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Higher Ground: Finding Hope in New Orleans
By Christopher Heffron
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, these four people showed an unbreakable spirit.

Q U I C K S C A N

Jacob Stuebing: A Continuing Education
An Age of Uncertainty
Faith in a Forgotten City
Life's Work
Florence Herman: Weathered and Wiser
The Steel Magnolia
The Calm After the Storm
An Unsinkable Faith
Living History
Lynn and Bill Turnbull: Tenderhearted Tourists
The Salvation Vacation
'God Moments'
We Are Family
There and Back Again

THE POET AND AUTHOR Oliver Wendell Holmes once wrote that “the great thing in the world is not so much where we stand, as in what direction we are moving.” For many displaced people of New Orleans, where they stand hasn’t changed much in the last year.

The floodwaters have receded and promises of restoration have been vowed, but the most damaged sections of New Orleans are still a long way from recovery. Perhaps even more devastating than the wreckage left by Hurricane Katrina is the appallingly slow progress that has followed.

Jacob Steubing, Florence Herman and Lynn and Bill Turnbull are strangers to each other, but they are bound by a common thread: They were each, in their own ways, changed by the hurricane and by the city that bore the brunt of the damage.

Jacob, a student at Loyola University when the events unfolded, learned a lesson in humanity and altruism that could not be taught in a college classroom. Florence forfeited her New Orleans home and all that she owned to the floods but would not forfeit her life. And the Turnbulls journeyed 1,100 miles and spent nearly a month in the most devastated areas helping the city—and some of its people—inch closer toward recuperation.

These are their stories.

Jacob Steubing: A Continuing Education

Jacob Steubing picks me up outside my hotel in New Orleans on a warm, muggy day driving a black pickup truck that has seen better days. After clearing a space for me on the passenger seat—littered with an assortment of papers—we make our way up a bustling Canal Street.

What’s immediately noticeable about Jacob is his laugh—a hearty, resonant vibrato that seems to start from his feet and work its way up. In the course of the next hour, he’ll laugh often.

We find a comfortable coffee shop on the corner of Magazine and Race Streets—a busy intersection of unique housing units. Jacob, a native of San Antonio, Texas, and 2006 sociology graduate of Loyola University in New Orleans, sips his drink only occasionally, pausing to recount the days after the city flooded.

“There was so much going on it was overwhelming at first,” Jacob says. “I was just wondering how everything would end up being O.K.”

For a short-lived moment, Jacob, 21, weighed his options. “It would have been pretty easy to just give up and go back to Texas and hang out.”

But he didn’t. Instead, Jacob dove headfirst into rescue efforts through his work with Catholic Charities. Immediately after the floods hit, he and other volunteers transported 10 displaced families to his home state in 15-seater vans.

“I was able to evacuate people back to Texas with the help of my family. We drove them back that Friday night and I was with them that weekend.”

Once there, Jacob helped to arrange for a retreat center, doctors and social workers to meet with evacuated families. When he returned to New Orleans—after the emergency evacuation had been lifted—Jacob went back to work with Catholic Charities doing shelter assessments and serving as a liaison to FEMA.

“It was an amazing experience,” he says. “When the city was still under emergency evacuation, I had access to the evacuated areas.”

Jacob would do such work in the weeks and months after the hurricane. It’s oddly fitting that this catastrophe occurred on the cusp of his senior year of college. A new education awaited him.

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An Age of Uncertainty

Part of that learning curve involved Jacob putting his passion for social justice and service into action.

“It’s a lot easier to deal with everything that’s going on if you know that you’re doing your part,” he says. “I don’t think I would have been able to handle seeing everything on the news and not do anything. If I wasn’t doing it, I wouldn’t feel O.K.”

That doesn’t mean the experience was any less demanding or deeply frustrating. Despite unparalleled chaos and devastation, for Jacob, it was the strain of not knowing how the future would unfold that was his greatest hurdle.

“There was so much confusion and so much uncertainty. And that was really eating people up—not even being able to come in and see whether or not they were going to have a place to live.”

When most of the country was quick to blame FEMA for a series of resounding failures, Jacob was mindful of the bigger picture. “FEMA wasn’t equipped to handle something like this—they do brushfires and small floods,” he says with a slight laugh. “I think the way someone put it was, ‘A failure of imagination.’ The government didn’t recognize early on how massive this was.

“All the systems were overwhelmed,” Jacob continues. “They could have brought in the military a lot sooner. The military wouldn’t be good for a long-term recovery but they could at least mobilize resources quickly.”

But focusing too heavily on blame, for Jacob, is counterproductive, especially in this era of rebuilding and renewal in New Orleans. His strong sense of self and his service to others both drive and anchor him.

“When everything is unclear about what’s going to happen with your life and with the world around you, it helps to have an understanding of the type of person you should be and the type of world you should be working toward. That kind of understanding is what kept me steady.”

Faith in a Forgotten City

The areas of New Orleans most affected by the hurricane are beyond description, even a year after the fact. Many sections still resemble ghost towns—streets are desolate, houses stand in ruin, deserted cars look like muddied gravestones.

Since Jacob has been in the thick of it from the start, his faith has most certainly changed. “Faith is always something that you’re growing—it’s not at all static,” he says.

“But I do have a different faith now, probably more applicable to where I am in my life and the world around me. I wouldn’t say it’s weaker or even necessarily stronger. It’s active in a different way.

“It’s about knowing what the right thing to do is and being open to it. That can really keep you from despairing. And I would say that would be how my faith fostered me.”

Jacob believes that individual faith is dependent on action, on service to others. One feeds from the other. “Having a strong individual faith is important, but I think that sort of faith is dead if it isn’t grounded and growing in a supportive and concerned community.”

After such a disaster, many blamed God. Jacob took a different path. To him this was a failure not of God but of man. “I was never looking at this as divine judgment or even as a test, necessarily. It was something that happened as the result of human structures.”

Life's Work

Though the city of New Orleans is on a path—jagged and uneven as it seems—toward recovery, Jacob’s work for the poorest of Louisiana is unfinished. It always will be.

As the parish social ministry coordinator for the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Jacob spends most of his time organizing initiatives, developing programs and writing grants.

A significant organization that Jacob is involved in is the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental organization that works with communities that border the state’s oil refineries and chemical plants. The group works to assist residents in the protection of public health.

His hopes for the people of New Orleans are all-embracing: secure levees, safe neighborhoods, affordable housing, jobs with decent pay and opportunities for education and personal advancement.

But he tries to keeps his hopes within reason. “I’ve been trying to keep myself steady because, if you get yourself too hopeful, then you’re setting yourself to go out and say, ‘Oh, never mind, this is impossible,’” he says. “I’m just trying to keep my focus steady and the goals realistic and attainable.”

In the meantime, Jacob is concerned with pacing himself. “I don’t want to burn out,” he says. “It’s like running a marathon. You don’t want to sprint if you don’t have to.”

Florence Herman: Weathered and Wiser

It’s easy to fall in love with the little house on Vicksburg Street in Lakeview, a suburb of New Orleans. Painted a faint canary yellow, it sits on a small, level piece of land in a picture-perfect neighborhood.

The house, outwardly small, feels just the opposite: Rooms are spacious and open. As one walks through, it has the feel of well-lived-in home—a place replete with memories.

It’s also completely hollowed out—an empty shell with stains left by over 10 feet of water. The walls have peeled and crumbled. Dirt, dust and debris have conquered nearly every inch of the floors. And the air inside doesn’t move—it’s thick, earthy, unnerving.

Florence Herman, 65, owns the house on Vicksburg Street. Sitting on her front porch, the semi-retired managing editor of Clarion Herald (the newspaper of the New Orleans Archdiocese) shows an admirable calm when discussing the days after Hurricane Katrina.

In a rich, Southern drawl right out of a Tennessee Williams play, she describes her 48-hour ordeal when she stood on top of a chair in the corner of her living room and clung to the wall as floodwater, which seeped through the floor furnace vents, began to rise.

The Steel Magnolia

For Florence, those desperate hours aren’t just unclear, they’re almost unaccounted for: She has little memory of the hours that followed the floods.

“A friend of mine who is a psychologist says that the term is ‘disassociated,’” Florence says. “I had no clue of where I was or what was going on. But I always knew I was in water. That consciousness never left me.”

After two days, a battered and disoriented Florence was rescued by two men in a flatboat who heard her cries for help. “It wasn’t pretty and it wasn’t elegant, but they got me in that flatboat,” she says. “We motored out of here along rooftops. That’s all there were, just rooftops.”

Eventually, Florence made her way to the airport—a holding station for thousands of evacuees, some of them living, some of them dead. “It was chaos, absolute chaos at the airport. Even in my state, I could tell that,” she says.

Florence, bruised and barefooted, meandered around the airport in a blurred state for two days until she boarded a plane for San Antonio, Texas, where her sister lives.

If New Orleans during those days was her season in hell, then San Antonio was a little piece of heaven: Florence and the other evacuees had access to the Red Cross, cots, hot food, showers, counselors and telephones. After finally reaching her sister’s house, Florence slept almost the entire day. When she woke, she began the long road to recovery.

But deep wounds are slow to heal. Returning to New Orleans, Florence lived like a gypsy for months, moving from one friend’s house to another. She then signed a lease for a one-bedroom apartment in the lower Garden District.

“I did it to stop me from making countless hops,” she says. “To force me to sit.”

The Calm After the Storm

Part of Florence’s healing process has been her ongoing work at Clarion Herald, whose offices were nearly destroyed by the floodwaters. For her, the newspaper and its staff were welcome distractions.

“It’s been a panacea, a help, a stability,” she says. “It was a routine and a structure. I could put aside thinking about the other things. If I had to sit for seven days a week staring at the four walls, I probably would have gone ’round the bend.”

Part of the healing journey involved returning to the house she shared for 27 years with her husband, who died in 1997. It was a step Florence was initially reluctant to take. When the insurance adjuster called and requested they meet to survey the damage, she hesitated.

“After I hung up the phone, I cried. I didn’t want to come back,” she says. “I didn’t want to see it. I know what I lost.” For Florence, the uninsurable items were the ones truly missed—mementoes, photographs, memories that were spoiled.

Touring the house for the first time, Florence was able to gather a few lingering souvenirs that were not swept away: an overnight bag, her passport and some jewelry.

Though Florence—unlike the poorest of New Orleans—has the financial means to start over, she’s unyielding about making these distinctions in light of such devastation. Tragedy is tragedy.

“The memories you can’t replace, no matter what your income is,” she says. “This was an equal-opportunity destroyer.”

An Unsinkable Faith

The floodwaters may have devastated Florence’s house and nearly taken her life, but the best of her remains intact, most notably her faith.

“I never viewed God as having a hand in it. To me it was nature and it was a man-made disaster, a compound series of errors. To view it as the wrath of God—that way lies madness. People walk around saying, ‘Why did God let this happen?’ Don’t even bother to go there.”

Florence’s faith is written so clearly in her constitution that she’s almost unaware of it. “My faith is such an ingrained part of who and what I am, I’m never conscious of it. It’s been part of my life all of my life,” she says.

Still, the road to higher ground is never an easy one to travel. But Florence, along with thousands of other survivors, has had no other choice but to go on.

“You just put one foot in front of the other. If you’re lucky, you have family and friends. People who evacuated with their families had each other, even if that’s all they had.”

That sense of resilience would not spread to all in Florence’s parish at St. Dominic in Lakeview. In the months after Katrina, she saw several former parishioners at other church services. The congregation, she realizes, will never be as whole.

“My poor faith community has scattered to the four winds,” she says.

Living History

Much of the picturesque Garden District in New Orleans is lined with trees as old and as seasoned as the city in which they grow. Customarily, with trees of this age, the thick and gnarled roots often penetrate the sidewalks. Like these trees, Florence has a good many roots in the city of New Orleans and she has no intention of leaving it. The fourth-generation Louisiana native is, without question, stubborn.

“The people of this city won’t let go. They can’t let go and I’m probably just like them. I won’t let go of the city. I don’t know anyplace else. These are my streets.”

Her house, on the other hand, isn’t something she’s eager to hold on to. In the months after the hurricane, Florence has numbed to the house on Vicksburg Street. As we tour the ravaged, vacant rooms, she escorts me around with a calm detachment, as if walking through a stranger’s residence.

On the floor in a bedroom, Florence is surprised to find her old cigarette case—tattered and ruined. She gives a broken smile and tosses it back on the floor. It doesn’t belong to her anymore.

When asked if she finds it difficult to walk through her house, her answer is quick: “I’ve already said my good-byes.”

For Florence, the past has long since been written. She has greater issues with the present. “It’ll be easy to look back at this in five years and put it all into perspective, but watching it unfold can be excruciating. Living history, day-to-day, is no fun.”

The future, in her eyes, looks somewhat promising. “Long-term, I see the city surviving. People think there is a future—if our political leaders would just stop fighting and start being proactive.”

As for herself, she doesn’t know what the next step will be. “I still haven’t resolved that in my own mind.”

For now, Florence plans to work and to stay put in her one-bedroom apartment with her only two belongings: a bed and a chair.

Lynn and Bill Turnbull: Tenderhearted Tourists

Lynn and Bill Turnbull loaded up their RV in late February and left their home in Oxford, Michigan, headed for New Orleans’s first post-Katrina Mardi Gras. Though hesitant, the retired couple wanted to offer support to the beleaguered city in presence and in pocket.

They would end up giving much more.

In a phone interview from their Michigan home, the couple recount how their lives were forever changed after reading an e-mail from a friend and fellow parishioner who had just returned from volunteering in New Orleans through Catholic Charities’ Operation Helping Hands. For Lynn and Bill, an idea took root.

“They needed couples to supervise the influx of volunteers that were going to be there in March because of spring break,” Lynn says.

Initially, Lynn and Bill agreed to a week of volunteering. Then one week turned into two; two turned into three. And in that time, the couple, who had been to New Orleans several times in past years, saw the city they loved in a wholly different light.

The Salvation Vacation

The first images of New Orleans, in particular the desolate Ninth Ward, shook the couple.

“When we first got there in the Ninth Ward,” Bill says, “you couldn’t even get through it. There were houses and cars and everything right in the street. You could see where the water rushed and tore up a lot of the houses.”

“It looked like a war zone,” Lynn continues, the shock still evident in her voice. “It was an absence of people. It was just unbelievable—neighborhood after neighborhood. Some of the homes were ruined to the point where we had to take everything down to the studs.”

But shock and sorrow soon made way for admiration that still lingers. In charge of facilitating a legion of dedicated college students—approximately 934 the first week of the Turnbulls’ stay—from across the country, Lynn and Bill were at once in awe of the students’ altruism and inspired by their resolve.

“These kids were fantastic,” Bill explains. “They gave up their week to do something like that for somebody they didn’t even know. They put their whole heart into what they were doing.”

The influx of volunteers wasn’t the only thing that gave the Turnbulls strength. It was the group’s shared ambition to mend not only homes but also homeowners.

In order to do this, Lynn feels that work of this nature required strength in body and in spirit. “People needed to have strong bodies and strong arms to lift and to carry things, but they also needed a strong faith and a strong sense of compassion.”

'God Moments'

Working in the Ninth Ward after such a disaster might not seem like fertile ground for grace. But Lynn and Bill found it in abundance. They call them “God moments.”

Those shards of hope made the difficult work bearable. The buoyant spirits of the Ninth Ward residents, even as they stood in the remains of what was once their homes, moved and motivated the Turnbulls.

“The people that we worked with said that they loved New Orleans—it was their life and it was their home. They were just fixing up and moving forward,” Lynn says. “They were faith-filled people that said, ‘O.K., Lord, I’m just going to pick myself up and we’re going to move, one step at a time, and build my life back up.’

“So many people that we worked for touched our lives in so many ways,” she says. “Every experience that we had—I liken it to making a spiritual connection. We were given the gifts of faith and remembrance.”

Bill feels those three weeks will stay with him for life. “It opened my eyes up a lot more than they were,” he says. “This opened my eyes to something far greater.”

In a small way, the experience hit Lynn and Bill where they lived—literally. After accidentally burning out the wiring in their RV, the Turnbulls would work all day on other people’s homes and then spend hours repairing their own.

“I felt that was one of those ‘God moments,’” Lynn recalls. “You work all day and you come back and you have to fix your home just like everybody else. At that moment, the Spirit was alive.”

We Are Family

After their three weeks ended, Lynn and Bill say they received much more than they gave. One lesson reinforced was a belief that humanity is a unified family, regardless of race or religion.

“We’re all part of God’s family,” Lynn says. “Whether we live far or near, whether we are related by blood or not, we’re all one family.”

And that family extends beyond the city where they worked. “Even though New Orleans is one of the largest metropolitan areas affected by the hurricane, it wasn’t the only city hit,” Bill says. “We happened to go along the whole Gulf Coast and cities from Tallahassee to Texas have been demolished. The Red Cross and other service organizations are down there looking for funds, looking for ways that they can help these people.”

Lynn was amazed by the hope that was ever-present among New Orleans citizens in the face of great loss. “Most of them were very hopeful,” she says. “They were all good, hard-working people that have lived in New Orleans for years, and generations before them have lived there.”

There and Back Again

Changed by their experiences, the couple are planning another trip to New Orleans to volunteer again.

“We’re already thinking about plans for next year,” Bill says. “They’re going to need help for years down the road. We are going to do everything possible to try and go back down there.”

In the meantime, Lynn and Bill brought back with them a souvenir that they carry always: a Ninth Ward sensibility. “We are trying to live more simply,” Lynn says, “and to spend more time working and helping others.”

Lynn and Bill turned what could have been a vacation into a vocation. Amid rubble and ruin, in the wake of tragedy, Bill found an unmistakable beauty. “It’s terrible to think this way, but major disasters like this bring out the best in people.”


Christopher Heffron is an assistant editor of this publication. He traveled to New Orleans in late April for this story.


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