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Missouri Cares to Make It Right: Haunted by Waters

By Travis H. Brown

make-it-right-brad-pitt-home

Long before I ever pondered the blurred careers as lobbyist, fundraiser, and promoter, I enjoyed my boyhood days on our family farm in Southeast Missouri.  We grew up walking soybean fields, baling hay, and adjusting to the natural seasons along the ole man river, the Mississippi.  I didn’t realize back then how much our lives ebbed and flowed due to the river’s edge.  Nearly every other spring, at some high water mark, we had to move our machinery and equipment out of the fields for fear of rising flood waters.

My mother, to this day, sees water as an encroachment, somehow bound to interrupt her way of life from time to time.  She lobbied against anything playing in the water, mainly because she was raised managing its limiting moves.  I had always heard about the great flood of 1973, when the levee adjacent to our bottom land broke under pressure to invade over 20,000 acres of crops.  I remember my father describing a levee hole nearly 100 feet deep and several hundred feet wide, littered with debris. It took bulldozers months to reform the banks.

Most years, flood damage was a commercial nuisance, not an immediate threat to our lives.  However, I witnessed the awesome force of flood surge truly in the Missouri flood of 1993, when an alleged 100 year event (just 20 years later) hit our entire region hard.  Since our home farm was in the Ozark foothills, we helped sand-bag the levees, rescue neighbors, and manage the anxieties.  However, my father was on the island the day that the levee broke.  It took less than six hours to fill up an entire 20,000 acre island with nearly sixteen feet of Mississippi River.

The story of tragedy always seems easiest to tell at the climax of its terror, rather than the loneliness it often leaves behind.  At the peak of Missouri’s flood pressure, armies of volunteers, Dan Rather CBS News, and the American Red Cross all joined our advocacy efforts.  However, the untold story that hangs with me now are all of the community faces that chose never to return.  Without a house on stable foundation, our neighbors’ heirlooms never were rebuilt.  Many retirees, the keepers of our local culture’s memories, never came back to Kaskaskia Island.

One year prior to this experience, I recalled the last lines of the movie “A River Runs Through It,” that seemed to sum up the immortality of my campaign for meaning:

“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs. I am haunted by waters.” – by Norman Maclean

9th Ward June 2009

9th Ward June 2009

Empty Lot Virgin Mary

Empty Lot

Recently, we saw the hostile water’s undertaker downstream in another town known for triumph over misery – New Orleans, LA.  We toured the Lower Ninth Ward extensively with a retired New Orleans police officer.  He rode out Hurricane Katrina with his dog just fine, but later had to evacuate by helicopter from his attic due to the federal flood protection failure in more than 50 places.

On August 29 this year, it will have been four years since our nation was humbled by this disaster.  I was stunned to learn just how far behind the politicians, wards, and school buildings were so long after our federal government tried to respond.  The pictures and video links (see video here) in this article remind me how important individuals, not institutions, are to restoring human progress.  Still today, the plight of each block varies dramatically by the conditions that each plot of land were dealt.  An estimated 40% of local citizens in this ward still haven’t returned.

New Orleans has never stayed completely down for too long, however.  I was inspired to witness the advocacy of many celebrity philanthropists, working with local charities and neighborhood associations.  At ground zero, a new concrete levee buttresses the new home construction of “Make it Right Foundation New Orleans.” Thanks to Missouri native Brad Pitt stepping forward to give voice on Larry King Live, the Charlie Rose Show, and the Today Show, new innovative storm-resistant structures are being erected.  Ellen DeGeneres is running a MIR homes challenge that even has a “Missouri Cares” team.

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Musician's Village

Fats Domino Home

Fats Domino Home

Even with such strong celebrity brands advocating for community change, in person you can see how many battles still lie ahead.  Less than five houses from Fats Domino’s personal residence, many homes remain in disarray.  The conception of musicians’ village, by Harry Connick, Jr and Branford Marsalis, has shown wonderful color and progress touring down Alvar Street.  However, many basic homes remain without targeted remodeling.

As an outsider to New Orleans, it’s plain to see how more celebrity giving could do more from individuals speaking candid about remaining needs on the ground.  Locals will easily offer up how frustrated and cynical they are waiting for a government institution to solve the problem.  To the other professional athletes, entertainers, & publicists wondering if this should be your cause, your brand advocacy is needed now more than ever.

It’s hard not to be bothered by observing such a stark gap between what America is, and what we believe it always should be.  So, it’s left us thinking about small ways that we can maintain a call to action.  Back in St. Louis, maybe a cajun crawfish boil meetup supporting these foundations?  Already in the works in less than a month.  Reaching out to educate others about today’s state of events – happening now.  A return visit to New Orleans with volunteers?  Definitely if we can swing it for a worthy local coalition.

Perhaps the water’s haunt can serve as our own personal reminder to always give back to others, regardless of who is watching.

Harry Connick Jr. Homes

Harry Connick Jr. Homes

Memorial

Empty Chair Memorial

Future Pumps of NO

Future Pumps of NO

Ground Zero

Ground Zero