Eyewitness account

NEW ORLEANS — Two years after his wife was swept away by Hurricane Katrina, Calvin Bernard still comes to sweep the slab and water the flowers where their house once stood in this city’s Lower 9th Ward.

It is his way of keeping alive the hope that he can rebuild his life and his community.

I met Bernard working as a volunteer electrician this summer. Both of us are construction workers who offered our skills with Common Ground, the community organization that has played such a vital role in rebuilding this devastated city.

Bernard, 53, showed me his property, located within 50 yards from the point on the Industrial Canal that collapsed the night of Aug. 29, 2005. When it broke, a wall of water smashed everything in its path starting with Bernard’s house.

“The night Katrina hit, I was in Baton Rouge working on a construction project,” he told me. “The storm passed and all seemed well. Then I got a call from my daughter. She told me our house was gone and Mama was missing. My dear wife was washed away along with my home and my entire life.”

Her body was found eight weeks later, Bernard said. She left behind her husband, two sons and a daughter. “The government killed my wife. She and thousands of other people died because of government neglect and indifference. Now I’m determined to help my neighbors come home to the Ninth Ward. They don’t want us to come back.”

A recent report by the Washington-based Brookings Institution verified his charge. Only 25 percent of the 148,000 applications for the federally-funded “Road Home” grants offering up to $150,000 to rebuild homes have been approved. Bernard could not even apply because he did not have the deed and could not prove ownership of the house that has been in his family for six generations.

His experience is typical of red tape and technicalities the government cites in denying financial assistance to working class people in the mostly African American Lower Ninth Ward.

Bernard scorned President Bush, FEMA officials and other politicians who promised swift, generous aid to reconstruct New Orleans. “Two years later, where are they now? I’m angry. Just look at that bridge,” he said, pointing at the Claiborne Street overpass up the street from his lot. “That old rusty bridge is the first thing you see coming into the Lower Ninth. The federal government has plenty of money. Look what they are doing over there in Iraq. But they won’t give it to us. Look at how we live down here. No one is supposed to live like we do. Now they want to charge rent to people living in FEMA trailers.”

Bernard now lives with other Common Ground volunteers in an old flood-ravaged house, one of the few left standing. There is no shower so they have rigged up a canvas shower stall in the back yard. They eat donated food. His only source of income is donations from his volunteer work with Common Ground.

Volunteers have played a crucial role. I first came here in spring 2006 with the Veterans for Peace Gulf Coast March from Mobile to New Orleans protesting Bush’s squandering of billions in Iraq while displaced families here are abandoned. I was immediately pressed into volunteer work.

I came back to volunteer a few months later and was assigned to lead a brigade of 20 Middies from the U.S. Naval Academy. While we worked to restore electricity to St. Mary of the Angels Catholic school, I discussed with them the insanity of Bush’s war in Iraq.

Later, I wired up the homes of several families who were living here without electricity. The people’s gratitude was overwhelming. They prepared one feast after another to repay us.

I decided to move here two months ago. As a member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 24, I got a job through IBEW Local 130. Evenings and weekends I volunteer. This past weekend, I repaired an electrical short that kept knocking out power at the Women’s Shelter in the Lower Ninth.

Volunteers cannot rebuild this city. Take medical care. A row of hospitals and clinics in the heart of downtown is still closed, their walls thick with poisonous black mold. It is an outrage that after two years, the federal government has not intervened to rebuild and reopen this medical complex.

What New Orleans needs is a crash federally funded and directed rebuilding project on the scale of the New Deal’s WPA during the Great Depression. The Gulf Coast Civic Works Project, a campus-based grassroots organization, is pressing Congress to enact a WPA-style program to create 100,000 jobs rebuilding the schools, hospitals, roads and bridges on the Gulf Coast, still devastated by Katrina and Rita. The Corps of Engineers could start by strengthening the levees to withstand another Force Five hurricane.

Tim Wheeler contributed to this article.

Also by Morgan P. Wheeler:

Veterans march to New Orleans: ‘Make levees, not war’

A veteran’s account: Gulf Coast march for peace, justice