Eight years ago Laura Paul watched the unfolding of Katrina, as did most of the world, through the filter of a television screen. But when she left Canada on a road trip the following January, Paul got an up-close-and-personal look at a city still drowning in its devastation.
“I had zero understanding of how serious an event Katrina was or how long recovery from it would take,” said Paul, who began to redefine her concept of recovery the day she drove her rented car into an empty parking lot in the Lower Ninth Ward five months after the storm. Paul had decided to visit family in Florida and head to the West Coast, stopping in New Orleans to volunteer for a few days. “I remember thinking that months after the event, there would be not much left to do.”
Eight years later, the 42-year-old still has much work to do in the Lower Ninth Ward.
“If you had told me I would still be actively engaged in recovery (in 2013), I would never have believed it was possible,” said Paul, the executive director of lowernine.org, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization dedicated to the long-term recovery of New Orleans’ historic Lower Ninth Ward from Hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches of 2005.
After she arrived that first winter after Katrina, Paul was one of many volunteers who witnessed the storm’s aftermath at the emergency camp set up in the Lower Ninth by Emergency Communities. She helped serve food at the Made With Love Cafe and Grill, unloaded donated supplies and performed all those tasks volunteers do.
Fourteen months later, Paul was still living in a tent and volunteering, making only one trip back to Montreal, to set up a fundraiser commemorating the first anniversary of the storm. Eventually, she would upgrade her accommodations to a tiny trailer.
“Living on a disaster relief site is nothing like ‘the real world.’ Everything was very visceral and immediate, and nothing mattered beyond the moment. We were just putting out fires and working hard to make sure people had the basic necessities — clothing, food, ‘flood kits’ and hygiene kits — stuff I would never have believed in a million years people could still be living without months after a disaster,” said Paul, who sought a more permanent residence in the Faubourg Marigny in 2007 and began working for Operation Nehemiah (another nonprofit disaster recovery organization).
She became a founding board member of lowernine.org before becoming the organization’s executive director two years ago.
Last November, she bought a Lower Ninth Ward house that she shares with her two dogs, Miles and Redford.
In 2013, Paul battles the still-widely-held perception that Katrina is history.
“In 2006, you couldn’t pick up a phone or send an e-mail asking for support, be it financial or in-kind (donations of food, or other materials) without your request being granted,” she said.
“Now we get a lot of ‘Katrina? Are you serious? But that was so long ago!,’ and a lot of ‘What’s taking so long?,’ said Paul, who answers that last question with a list of roadblocks she has encountered in her efforts to rebuild a neighborhood: black mold, contractor fraud, toxic FEMA trailers, forced mortgage payments, discriminatory federal recovery programs, tainted Chinese sheetrock.
Don’t get her started. Paul will remind you that recovery in the Lower Ninth Ward depends on unskilled volunteers who are trained as they go in the skills required to build a house, where materials are supplied by homeowners who can’t afford them, and that 100 percent of the residential properties in the Lower Ninth were rendered uninhabitable in 2005.
“The most important thing to remember is that we are not rebuilding a house. We’re rebuilding every house,” said Paul.
She applauds the new and improved levees, the fact that New Orleans has since hosted a Super Bowl, and that tourism has returned.
But the neighborhood Paul now calls home is still without basic city services such as a police or fire station and a grocery store.
If there is a mantra that runs through Paul’s head on a daily basis, it is this: Long-term disaster recovery.
“It is a real and present issue in this country, and others,” said Paul, who in eight years has gone from a wide-eyed volunteer from Canada to a seasoned hand at what it takes to turn devastation back into a neighborhood.