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The power of the human spirit prevails once again

By AMY ELLIS
Published June 19, 2006


"Keep this as a reminder of what's important in life. The friends you make, the memories you keep. ... Keep this as a reminder of the special place you have in this world."

Framed in faded pink flowers, those words stared up at me from the floor of a waterlogged home in Orleans Parish on a greeting card caked with dirt and sand from the bottom of nearby Lake Pontchartrain. It was a startling statement, given the destruction of nearly everything but memories in this area of New Orleans.

I was standing in the rubble of a suburban family kitchen, sweeping up the remnants of moldy drywall, plaster and insulation. Like thousands of homes flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, this one would have to be nearly torn down before it could be rebuilt.

A day earlier, volunteers had carted out what remained of a family's possessions - dishes still neatly set at the dining room table, ruined books and CDs, stacks of family photographs covered in grime. Our task was to gut what remained so the home might one day be inhabitable again.

Along with more than 1,000 other local Main Street directors, I had traveled to New Orleans for a conference hosted by the National Historic Trust, the parent organization of the national Main Street program, which works to preserve and revitalize historic downtowns.

A day before the conference began, we participated in a volunteer cleanout project organized by ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a national coalition of low- to moderate-income families that works to build stronger communities through better housing, safer schools and access to health care.

Since the storm, ACORN volunteers have gutted and stabilized more than 1,200 homes in areas hardest hit by Katrina at no cost to homeowners. The process takes about 12 hours. The cleaning includes treatment for mold and would normally cost a homeowner between $2,500 and $3,000. Although many of the owners say they have no plans to return, a gutted home is apparently easier to sell than one filled with debris and rotting furniture.

The volunteers we worked with that day arrived in New Orleans for different reasons. Some were college students spending their summer break helping with the recovery. Others were travelers like us, in town for only a few days. I met two young men who chose the cleanup as an alternative to a jail sentence back home. Another man told me he had lost both his home and livelihood in the storm. Gutting homes was the only work he could find.

Regardless of the motivation, the spirit of generosity and the determination to help pull a city back from near-destruction was overwhelming. Even more inspiring were the residents we met who thanked us simply for visiting the city that for so many is the cultural soul of America; a place revered for great food, music, history and architecture.

In a stirring opening session, City Council member James Carter urged us to spread the word that New Orleans was back in business. Hurricanes - the drink, not the storm - are flowing again at Pat O'Brien's, jazz greats have returned to Preservation Hall, and jambalaya, beignets, crawfish and king cakes are being served all over town.

It seemed fitting that Main Street would hold its conference in a city so desperately in need of the very ideals Main Street promotes - economic revitalization and historic preservation. Although the conference had been scheduled long before the storm, officials with the National Trust were determined to keep the event in New Orleans as a symbolic and economic show of support. Like New York after Sept. 11, New Orleans will no doubt need the support of a nation to rebuild.

I'll never know who sent the pink greeting card I found on the floor. I wondered if it might have been taped to the refrigerator before the waters rose and the family who lived there had to flee.

Either way, it seemed wrong to sweep it away. To me, it was a poignant reminder of the power of the human spirit and what truly matters most.

To make a donation or volunteer for ACORN's Home Cleanout Program, go to www.acorn.org .

Amy Ellis is executive director of Downtown Dade City Main Street.