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After the storm…

After deciding that I couldn’t go to New Orleans for V-Day because of my dissertation, I started having pangs of regret. At the last moment, I called up my former colleagues and told them that I bought a last minute flight and would fly down there to be at their beck and call. I realized that I would forever hate myself for failing to go help in New Orleans.

I didn’t go to New Orleans to sit and watch the talks and enjoy the food. This is probably a good thing since I didn’t see a single talk or eat a single beignet or poboy. I landed at midnight and began working at 1AM. I worked 20 hour days for the next two days, eating whatever food ended up in my hands by accident. I worked my ass off and, even though I’m sore and emotionally exhausted, I don’t regret one minute of it.

V-Day’s 10th Anniversary was something special. I don’t even know where to begin. There were the dozens of international activists that we flew in to have them tell their stories, activists we had spotlighted over the years – women from Bosnia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Philippines, Kenya, etc. Next year, our spotlight will be the Democratic Republic of Congo and with us this year was Dr. Mukwege from the Congo. He is part of the V-Men movement and was given an award for his work. He reconstructs women’s vaginas after they’ve been brutally torn to pieces while being raped during war. He has reconstructed hundreds of women and his work never ends.

We helped 1200 women who were victims of Katrina return to New Orleans for the first time since the storm. On the first morning, we stood in a line and hugged them and welcomed them. Thus began the tears. And oh the stories, dear god the stories. There were also thousands more women, Katrina Warriors who came to the Super Dome for the event. Many had unbelievably dreadful stories of what it was like to live in the Super Dome after the storm. After the storm… After the storm… So many sentences began with “after the storm.” What followed moved me in every which way and then some. Heartwarming stories of neighbors working together. Terrifying stories of being stopped from leaving New Orleans or the Super Dome by police officers and military. Personal stories about losing loved ones. A story of a dog rescued and then the rescuer refusing to give her back to her owner. Frustrating stories about FEMA. Oh, FEMA. No one had a single nice thing to say about FEMA. Asking local women about FEMA was kinda like asking a teacher about NCLB. Anger seethes through every pour.

The focus of this V-Day was obviously the women of the gulf south. The Super Dome was transformed to be a positive space for these women. Women of the Gulf South were treated to massages, aromatherapy, beauty treatments, yoga, and health services. All for free. Thousands and thousands of women showed up.

I played beck and call girl, doing what was needed whenever it was needed. I shuttled things from one place to another, tracked down activists, helped women get services. I held the hands of women who needed to be heard, hugged women who were in tears and needed to be validated, and even stood and took it when women needed to yell at me out of frustration. Many of these women needed to hear that someone cared. Many were at their wit’s end. The stories of suicide in New Orleans continue. The horror stories of bankruptcy and loss, alienation and disease continue. The victims of Katrina feel abandoned. And for good reason. As a nation, we have abandoned them. And it breaks my soul into pieces. I am embarrassed by my country, by our willingness to let this situation go untreated.

My friend I.S. keeps telling me that things down there are really bad, still really bad. I only half believed her. I mean, I heard it but I didn’t get it. On my way to the airport, a taxi driver drove me around town, including to where the levees broke. He used to work as an engineer in the chemical plant. It hasn’t reopened so he now drives a cab. He showed me how bad things still were, told me stories. There’s still spray-paint on the houses marking the dead. The mold is still visible and you can see through houses, or what was once a house and is now a crumbled shadow of a house. There are people who have rebuilt but most of their neighbors haven’t, creating a truly eerie feeling around there, especially in the rich neighborhood right under where the levee broke. The taxi driver explained how they patched the levee in a way that was strong and secure; he then showed me the difference. But next he sighed, pointing out that the levee is bound to break at a new point with the next storm. Until the levee is rebuilt, it’s going to keep on happening. It could be fixed, but well, the government…

On the first evening of the event, we showcased a play called “Swimming Upstream” by a group of local New Orleans’ writers about what it was like to live through Katrina. All true stories. Powerful, painful. Stories of neighbors, stories of friends… positive and horrifying. Once again, not a single nice thing to say about the government. I started getting a picture of just how corrupt and fucked up FEMA really was.

The second night was a production of The Vagina Monologues. After helping out backstage until curtain, I finally got a moment to sit down. I watched the show. I cried and I cried and I cried. The new pieces were all so amazing. And the gift to the Congo Doctor. And the local gospel choir. And then there was the final monologue… It was supposed to be played by Oprah but she was sick. It didn’t matter though because the woman who played it was far better than Oprah. The piece was called “Hey Miss Pat” and it was performed by Liz Mikel, a young actress Eve met in her travels. The piece was about an older New Orleans woman who cooked for all of her neighbors. It was telling the story of Katrina from the POV of someone who prided herself in taking care of her community… whose community was gone because of Katrina. It was heart-wrenching and Mikel had all of us in tears. Then, when it ended, Eve Ensler got on stage to thank Mikel. And then she told the audience that a special guest was here tonite – the real Miss Pat. Mikel gasped and said, “Oh my Lord!” before bursting out in tears, bringing the audience with her as the real Miss Pat came up on stage to hug her. What it was like at that moment…

I don’t have the language to capture the sheer energy of the women involved with and participating in the V-Day events this year. All I can say is that the event moved me more than I’ve been moved in a long, long time. And I am so grateful to have been able to help. And I’m so grateful to be a part of V-Day. Until the violence stops.