Montana to New Orleans: A Firefighter's Story

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Chelsea Neid helps break down a yellow "pond," a metal frame lined with waterproof tarp. i

Chelsea Neid helps break down a yellow "pond," a metal frame lined with waterproof tarp that is used as a reservoir for firefighters in places where fire hydrants still aren’t reliable. Jeff Brady, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Jeff Brady, NPR
Chelsea Neid helps break down a yellow "pond," a metal frame lined with waterproof tarp.

Chelsea Neid helps break down a yellow "pond," a metal frame lined with waterproof tarp that is used as a reservoir for firefighters in places where fire hydrants still aren’t reliable.

Jeff Brady, NPR

Thousands of outside contractors and workers are helping New Orleans recover. The story of one firefighter from Montana — now living in a tent in a French Quarter parking lot — highlights a frustrating lack of progress in rebuilding the city.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

Thousands of workers have come to New Orleans for jobs and to help that city recover. Now some are headed back home, many with mixed feelings about their experiences. NPR's Jeff Brady spent the afternoon with a rescue worker just a few days before she returned home.

JEFF BRADY reporting:

Chelsea Need(ph) is down here as an independent contractor. In Montana, she fights forest fires. Here she rides shotgun on a water tanker truck.

(Soundbite of fire engine siren)

BRADY: Many of the fire hydrants in places like the Ninth Ward, where we are now, don't work. Need's tanker follows New Orleans fire trucks and keeps them filled with water.

Ms. CHELSEA NEED (Rescue Worker): There's another water tender; there's five water tenders right here, and we've already emptied one and we're about to empty another one to try and make sure this house is completely out.

BRADY: This is the third fire of the day for Need's crew. This time, it's a small wood house. At first, it's difficult to tell which house burned. The whole block was pretty much destroyed in the flood. Need loves her job and she jumps in to break down equipment or help roll up a fire hose. As we're talking, a colleague stops by and teases her.

Ms. NEED: I accidentally sprayed the district chief with a hose right up the back.

BRADY: Not the best way to make a first impression, but Need says the accident is fast becoming the kind of joke that builds comradery on a fire crew.

(Soundbite of vehicle horn blowing)

BRADY: The house fire is out and Need heads back to her temporary home, a yellow tent pitched in a French Quarter parking lot.

Ms. NEED: It's very primitive, so beware.

BRADY: She's been living here since she arrived for her second stint in New Orleans last month. The tent has heat but not much else.

Ms. NEED: We had a good rainstorm that came through here. It blew in through all the cracks in the doors that aren't sealed at all and had about a half inch lake underneath where I slept. So stayed up all night long fighting the water and mopping up blankets and what not to keep it going.

BRADY: Need spent Thanksgiving here. She says it was not a good day. Outside her tent near the Mississippi River, Need says she could have used a little kindness, maybe a thanks from locals.

Ms. NEED: We would have done well with a turkey. We would have done well with an invitation. That would have been very nice.

BRADY: That's one reason she's going home a month earlier than she'd planned. She's also frustrated with the slow progress in cleaning up New Orleans.

Ms. NEED: When you get into some of these neighborhoods, there's nothing going on. It's a dead zone, and it hasn't changed. The cars are still there, the water marks are still there, the trash is still there, the dead animals are still there; nothing's changed. There's a few leaves that are back on the trees, but that's it.

BRADY: Need says she'll go back home and rest for a few weeks. Despite her frustration, she says she may come back after the first of the year. Jeff Brady, NPR News, New Orleans.

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