07 April 2009

GARDEN GATE: Planting in New Orleans

New Orleans ranks as my favorite U.S. city.
Nowhere else have I experienced such an utter gumbo of delights and such a feeling only found in NOLA--from voodoo to Catholicism, from Cajun to Creole, from all styles of music to the rhythm of the Mississippi, from the Garden District to the French Quarter: The city had touched me, even though I'd only been there twice.
On my third visit, last spring, I was particularly touched to have a chance to volunteer in greater New Orleans. I learned some hard, hot lessons about hanging sheetrock.
Also, my friend Mary Jo Crosby and I planted a bit of beauty in hurricane-ravaged St. Bernard Parish. Above, behind us, see the new plantings. Below, see the story.

For most of us. the situation in New Orleans has slipped from our minds, replaced with other natural disasters, other tragedies, other concerns--including the economy. Sadly, a year since we volunteered, I doubt much has changed in the area. Even when it's not hurricane season, I hold my breath for New Orleans.

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A perennial border grows in St. Bernard Parish. The parish lies next to the Lower Ninth Ward, just east of New Orleans proper. There’s not much proper about the perilous situation there. After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in 2005, 100 percent of the houses in the parish were deemed uninhabitable. Thirty months after the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history, the devastation remains impossible to imagine without witnessing it firsthand.

I happened to be on hand for post-Katrina relief duty because I’d accompanied my sweetheart, who serves as a trustee of the American Osteopathic Association, on a mission retreat. While part of the AOA group doctored at a free clinic set up in an abandoned WalMart parking lot, the rest of us volunteered to help rebuild houses through the St. Bernard Project. (www.stbernardproject.com)

50,000 displaced pets

On the bus ride to the parish, I met Connie and Joey. When the storm hit, Connie had been out of town, getting her daughter settled for her freshman year of college. “The last thing I told her was that I’d take good care of her cat,” Connie said, adding, “My dog was only eight years old.” The pets were among the estimated 50,000 displaced by the hurricanes.

“28 feet of water and a boat on my roof”

Lost pets weren’t her only problems upon her return home. Connie said, “I had 28 feet of water and a boat on my roof.” Connie was a lucky one; she got a FEMA trailer.
Joey, a self-described “bayou boy” and an officer with the sheriff’s department, pointed out the spot where the levee had broken, where the storm surge breached. He explained the codes spray-painted on abandoned buildings—each carrying shorthand for crucial details like dates and dead bodies found. I noticed bare cement foundations like headstones on the landscape—and enough of them to suggest a cemetery where once a neighborhood had stood.
Joey told me how his wife had fled their home with the insurance papers and a pillowcase stuffed with personal belongings, how he had worked for days on end, ending up on a commandeered cruise ship.

Canadians were first responders

During orientation, we learned that most people in the parish had no flood insurance, having been told that their homes no longer were considered on the floodplain. The first responders were the Canadian Royal Mounted Police.
After orientation, my group and I boarded the bus again and landed on Reunion Street at the shell of a small brick home undergoing slow repairs reliant on volunteer labor. After the storm surge, from two to 28 feet of water stood for 13 days in the parish.
After a crash course in how to hang sheetrock, we got to work, earnest, but neophytes all. Hanging sheetrock is a heavy, cumbersome, dusty chore. In the close quarters and the Louisiana humidity, my t-shirt soon bloomed with sweat stains.
The house grew hotter, and we faced a bottleneck waiting for tools or materials, so my friend Mary Jo and I migrated outside where we pulled weeds and picked up broken window glass in the back yard. As I bent to gather shards from the grass, I noticed oval, blackish things. I picked one up, examined it, and realized it was a pecan. I looked to the yard’s dead tree—a pecan tree—distorted and blackened as if it scorched.

Broken glass, scorched pecans, fire ants

As Mary Jo, who belongs to a Chicago garden club, did her best to use a piece of twisted metal to break up a fire ant hill, I confided in her that while I working in my Denver garden, a mile above sea level, I had hatched a hopeful plan. I wanted to pot up some plants for the homeowner as a gift, a surprise, a touch of beauty to offset in some small way the post-hurricane ugliness. Maybe a container of zinnias. Perhaps another of culinary herbs.
Mary Jo had an even better idea: Why not plant perennials? Shrubs!
I had noticed a scalloped brick-lined plot in front of the house, a rectangular space along the foundation; and my excitement grew. Maybe my plan was possible. Yet we had no transportation.
But Mary Jo’s husband John serves as executive director of the AOA, and about that time, one of his staff members, Gregg sidled up.
“Gregg,” I asked pleadingly, “do you have a car?”
“I do,” he answered, suspicious. I explained our idea. “But the problem is, there’s nothing open around here,” Gregg said. Which by and large was true. The storms had devastated 3,000 businesses, most now abandoned. The people of the parish finally have a grocery store open, but still have no place to buy clothes.
Mary Jo chimed in, “I saw a nursery on the ride over! It was called Renaissance!”
The name was not lost on me.
Gregg introduced Mary Jo and me to a driver he’d hired named Nick. New Orleans born and bred, Nick is a rangy, gray-haired, cigarette smoker who called me “darlin’” in the most endearing way. Nick knew where the garden center was located because, as fate would have it, Nick is a gardener. Like any gardener, he was enthused about the prospect of purchasing plants.

A million gallon oil slick

We took a rough measurement of the plot and then headed out, driving along a drainage ditch threading the low-lying wetlands outside the levee system. I tried but could not imagine a sinister flash flood ravaging the bayou where yellow wildflowers grew thick and turtles basked placidly on rocks jutting up from calm waters.
As we drove to the nursery, Nick pointed out the enormous oil storage silo that the storm surge had knocked off its foundation, spilling one million gallons of crude, the largest residential oil spill in U.S. history.
Nick told us how at his home, after the flood, all his plants had turned black. Even the boxwoods. The flood’s saltwater had burned all vegetation, which explained the eerily charred pecan tree. Nick had scraped off his landscape, dug out roots, removed six inches of soil, and then started over with his garden.
At the small, independent nursery, Mary Jo and I quelled our romantic visions of frilly azaleas and fragrant gardenias. Out of our growing zones, we deferred to Nick, who had a plan. Nick helped us select some sturdy, low-maintenance plants: two five-gallon Indian hawthorns with perfumed blooms, four two-gallon shrubs of what Nick calls “pop roses” in red, and a flat of 18 4-inch containers of variegated Aztec grasses.

One good deed inspires another

The woman at Renaissance Garden Center seemed appreciative for the business. When we told her what we were doing, she gave us a discount on the big bags of cedar mulch.
The situation in St. Bernard Parish brings out the best and worst of human nature; and the impact of Mother Nature instills fearsome awe. On the way home, Nick noted that this is the first spring since the hurricane that the oak trees bear leaves again.

Even the garden tools showed damage

The garden store did not sell tools, but we found an open hardware store. As Mary Jo and I shopped for a shovel, we grew confused. Many of the tools were peeling. We pulled bits of a thin layer of black off the shovel and weren’t sure what to make of it until Nick explained that the store had been underwater and the salt water loosened the tools’ powder coating.
Back on Reunion Street, Mary Jo and I turned the earth, silky as butter, rich and a bit sandy with all that Mississippi River silt. Probably, before dubious development, the site on which the home sat once was a cypress swamp. We pulled weeds from the bed, then dug in the plants according to Nick’s design: hawthorns flanking shrub roses, grasses in front.
As we began to mulch the new border, a stout and stern African American woman soon looked over our shoulders. “I been watching; and you did all that in about 30 minutes. You put something beautiful in all this,” she said, and then with a huff, added, “And they say we got no power.”

Evacuating homes, evacuating hope

In orientation, the attorney addressing us had told us to pause to listen to people who approached us as we worked. I laid down the shovel. I introduced myself to the black woman overlooking the new garden. She told me her name was Diana. She told her story of evacuating to Atlanta, a normally six-hour drive that had taken 15 hours. Months later, Diana returned to her home, saturated, looted, strewn with snakes and big, drowned rats.
Diana also told the horror story of her sister and her three children who had stayed in the parish and ended up among the many stranded for days on rooftops, then at the abysmal Superdome. I listened until Diana finished talking and pointed at the border and she said, “Thank you, Sweetheart.”
Gregg and I went down the block with an empty ice chest to fetch water from a neighbor’s spigot. We lugged the makeshift watering can back and gave the border a drink.

The coroner’s memories

That night I ate red beans and rice and bread pudding with Bryan Bertucci, M.D., the St. Bernard coroner. Dr. Bertucci lost 35 patients at the nearby geriatric home; the bedridden and wheelchair bound elderly people drowned because they had not been evacuated. The first day he returned to his home, the doc removed 16 snakes, including four water moccasins. He confessed that he’d been criticized for not identifying bodies sooner, but explained that of 153 corpses from hurricane-related deaths, only one had a wallet. All dental records had been destroyed, but one individual had a singular gold tooth with a star. And one had a medical ID. Otherwise, the waterlogged bodies were so bloated and fingerprints so distorted that the coroner had to rely on DNA testing.
“What sustained you?” I asked him.
“Little things,” he answered. “Like the joy of getting a toothbrush and toothpaste again.”

Unnatural surges in plant and animal kingdoms

Many doctors left NOLA never to return. Dr. Bertucci explained that after Katrina, survivors dealt with other unnatural surges including mold, dust, and pollen, along with rampant poison ivy that bolted, nourished by delta mud. Snakes and rats showed up everywhere. All the birds flew away, which allowed the blood-sucking fly, mosquito, ant and termite populations to explode. Wild cats and dogs—one estimate is 70,000 strays—roamed. Brown Widow spiders mutated. Killer bees swarmed. Dr. Bertucci remains, trying to build a hospital in the parish.

Our dinner speaker, a government man, explained to us how only a small portion of the levee system had been strengthened; and the entire job would not be completed for 35 years.

After dinner later that night, back in our swank suite on high ground in the French Quarter, I was exhausted-- from travel and hanging sheetrock and gardening, but moreso from politics. I tumbled into troubled sleep. Thunder clapped and lightning flashed, awakening me. And as the hard rain fell, I pictured the local oak leaves unfurling for the first time in three years.

Then I pictured the water rising with rain and the miles and miles of levees in the parish still requiring repair and the stew of global warming, rising seas, stronger hurricanes, weakened floodwalls, systemic political corruption. I pictured the house in harm’s way on Reunion Street. Outside the French Quarter, there’s not much easy about the Big Easy, sinking, literally, and living with the sinking knowing that engineering cannot trump nature.
But, for now, a border grows in St. Bernard Parish.

The piece appeared in different form in the op/ed pages of The Denver Post last year. Logged to run one Sunday, it got bumped repeatedly by other natural disastors around the globe. Finally, the essay was published just as Hurricane Gustav was landing; and Hurricanes Hanna and Ike were beginning to swirl, soon joined by Josephine.
Tragically, the Midwest--including my hometown (Mason City, Iowa), my alma mater (University of Iowa), and my brother's small horse farm in Iowa--flooded around the same time.

EARFUL: For a moving song about New Orleans, listen to “Where Were You?” on Jackson Browne’s new studio album “Time the Conquerer.”

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