New Orleans Cleanup Task Daunting For Media Exec

Inside the Struggle to Resurrect a TV Market

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Mardi gras beads might still litter the streets of New Orleans from the annual celebration that took place late last month, but when Tanya Jeong closes her eyes she sees a much different place.

The 24-year-old media associate on the Kraft Foods team at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest, Chicago, recently dropped everything to spend five days cleaning up the city, still reeking from the mold and rot left when Hurricane Katrina hit six months ago, bursting the city's levees and flooding 80% of New Orleans.

"When I first saw the coverage about Hurricane Katrina, everyone was giving money. I really wanted to do more than sit on the couch and watch it," said Ms. Jeong.

Along with seven others from the Chinese Christian Union Church in Chicago, the Media-Vest executive connected with a New Orleans church that offered to arrange their lodgings and link them with individuals in need.

The city's abandonment became clear upon their arrival. "There were $6,000 signing bonuses for jobs at a Burger King ," she said, adding that every fast-food restaurant she passed had signs trumpeting the low-income labor shortage.

Most of the city still had no electricity, and the few city inhabitants were eating Army rations (only a quarter of its 3,400 restaurants are open).

"It was a ghost town," she said. "I think a lot of people have left and not come back. Even now when I watch the news, it seems like not a lot has been done."

When she went to the Lakeview area, near where one of the levees had burst, she said it looked like a war zone.

Mold stretched four feet up the side of upscale homes, some bearing the eerie marks of rescue workers, showing where bodies had been found.

She said at the local marina boats were everywhere, flung on top of each other and on their sides.

One day, the group used their church van to yank a car out of a tree for a retired teacher who was in tears when they passed her house.

More than anything Ms. Jeong said she will remember the trip as a giant exercise in garbage removal: Most days, the group, clad in masks and gloves, would go from hair salon to bed and breakfast to apartment building, hauling rotted food, clothing and furniture into Dumpsters. It's clear to anyone who goes to New Orleans. The rebuilding cannot begin until the massive cleanup is finished.

One day, they helped a property owner swab out an abandoned apartment in which two of the renter's cats had been left behind. One of the cats had died, while the other cat had drunk the water out of the fish tank to survive. When they opened the window to the apartment, the cat jumped out and fled.

"Coming back, you appreciate everything you have," she said. "When I'm at home, I'm stressed about saving for a house or whatever ... you try to live for now because everything can be taken away from you."

Ms. Jeong, a Chicago area native and volunteer since she was a vacation Bible school leader in junior high, returned from her trip to tell her story to the 120 teens she mentors in her church youth program.

In April, Ms. Jeong, along with her husband Barry, is planning a return visit to the area. This time her church group is partnering with the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) and will focus on rebuilding people's homes. She said she hopes to make it into the Lower Ninth Ward, the most decimated and poorest area of the city.

As time passes and the media spotlight fades, Ms. Jeong said, the tragedy would be for people to ignore what happened.

"I don't want people to forget that there are people down there whose lives are ruined," she said. "I would hope that people will still want to volunteer because it's definitely going to take years to rebuild."

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Tanya Jeong

Media associate, MediaVest

Mardi Gras parades returned to New Orleans last month. In an event usually prone to satire, one float made note of Katrina with the song lyric: "Drove my Chevy to the levee but the levee was gone." Construction officials claim about 33 million cubic yards of debris have been removed after six months, but that's only half the job.
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