Helping out in a stricken city

Published November 1, 2007

Gordon Soderberg, an expatriate Canadian, uses a tractor to tame the weed-choked vacant lots of the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the New Orleans neighbourhoods devastated by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

New Orleans
On a hot fall day in September, Gordon Soderberg, 46, took a break from mowing – with a tractor – the weed-choked vacant lots in the Lower Ninth Ward where Hurricane Katrina’s flooding wiped out hundreds of houses.

He was angry. “I’m doing this so these people don’t get fined $100 a day for not cutting their grass,” he said, referring to a New Orleans regulation imposed even on homeowners struggling to rebuild and who may have fled to other cities during the 2005 storm. “It’s a health issue. It breeds rats and mosquitoes. All I’m doing is I see something wrong and scream bloody murder about it,” he said, warming to his topic with the righteous wrath of a betrayed American. Only Mr. Soderberg isn’t American. He’s Canadian.

Born in Edmonton, his parents moved the family to California for jobs in health care when he was four. “My grandparents were still in Edmonton. I’d visit them every year and they’d take me to the Anglican church,” he recalled. When he was 17, his father died. His mother remarried and his stepfather, a Second World War veteran, “suggested I earn my keep and join the military.” Wanting to serve the country he lived in, Mr. Soderberg joined the U.S. Navy, serving from 1982 to 1988 as a bosun’s mate, foreman and surgical technician.

After he left the service, he said he “saw the futility of it all” and “started paying attention to the peace movement.” Joining the St. Louis, Missouri-based Veterans for Peace organization, he participated in the group’s activities against the war in Iraq and in its campaign to impeach President George W. Bush.

“In 2005, I was on the Impeachment Tour bus, which we drove to Dallas,” he said. The group on the bus hooked up with Cindy Sheehan, an antiwar activist whose son had died in Iraq, and set up camp near President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Tex. After Hurricane Katrina hit in late August, Mr. Soderberg headed for New Orleans and worked his Internet connections from the bus to get donations and supplies to the stricken city. Eventually, Veterans for Peace and its Impeachment Tour bus moved on, but Mr. Soderberg stayed in the Gulf.

“I loved the food, loved the music, liked the weather. Like Canadians 300 years ago (during the Acadian expulsion), we fell in love with the place and didn’t want to leave,” he said.

Working with such groups as Plenty International, which has brought books and children’s supplies to the area, Mr. Soderberg has also seen the effect of church volunteers, some of whom were in the city on mission trips while New Orleans hosted a recent meeting of the bishops of the Episcopal Church (please see related stories, p. 1 and 11). “If it wasn’t for the church groups and the hippies, nothing would have happened here. On the left and on the right, government isn’t your saviour,” he said.

It seems that Mr. Soderberg will continue to stoke the fires of outrage a while longer. “I’ve thought about going back to Canada, but one war or another kept me here fighting,” he said.


  • Solange DeSantis

    Solange De Santis was a reporter for the Anglican Journal from 2000 to 2008.

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