RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: New Orleans sweats with its heroes

NEW ORLEANS – A purple plastic hair curler tumbles about the ruined hardwood floor of a Ninth Ward house, evading the shovel, refusing to end up in the wheelbarrow full of plaster and lathing that's headed for the curb and a FEMA landfill.

One tiny bit of debris in a city full of it.

Someone, in better times, used that curler, made herself pretty or presentable for a party or prayer meeting. Maybe the woman, or girl, sat and daydreamed as she absent-mindedly twirled a lock of hair. Beneath a slate roof in a sturdy family home, she thought about how she would look tomorrow and how tomorrow would look. Because she could.

In this old house there are countless other bits of floor flotsam – photographs of children, ballpoint pens, baskets, pill bottles – but, for some reason, it is the purple curler that speaks loudest of normalcy, of better days. The bright color draws the eye. Outside, the once well-tended lawn still wears the brown shroud left by flood water. Even the blooming crepe myrtle has brown leaves.

Marva Mitchell, Methodist minister and director of the United Methodist Committee on Relief' s Uptown Recovery Station, says that 60 percent of homeowners in New Orleans proper lived in the Ninth Ward. This devastated area, she said, was not a slum full of rentals and tenement houses as some wrongly believe. Most of the homes were small – not a blip on today' s McMansion real-estate Richter Scale – but, more often than not, well-maintained and in the same family for generations.

Brian Alexander and Burke Oeszewski of Bethesda, Md., are college-age volunteers helping to gut this particular house. They work in what once was the dining room, ripping plaster painted blue, then wheeling it curbside. They wear protective goggles and masks and white, throwaway hazard suits. They strain and sweat in the heat, filth and stench.

Young men might have better things to do with their summer than gut the flooded house of an elderly couple. Young men usually find fun wherever they look. This is not fun. This is hard, hot and labor-intensive. This is real work.

And Brian and Burke are real men.

Another, older gentleman arrives at the house from California to volunteer with the Methodists. He is 71. He lasts only a few minutes in the plaster dust and the heat. But he gamely asks for another job, which he gets. There is every kind of age-appropriate labor in a city still on its knees.

Marva Mitchell, whose own home was ruined as it stood in five feet of flood water for more than nine days, said there's a long waiting list at the Uptown Recovery Station. The elderly and disabled are moved to the top. Homeowners must show clear title.

She is a beautiful woman, her short white hair almost a halo over an undeniably empathetic gaze. Driving through ruined neighborhoods, she notices each and every sign of improvement, however slight. A lone FEMA trailer on a lonesome street makes her smile. She can, she said, really feel the pain of those her church helps. And it is a daily struggle to stay upbeat.

“I heard someone on the radio from somewhere else call in and say, 'You New Orleans people need to just get over it and get on with your lives.' I wanted to say to him, What lives?'”

Marva Mitchell's house was a historic structure she'd slowly brought back from blighted to near-perfect. She recalls how she sat on the steps in her hazard suit after the flood, feeling helpless, dispirited and tired. The New Orleans native considered leaving.

As if on cue, a team of Mormons walked up and asked if they might help.

“They changed my mind about what I'd do, about staying and starting over,” she says. And, for so many others, that has made a difference.

As the great Louis Armstrong once sang, what a wonderful world.

Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives in the Iuka vicinity. Her mailing address is Iuka, MS 38852.