homes, rebuilding lives
Matt Klar, Youth Writer
the plane took off, I peered down at a sight that would stick with me for
the next four days.
Staring back at me were the 1,894,436 dwellings of
the Greater Toronto Area: millions of memories, smiles and holiday
However, my destination was a city that would look far
different. Where I was going, smiles and fond memories were in short
Where I was going, a region was still suffering the aftermath
of the darkest week in its history. After Hurricane Katrina made landfall
near Buras, Louisiana, on Aug. 29, 2005, southern Louisiana was
Later that evening, the 17th Street Levee collapsed and
more than 80 per cent of New Orleans was under water, destroying 160,000
homes. That is thousands of memories, smiles and holiday dinners.
members of the B’nai Brith Youth Organization and I journeyed to
Chalmette, LA to rebuild houses with the National Relief Network. From
there, we joined other youth groups from Toronto.
We were assigned one
of the houses that had applied for aid. What we saw couldn’t be described
in the black and white of newspaper stories, or from the mouth of a
news anchor. What we saw was real life.
On weak legs I walked into the
kitchen. Or was this the kitchen? There was no sink or microwave, no
toaster. No refrigerator. Just fragmented drywall and clouds of dirt.
I removed hundreds of nails effortlessly, like flicking away an
eyelash. But this was real life. Each nail was a piece of a home. These
nails, which lay in bunches on the ground, once held together the lives
and memories of this family.
Every room looked the same, completely
empty and broken.
This was only the first 30 minutes on the work site.
What remained of 3609 Jean Lafitte St. would be our home for the next
I walked up the stairs and somehow wound up in a
closet with a few old clothes, a badminton racket and a stack of old
I picked up the magazine on top of the pile: The New Age
Magazine from August 1989.
As I flipped it over, dust rolled off
the front cover, vanishing into the air. It has an address label. It has a
name. Joseph D. Cutrer. This is his magazine. His magazine, in his closet.
This is his house.
My heart skipped a beat.
This trip, which
I once thought would be “a good experience”, or “look great on a
resume”, had become something much different. It was personal.
Although the city once looked destroyed, a sense of hope is present on
the streets of New Orleans.
It’s the only city in the world where, on
one short drive, you could find a crawfish po boy sandwich, a bowl of
gumbo, world renowned beignets and nine teenagers from Thornhill tearing
down drywall in hardhats.
Back at the site, car horns tooted as
they drove by, recognizing us as volunteers. Each person we met was proud
of the rebuilding effort.
Joel Colman, the chaplain of the New Orleans
Fire Department, told us 70 per cent of firefighters have been displaced
“The heartbreak that Katrina brought is lightened by the
hope that you guys bring into New Orleans. Give hope to everyone you can,”
Even more thanks are issued from Betty Lazarus, a
librarian at a synagogue in Metairie, LA. “Something horrible has
happened to our city. Thanks in part to volunteer groups like you, things
are starting to improve.”
No matter how many thanks we
received that week, working on the site didn’t feel like I was
accomplishing as much as I would have liked. I wanted to be a hero
for these people.
It was one job on the site that pounded this message
home; to rake the mounds of dead grass in what was once a back yard.
have raked at home, but this was much different. There are overwhelming
piles of destruction.
I raked and carried an armload to the garbage
pile across the street where a FEMA truck would eventually dispose of it.
I did this three or four more times. The pile never shrank. The yard
remained in a shambles no matter how vigorously I raked or how much I
I would not be able to erase all the damage by myself, no
matter how badly I wanted to.
This house will only be finished when
the last coat of paint dries against its brand new walls. My stomach
I want to be there when the last coat of paint is
brushed on the walls. I want to be holding the brush.
The group sat
down for lunch. I bit into what seemed like my 14th granola bar of the
day, when a gold SUV parked in front of the house.
are here. I didn’t know if y’all were gonna show up,” the man said.
“The name’s Joseph.”
I felt a lump in my throat. Joseph was
the name on the magazine. This was his home.
What was once a circle of
vicious chewing and chomping fell silent. Joseph Cutrer had the stage, as
he stood on his front lawn on the corner house of Jean Lafitte St.,
staring at the ruins of his home.
With eyes nearly in tears, he gladly
shared his story.
Before the storm, things were going well. Joseph had
retired and his wife, a teacher for 38 years, was planning her retirement
Just two weeks before Katrina, the family cancelled half their
insurance, something Mr. Cutrer described as, “The worst mistake I’d
ever made in my whole life.”
He paused in the middle of
“I’m sorry. But I just get nearly sick every time
I come down here,” he said.
“I had ridden out all the storms,
way back when and we all thought we was gonna survive. The morning after
the storm hit, I got a call from the fellow across the street. He told me
there was water above the door and I knew something terrible was
“The first time I came down here, there was 16 inches of mud
in the streets. I was just shocked when I’d seen so much destruction done
in such a short time,” he said.
“At the age I am now, you just can’t
do what you want to do. I just don’t know what to do anymore. ”
Listening to the story was harder than any dead grass I had to
rake, or bricks I needed to lift. Listening to perhaps the most special
thank you I’ve ever received was much harder.
“Y’all are a blessing.
I’m just so glad that you all took the time to care and come down here to
help us. I appreciate you all very much. You will all be blessed. I m glad
ya’ll had the heart enough to come down here.”
Before Mr. Cutrer
drove back to his temporary home, two hours from his real one, he posed
for some group photos. Everyone smiles and stares directly into the camera
lens, but I couldn’t help but look down the road.
There was not one
home in good condition. There was no sign of civilization, a deserted
suburbia, except for a church across the street.
And suddenly in the
heart of this city, only a few hours by plane from my house, my life felt
But I looked back into the eyes of Mr. Cutrer, as his
eyes wandered around his old neighbourhood. I saw the gratitude and it no
longer mattered that the pile of dead grass wouldn’t go down. For a few
hours, on a few days of the year, we took time out of our lives and
Matt Klar is a student at Thornhill Secondary School
and a member of the York Region Media Group’s y-team. You can contact him