Works and Days

Defense Mechanisms of a City Under Water Siege

Children painting a bench.

While parts of the country battle wild summer fires and far lands such as the Darfur region and Southwestern China make headlines in the news for want of water, one city is doing everything it can to rid itself of this important element of classical thought. This summer I am in New Orleans. And I must admit I was in part lured to this Southern princess by five star reviews of its rich culture and cuisine by Dana Lawson. After exploring as much of the city as I could during my arrival weekend, I turned my back on bustling Bourbon street, buckled my work boots, rolled up my sleeves, and began toiling under the sweltering sun with a team of other volunteers to fight water in this city. I am interning with Groundwork New Orleans, an environmental non-profit organization, this summer to lead a group of volunteers to construct rain gardens in the lower ninth ward of the city to minimize the risk of future flooding.

People constructing benches.

The start of the project had been delayed by a week pending paper work from the New Orleans’ Redevelopment Authority and the city’s Water and Sewage Board. So I spent my first week helping working with Global Green USA, a sister organization of Groundwork with a similar project on Andry Street. This gave me the first idea of the construction challenges I would be facing in the proceeding weeks. After two weeks of teasing grey clouds masking the resilient furnace of the sun, the clouds finally showed some potency by spewing down the long overdue rains. There were sighs of relief on the sweating faces digging the rain garden with shovels.

People constructing benches.

My first challenge came during the preparation for the start of work on the rain garden in the lower ninth ward. Two other volunteers and I distributed leaflets containing information about the rain garden to the residents in and around the marked site. However there were mixed receptions from some residents. While the majority were upbeat about the prospect of having rain gardens in their vicinity, a few of the residents expressed indifference about the project, citing past years of promises with no actions by organizations since Katrina. One could reason with their frustration because despite strong evidence of rebuilding efforts in the community, many houses, playgrounds and sidewalks still stood in ruins, swallowed by overgrown bushes and puddles of stagnant, bug infested water. I humbly concurred with their assertions, but explained to them that we were not there to make promises or take a survey of their needs as they were thinking. We were there to immediately contribute to the ongoing rebuilding process with the constructing of rain gardens and a sheltered Green Space with two large picnic tables and four picnic benches for the community.

People constructing benches.

Coincidentally there was a bus stop a few feet away from the site of the first rain garden where residents waiting for the bus were at the mercy of the scorching sun with no seating area. It immediately became obvious that there would be an additional benefit of the completed project to community members, an added benefit we had not even envisioned. I further explained the function and ecological benefits of the rain garden, which was met by unanimous approval from each household that gave us audience and most of these residents offered verbal commitments to volunteer some hours to get the project done in time.

People constructing benches.

But when all the paper work from the city of New Orleans’ Redevelopment Authority was completed and work on the site began there were fluctuating numbers of volunteers (besides a core group of me and three others) showing up each day. This made it quite difficult for me to follow a rigid timeline for the site’s activities. On some days our to-do list would be completed within a half day. On other days there would be barely a dent on the project at the end of the workday. I decided to talk to my immediate supervisor about re-structuring the dimension of our workdays from the two-period days (9am - noon and 1pm to 3pm) to a single-period day (9am - 1pm with a half-hour lunch break from 11-1130). With his approval I informed the other regular volunteers and the daily drop-in volunteers about the change, with the condition that we meet our daily goals. This seemed to have resonated very well with everyone and there was a sudden ignition of energy within each volunteer to work expediently. Each volunteer pitched in with a certain ravenous appetite for work to the extent that we were often able to meet our daily goals with an hour or half-hour to spare on most days.

People constructing benches.

With this new work ethic, the usual daily discussion of the NBA free agency and the on-going soccer world cup were reserved only for our lunch breaks. It was amazing how productively the team evolved within a few days to drive the project ahead of schedule. This was a newfound way of motivating the volunteers for me, and it would become my strategy for the rest of my time with Groundwork and in my future endeavors where applicable.

Tags: McGill Lawrence, New Orleans, flooding, rain gardens