A Stew of Hope and Despair

My plane touched down at National Airport just last night, and I'm still digesting all that I experienced during my 10-day stay in New Orleans.

For many years, I have been traveling outside of the country, particularly to Africa, so as to better understand how others live and make sense of the world. The awakening tore through me like a bolt of lightning during my first trip to South Africa in 1992, a period of strange and historic transition towards a democratic election.

Doorway of despair in the Lower Ninth Ward. (Kim O'Donnel)

The poverty and the squalor that I saw first-hand in the black townships was nothing short of astounding and life-changing. It was a call to action. I vowed to continue visiting places and meeting people whose lives were compromised by lack of food and shelter. In my own way, I have told their stories and kept them in my hearts, traveling to Uganda and AIDS-ravaged Zambia. The fire within me was still there, but I let other things get in the way and that fire had gone dim, more like a pilot light on the stove.

Until last week.

All the years I was traveling abroad, I gave little thought to those in need in my own back yard.

Until last week.

Nearly two years since Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi are still in bad shape -- of the mind blowing variety. There are neighborhoods and towns that remain deserted, blocks and miles of homes leveled or left in shambles. There are people still living hand to mouth who can't survive without the assistance of relief services and three hot meals a day.

In the richest country in the world, in an oil-rich state, in a city known for convention business and all-night partying, people are hungry and living in trailer parks.

Some of my CulinaryCorps colleagues on the line at the Goin' Home Cafe in the Lower Ninth. (Kim O'Donnel)

Maybe y'all are tired of hearing about Katrina, and that's what the citizens of the Gulf Coast are terrified about. More than anything. "Please don't forget us" is a plea I heard repeatedly during my stay.

The rebuilding is slow, but it is happening, brick by brick, crumb by crumb.

*On Sunday, the Martin Luther King Jr. High School in the Lower Ninth Ward officially re-opened, busying itself for its first academic year to begin in August.

*On Monday, there was a groundbreaking in the back yard of the Samuel J. Green Charter School, home to the Edible Schoolyard, the brainchild of Alice Waters of Chez Panisse fame. Amounting to one-third of an acre, the Edible Schoolyard's outdoor space will include a state-of-the-art kitchen and classrooms for the K-8 students who hail from all over the city.

*Since last fall, two farmers' markets have opened in the impoverished Lower and Upper Ninth Wards, making fresh food accessible in neighborhoods that have been without a supermarket for nearly a generation. A third one is in the works later this year. And a culinary program is getting started at nearby Frederick Douglass High School.

* I couldn't help but smile when I spotted a sign that says "We're Home!" staked in the front yard of a newly rebuilt home in Pass Christian, Miss.

It is indeed a stew of hope and despair, with resiliency thrown in for good measure. Rich or poor, black or white, these people are hanging in.

New Orleans is still that city where anything wacky goes, where everybody calls you darlin' and you're fixin' to go somewhere, where 24-hour bars and "go" cups are commonplace, where people look at each other in the eye, where food means everything.

Only in New Orleans. (Kim O'Donnel)

And for the first time in 15 years, I am humbled, I am inspired and I am catapulted into action. I am forever changed, and I will be going back, again and again.

Since Gulf Coast folks are still up to their necks resuscitating and rebuilding in earnest, I'll pass on the message that I heard over and again last week:

"Come visit. We'd love to see you and talk to you and break bread with you."

Join me this Thursday at 1 ET about my experiences in the Gulf Coast. Details to come.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 12, 2007; 11:32 AM ET New Orleans
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Thank you, thank you, thank you for these words! New Orleans has always felt like a second home to me and Katrina hit like a blow to my heart and psyche. It is so important to remember that we do have such a spectrum of wealth to poverty in this country and we do not have to travel to the so-called third world to experience it.

Thank you for spending time with the real New Orleanians and all those who you reached out to across the Gulf Coast. My father and I were there 6 weeks after the storm and still recall the warmth that we were welcomed with and this from people who had NOTHING. We cannot suffer from compassion fatigue no matter how easy it is to do. Thank you again for the reminder. New Orleans and the Gulf Coast are American treasures and deserve to be more than a footnote to Katrina.

Posted by: Amy TH | June 12, 2007 7:11 PM

I've missed your "Getting Fresh" pieces. Will you be resuming them?

Posted by: Boyce Kendrick | June 13, 2007 12:10 PM

Boyce, "Getting Fresh" will resume tomorrow, weather permitting (that is, if the rain holds off long enough to get to one of the markets this afternoon.)

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | June 13, 2007 1:40 PM

Thanks so much for sharing these stories. It's been a fascinating glimpse, and much more 'real' than many traditional media reports.

As I read all your experiences in the "going home cafe" segment, I couldn't help but wonder -- but what happens when the cooks leave? That hit me at a much more visceral level than any Katrina story has for awhile.

On a more practical note, did you have any problem with too many cooks in the kitchen? I would think that could be tricky for folks who are used to running their own kitchen.

Posted by: Anonymous | June 13, 2007 2:01 PM

Been to Africa twice. Both times, I saw devestation. People in the U.S. (including New Orleans) have no idea how good life is.

Posted by: Boo-hoo | June 14, 2007 9:02 PM

i realize im a bit late with my comment but i just now found this series...

im touched by what youve written of my hometown of new orleans..and pleased that it was a positive experience for you..

i find it very odd that i continue to run across damning comments made those whove never even been to new orleans, concerning the city itself...

many seem to forget that the devastation caused by hurricane katrina covered an area roughly equal to the size of the UK....that it was the largest natural disaster this country has ever endured...

there are whole towns missing along the mississippi coast....

in new orleans, in the first weeks following the flood...it was common to hear the national guardsmen [many of whom came straight from iraq] remark that the city, at that time, was worse than bagdhad...

those to whom we pay taxes have let us done badly...and continue to do so...

largely, what one sees today in new orleans is the product of individual intitiative and perseverance...

to this day, the people of new orleans put up with conditions which in any other city in the US would be deemed unacceptable...

but, it is getting better, bit by bit....you have to figure, as a small example, that two years ago, we had an estimated two million refrigeraters full of rotting food...sitting in the streets..

thank you for the lovely series of posts...i enjoyed reading them...

Posted by: anabella | July 8, 2007 4:37 AM

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