New Orleans is a city on edge.
After ten days of the most extreme stress imaginable, the people of New Orleans are at the edge. Talk with anyone from aid workers to residents and you hear stories. Many pause, weep and slowly regain their composure. The stress of this disaster is affecting everyone.
In a neighborhood at the edge of Metarie and Jefferson the electricity has just been turned on. As a Red Cross vehicle drives through the neighborhood announcing a food drop-off on a loudspeaker, residents emerge from damaged apartments and houses. A few push grocery carts. One man stacks bottled fruit drinks on a bicycle seat. Another leans on a crutch as he struggles to balance two boxes on his shoulder.
A woman stops to tell me she has 18 people in her small home. She intends to stay here but knows this may be impossible. She says energetically, “There are no services, no businesses and no way to earn a living. Do you have any of the $2,000 debit cards?” We don’t.
Another woman whose husband has leukemia and daughter is five months pregnant, says she has taken in 18 family members. The family had $300.00 before the storm. Gasoline for the evacuation and return took $170 of that. She’s been unable to connect with social services. Emotionally overextended and overloaded with responsibilities, she collects a load of fruit drinks, peanut butter crackers, diapers and water and drives off.
Three young people, neighbors in the same apartment complex, collect food and drinks in a grocery cart and stop to tell me they are working together as a team to survive. Sharon, a single-parent head of household with three children at home, says “We’re doing OK. Well, as OK as you can be in conditions like this. We’re surviving. The electricity came on last night. We’ve got water. We’re helping each other.”
Her neighbor Johnny picks up the conversation quickly. “We’re a team. If we work together we can make it. We’re doing OK because we’re helping each other.”
The three-some thank the Red Cross volunteers and two of them push the grocery cart down the street.
They disperse as quickly as they gather. Every survivor laboring under a load whose weight is both a physical burden and a symbol of the struggle to hang on in this devastated city.