Adrienne Skye Roberts
Homesick: The Search for Belonging in New Orleans’s Landscape of Loss
New Orleans is a city I have come to know through the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. During the summer of 2006 I traveled to the Lower Ninth Ward to offer my assistance in the rebuilding efforts. The neighborhood was emptied of its longtime residents, their absence marked by vacant houses and piles of belongings. In the wake of the storm, numerous nonprofit relief organizations responded to the Lower Ninth Ward and similarly decimated neighborhoods and with them came thousands of volunteers, the majority of whom had backgrounds similar to mine: middle-class, well educated, politically active, white, in their 20s.This volunteer population occupied the space of a historic community of color. Economic and social privilege made their mobility possible.
When I arrived, I was not yet aware of how significant the experience of volunteering would be for my generation. New Orleans was for me a pre-planned destination on a cross-country road trip. I was 22 years old, had recently graduated from college, and was searching for a temporary solution to the restlessness of this period of my life. Hurricane Katrina made visible the severely dysfunctional underbelly of America, mainly the huge economic disparities suffered by people of color, and it called many young people to action. Volunteering became more than an act of civic responsibility; it provided people with purpose, direction, and a community with which to engage.
As they work to rebuild and bring back displaced residents, the nonlocal volunteers in post-Katrina New Orleans simultaneously develop their own attachments to the city and contribute to its changing racial demographics and social fabric. Considering the inadequate response from the government, their work has been extremely beneficial. Yet their presence signifies a double-edged sword, and it raises the important question of whether or not the presence of predominately white volunteers reinforces the structural and institutional racism that enabled them to come to New Orleans in the first place.
In the years since, many volunteers have made the transition from visitor to resident. Their search for home was fueled by their own mobility and the American ideal of something new lying over the horizon. As the story continues to unfold, the nonlocal volunteers mark a new chapter in a deeply rooted and historically significant city—a city that remains delicately balanced between a traumatic past and an undetermined future.