I have sold Strumsticks at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival for many years. This year's Jazz Fest was my first visit to New Orleans (NOLA, as the locals say) since Katrina. I have dear friends there, some who lost homes to the flooding, some had storm damage but homes survived. I knew that the city is rebuilding, and that about half of the 500,000 citizens have returned, but I had some apprehension as to what I would see, how I would feel, and what would this beautiful city be like now. All was better than I had feared, but I learned some new things to be concerned about.
Jazz Fest is a vibrant, magnificent celebration of the musical and cultural fabric of New Orleans. Driving around the city in April, signs of rebuilding were everywhere, and the people showed a fierce determination to renew their city. The evidence of the disaster was still very visible, although disappearing every day. I had the good fortune to be taken through a lot of the affected areas by my friend Tom Mann, a jeweler and artist, and NOLA resident. This was a very sobering and moving experience to say the least. The scale of that event cannot be comprehended by photos, video, or Google maps. You have to stand on a bridge across the Industrial Canal, and see the distance from there to the Superdome, or walk through the 9th ward amid the remains of tens of thousands of houses to start to get a sense of it. I experienced immense hope and persistence in the many people I talked to. New Orleans IS rebuilding, and they will succeed, make no bones about it. The Dutch have lived below sea level for thousands of years, and there is no reason New Orleans cannot.
I saw something else though, which is a new concern I had not been aware of. The people there are mentally and emotionally exhausted. It has been 18 months since Katrina. They have been recovering and rebuilding all that time. Everybody there is in the same boat. They are helping and supporting each other, but they need help and support from the outside. There are 300 million people in the rest of the country. Our support is still needed. Dollars, yes, volunteers, yes, but also visitors, visitors, visitors. New Orleans is open, and is more worth visiting than ever before. Have a beer or brandy on Bourbon street, catch some Jazz, or Blues, or Zydeco, talk to the the people there. Listen to their stories. They have told their stories to each other, but something about recovery calls for telling your story to fresh ears, to people from outside the wreckage. Maybe that's the way we make our links back to "normal" existence, making contact with people whose lives are "normal". That is what New Orleans needs now, more than anything.... a dose of "normal" to add new energy and new hope. NOLA is a town that has been a bastion of hope, but they are getting weary after this long time. Go there, see the damage, bear witness to what happened, and you will appreciate all that is good in your life with a new depth. Hear some music, spend some money. Your having a good time is just what is needed. How great when doing good and having fun can coincide so neatly. If you can volunteer some time, so much the better. I remember vividly after 911, when everyone I talked to wanted to be doing something to help, but there were just so many diggers, and white socks, and bottles of water needed. Here is a call for recovery that you and I can truly contribute to.
The highlight of the week was when a woman brought to me a strumstick (purchased at Jazz Fest some years ago) that had been in her house when the house was destroyed by the flood. Somehow the Strumstick survived immersion; stained, strings rusted away, and forever marked by the experience, but intact and restorable. I gave her a fresh new strumstick, and asked if I might use her survivor to help tell the story of what New Orleans needs now. I could not have imagined a more poignant icon for what has happened there, for something as delicate, personal, and treasured as that strumstick to survive, weathered and weary as it is.
Music is the heart and soul of New Orleans, and New Orleans is the heart and soul of American music. Please do what you can to help, you will not regret it. And don't forget to have a good time doing it. As they say in NOLA, ‘lezez le bon temps roulez’ (let the good times roll.)
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