As the executive director of lowernine.org, a non-profit organization dedicated to rebuilding homes, Paul’s goal is to bring back as many Lower Ninth Ward families as possible. While the team has fully rebuilt 83 homes and renovated many more, the rate of return — 36.7 per cent — still remains very low compared to the rest of the city, where more than 90 per cent of households have returned.
From Crescent Street to the Crescent City
When Laura Paul, BA (religion) 00, drove into New Orleans, La., in 2006, a mere five months after Hurricane Katrina had utterly devastated the Crescent City, displacing hundreds of thousands of people and causing more than US$100 billion in damages, she only planned to volunteer for a few days.
Her temporary stay, however, quickly turned into 14 months, which then turned into years.
Paul has now spent more than a decade in New Orleans and today considers it her home.
“I had a great life back in Montreal, but when I arrived in New Orleans and saw how bad the situation was I kept delaying my trip back,” the Scarborough, Ont., native explains. “Eventually, I just never left.”
Her temporary stint as a first-response volunteer, distributing water and 2,200 meals a day in the city’s St. Bernard Parish, eventually became her full-time career. Only now, the focus of her work is long-term recovery.
Rebuilding homes and reviving hope
The sheer devastation the area experienced, high poverty rates and government inaction have all contributed to the slow-as-molasses return rate many bemoan.
“After Katrina, 100 per cent of the homes in the Lower Ninth Ward were rendered uninhabitable,” Paul reports. “Outsiders might question why it’s taking so long, but it took four years alone to gut every single house.”
More than 10 years after Katrina, while the groundwork continues unabated and the volunteers continue to arrive from around the country and the world, the concern remains that people will forget. Donations are not as easy to come by, as other disasters have come along to make the front news and preoccupy people’s minds.
“People need to understand that recovery is a long haul, especially if you’re serving a community that is 98.1 per cent African American and 40 per cent live below the poverty line,” Paul says. “So much more still needs to be done, and we intend to keep doing it until we run out of money.”
The Concordia graduate has fond memories of her time at the university and credits her degree in religion with helping her understand and respect something that is a big part of New Orleans daily life.
“I’m not necessarily a person of faith, but I have immense respect for other cultures and religions and I felt compelled to study religion because it’s such a pervasive part of human history,” says Paul.
“People in the South are very religious; they’ll greet you with, ‘Have a blessed day,’ all community meetings begin with prayer, and it’s helped me understand its role here. This place would be nowhere without faith-based organizations which have stepped up to help and contribute many volunteers to the recovery efforts.”
While she admits to occasionally missing her life in Montreal and her apartment on Crescent Street (“right above Grumpy’s Bar!”), she doesn’t really have much time to miss her old friends — mainly because they’re always there.
“The great thing about New Orleans is that everyone wants to visit,” Paul says. “I have a guest bedroom in my home and there’s rarely a time when someone isn’t staying in it.”
- lowernine.org gratefully accepts donations and volunteers.