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One Year from the Day the Levees Broke

UUA Moderator Gini Courter traveled to New Orleans to be with the three area Unitarian Universalist congregations and community partners as they marked the fist anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Below is her personal account of the UU participation in One New Orleans Procession, a unique jazz memorial and celebration.

(New Orleans, August 29, 2006) It's 83 degrees with a cooling breeze when we join the Rev. Jim Vanderweele and members of Community Church at the site of the breach in the 17th Street Canal Levee. One year ago, Hurricane Katrina was packing up and leaving town when the levee, located about six blocks from Community Church, failed and water poured into New Orleans. The rest is bitter history. This morning members of the Lakeview community gather to remember. The crews working on the temporary levee (a permanent levee is scheduled to be built in 2010) pause while a brief ceremony is held. A bell is rung at 9:38 am and a black wreath placed in the canal to commemorate the lives lost.

After the ceremony, we regroup at Community Church. Unlike when I visited in April, there is real activity in the neighborhood—road crews working on the streets near the canal, contractors' signs in yards, vehicles stopping on the streets instead of just passing through. Lakeview is starting to come back. Community Church is making plans to rebuild to serve their neighborhood. Rebuilding will be a long process, as it has been with First Church. There is plenty of work to do. Our congregations and communities in the Gulf will need our help this year, and next year, and the year after. See our volunteer information to learn how your congregation can send members to help.

Community Church and First Unitarian Church have shared programming this past year. Next month, the congregations will begin meeting separately, so there are new challenges to face this fall. Since meeting with R.E. volunteers on Sunday, the Rev. Wendy von Zirpolo has shopped for supplies and created activity packs for the start of the year's RE program. My favorite part: the felt chalice (with felt flames, of course) that the children can safely "light" in their temporary RE space.

In mid-afternoon, folks from all three New Orleans area congregations gather to join in the One New Orleans Procession, a festive parade in the tradition of a jazz funeral that stretches from the Convention Center to the Superdome, a march of about one and a half miles. When we arrive, the mainline—the group that is officially parading—is parked in front of the Convention Center: National Guard vehicles, fire trucks, police cars, and a horse-drawn hearse. The second line—unofficial participants like a clump of Unitarian Universalists—is mobilizing across the boulevard. It's hard to tell the second line from the spectators, but that's typical. Often, the only difference is stepping forward.

The temperature has climbed to 93 and the cooling breeze is completely gone. A radio station hands out hand fans, and the convenience store on the corner is selling bottled water at a rapid clip. We wait for the processional to begin. As we stand in the hot sun, dehydrading faster than we can rehydrate, Alan Malone of North Shore Unitarian provides some perspective: "Imagine that the store isn't open, that there's no water, no air conditioning, that there's nowhere to use a bathroom, no electricity, no lights, no information. Stay here all day and all night. Do the same thing tomorrow, the next day, and the following day. I think I like this year better."

We're patiently waiting, Unitarian Universalists on the street in bright blue "Standing on the Side of Love" t-shirts that arrived just this morning from the Washington office, thanks to Elizabeth Bukey. Several folks have stopped to see if they can buy a shirt. ("We don't have any to sell, but we'd sure love to see you in church on Sunday....") If there is an award for best dressed church second line, we're definitely in the running, and the blue is attractive even when it's completely sweat-soaked. We stand together for a group photo.

We're still waiting. Patiently. Yesssss. I comment that I'm certain I am not at Disneyland, because the processional hasn't started on time. A nearby New Orleanian explains, "New Orleans is pretty lousy at everything except living. Things start and end at the wrong times, and what's in the middle isn't all that predictable. But there's a lot of life in all of it."

We know it's almost time for the processional to begin when the jazz band plays an entire song, not just the short teasers they've used to warm up over the last hour. The grand marshall, Lieutenant General Russell L. Honoré, steps into the street to thunderous applause, followed by the band. The second liners step into the street to follow. The pace is solemn, but quick, and the music drifts back from the band over the procession. "Amazing Grace" and "I'll Fly Away" ("Spirit of Life" wasn't on the play list, or maybe I missed it). We walk and talk and bury ourselves in the music and memories. Were you in New Orleans? Traveling for business? Watching on television from Massachusetts or California or Michigan? Evacuated? Where to? Are you back now? How long? How is it going? Even if you were not in New Orleans, even if you have never been in New Orleans until this very moment, you have memories.

We turn down Poydras Street and continue marching/walking/dancing. Half way to the Dome, a church member receives a call on her cell phone: "Hey! You were just on TV. Nice shirt! And why aren't you at work?" The processional circles the back of the Superdome, then stops in the shade to dance and sing and close the procession to resounding applause. I ask every Unitarian Universalist who processed, "Are you glad you came?" Oh, yes. We're sweat-drenched and hot and by the way, we still need to walk all the way back because that's where we left our cars. But for each of us, this was a very good thing to do. Together.

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, August 2, 2012.

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