto salvage yard now busy salvaging a community.
We ended our drive at Lower 9th Ward Village, a green and gray warehouse with an arched metal roof that he is transforming into a community center. On a desk inside the front door was a picture of Mack with Jimmy Carter who, I learned, got the same tour I did and even played the videotape version at the 2008 Democratic National Convention to prove it.
Mack showed me around his center—library, computer room, meeting hall, outdoor stage—all built by volunteers without government money. Then, kindly, he sent me on my way. Four miles to the hotel, four hours until my flight—it was time to trade their reality for mine.
The walk back offered time to think but I would need months, not hours, to sort this one out. All I know at this point, one day later, is that years from now when I recall the 2009 Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting in New Orleans, I’ll be lucky to recall a single academic paper from the conference. But I will remember Mack.