(New Orleans) – Frank Vardeman of St. Paul acknowledges he’s torn between both teams — the Vikings and Saints — playing in Sunday’s NFC championship game in New Orleans. This has been home for the last two years, and his family is still in Minnesota. Besides, he says, he misses Minnesota a fair amount.
But Vardeman, who’s originally from Georgia, might well be rooting for New Orleans. He’s been rooting for the city for two years now. He’s the Gulf Coast hurricane response manager for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. He’s one of the thousands of people trying to put this city back together after 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Though it’s been years since Katrina was on the nightly news, the volunteers keep coming.
“When Katrina hit, there were enormous floods of volunteers coming down to do just whatever they could all along the Gulf Coast. Somebody said, we need somebody to put them in safe and sanitary conditions and help them make sure they’re doing meaningful work,” he said Saturday. “That morphed into building places where people could live and shower.”
Since October 2005, almost 50,000 volunteers have come through PDA’s villages. Most come from church groups for a week at a time. His home-away-from-home for volunteers in New Orleans East is in a former church, not far from a hospital that never reopened, near once busy shopping centers that haven’t seen a customer since the day the hurricane came calling. About 70-80 volunteers show up each week, with a wide range of skills.
Kerry and Kelly Buell, of Midland Michigan (flanking Vardeman above) are among those who stay longer. For four years they’ve spent several months at a time volunteering as the village managers. “We can see the progress; they had the 100th home dedication on Monday,” Kerry says.
This is the first deployment for Vardeman in his new career. He rarely gets back to Minnesota and figures he’ll need to be in New Orleans for a few more years. His wife, Rev. Heidi Vardeman, is the minister at Macalester Plymouth United Church. She’ll be down next week for Mardi Gras.
He knows he’s making a difference, he says, each time there’s a house blessing when a family moves back into their home. “Those are very moving times. The family will do a big old pot of gumbo,” he says.
He’ll be living a long-distance life for at least two more years. Vardeman says non-profit organizations estimate it’ll take at least five more years to finish their work. Eighteen-hundred families are still living in FEMA trailers. The government keeps extending the deadline for the residents to move out of them.
“They’re not pleasant,” he says. “But there’s no place for them to go.”
As he drove his vehicle through the French Quarter on Saturday, he joked his Minnesota license plates might make him a target. He needn’t worry, of course. He’s one of the best friends New Orleans has.