One year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, I traveled with my friend Armand St. Martin and his wife Patty to New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward. Armand is a proud tenth generation native and he and Patty represent the very civic nature, culture, pride and warmth that I feel every time I am in the Crescent City. I asked them to take me to the center of the havoc — where the levee broke, where the homes were destroyed, where people died, and where dreams ended. We drove through blocks of empty lots and abandoned properties and we stopped at a lot where a single FEMA trailer sat alone in a sea of destruction. They told me that was the home of Mr. Robert Green. In the front yard was a plastic white table with a message to government officials and then President Bush. Next to it was the American flag. They explained that Mr. Green was the first person back to the Lower 9th and despite being told that he had to leave, he was fighting to rebuild his community.
At the end of October, I traveled back to the Lower 9th — four years after that first visit — five years after the levee broke. All around was new construction. We visited a school which was being led by a New York teacher who left his home to create a program for dropouts to learn about urban agriculture and to sell their product. He has created the largest farm in New Orleans and supplies many of the best restaurants with locally grown, organic produce. We passed dozens of new, energy efficient houses being built through foundations and private and public partnerships. We walked right to the spot where the levee broke — where a barge smashed through in the middle of the night — and we touched the wall and thought what it might have been like to have been there. Then, we traveled down a familiar street — the street the Green family had called home. A man was walking in front of the lot where the FEMA trailer had been parked. It was Robert Green.
Mr. Green’s story has been told by media all around the world. The nightmare of that day when his son returned with his mother and grandchildren because they were afraid they would not make it out of New Orleans — to being turned away from the Superdome because they didn’t have the medical beds needed to treat his mother — to the middle of the night when the barge crashed through the levee at 4:30 in the morning. It is one thing to read about it — it is quite another to sit inside his living room and have him tell you himself. Mr. Green took the time to share the nightmare that is his reality. The story of his brother yelling to get upstairs because the water is rising fast…five minutes later in the attic…five minutes later kicking through the roof with his feet…five minutes later on the roof with his family as his house started to float away. He spoke of watching as his granddaughter and his mother fell into the murky, rapids — never to see his granddaughter again and how later, the next day, he would lose his mother too. He spoke of a fate which could only be described as Hell and he spoke of a future for his neighborhood, all in the same breath.
We stood in Mr. Green’s new home. A home surrounded by the memories of family members he lost that horrible night and reminders from people all over the world who are willing to stand with him to rebuild, renew. His home is a testament to his dream. It was built by the Make it Right organization and he is proud to show the new homes on his street where his neighbors will soon be moving back. Mr. Robert Green is the spirit of New Orleans. He is proof that devastation and loss can be countered by doing good and refusing to accept the fears of others. Mr. Green is a testament to the belief that no one should ever give up on any person or any community. He is the Hero of Hurricane Katrina and someone from whom we can all learn.