For the Good of the Gulf: UNC Law Winter/Spring Break Pro Bono Project

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Coffee Talk

Meredith Says "Thank You"

Anyone who knows me well is aware of my penchant for (okay, "addiction to" might be more accurate) strong, flavorful coffee. As our group walked to work on our first day in New Orleans, I couldn't contain my excitement at seeing that the little, independently owned coffee shop that my other half and I discovered three and a half years ago when we were here on vacation had survived the storm and is open for business. They have the best iced coffee ever.

Lepetit Espresso draws an eclectic mix of locals and, because of its location on Decatur Street, tourists. As I learned today, when I told the baristos how happy I was to see that they were still there, the shop closed for about a month and a half after Katrina. The building, circa 1780, survived intact and the owners of the hotel above the coffehouse even cleaned up the shop, allowing for a smooth reopening. Now, Lepetit Espresso is a gathering place for a cadre of regulars and city residents, as well as for the steady stream of visitors who have come to help New Orleans get back on its feet.

Yesterday morning when I stopped in on my way to work, I sat at the window ledge tables facing Decatur Street and the Riverfront Park next to a woman named Meredith, a local candle designer. We got to talking and, when she heard that I was here from UNC, told me that she had evacuated to Asheville, NC during the hurricane. Without much prompting, she told me the rest of her story:

Meredith evacuated New Orleans with three adults and five cats, not knowing when or if she would come back. She left for three weeks initially, and returned to find that--to her surprise--her Bywater apartment had no damage inside at all. However, because of the lack of power, toxicity in her neighborhood and a dearth of city services, she had to leave again. She came back for good right before Halloween (two full months after the hurricane) and told me about how, upon her return, she had tremendous survivor's guilt at the lack of damage to life and property that she had sustained. Although she told me candidly that she used to cry every single day just thinking about the devastation that Katrina wrought, things are getting better.

Still, life is not anywhere close to what it used to be. For example, access even to basic supplies and grocery stores is limited. Her stop at Lepetit Espresso yesterday was a respite during her trek to the A&P Minimart on Royal Street, a good few miles from her home, where she going to do her grocery shopping; she does not have a car, so this is the only supermarket that is accessible to her at the moment.

Asking about the nature of UNC Law's work here, she said it took a long time to be able to accept the fact that she and others here needed help; at first, she turned away offers of assistance because she just couldn't believe that she had to rely on strangers for support. Eventually, though, she realized that this city and its residents cannot rebuild alone. And, so, she said to tell all of the students here this week that "Meredith says thank you."

I blog about this story because so much of what we have done and seen this week has been one step removed from the people (other than lawyers) who were here and survived the storm. The succession group, in particular, has been cloistered at a posh law firm working with files. Although we've spoken with clients and navigated government bureaucracies, we haven't had much time to talk to people in a more casual way. Also, because we have spent a lot of our free time travelling in a pack, it has been hard to meet "real" people. Sitting alone with my coffee, I debated for a while whether to talk to the woman next to me. I'm glad to have reached out--and glad that Meredith was willing to talk.


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