Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Blisters In The Sun

The next two days of work provided the morale boost that was so sorely needed after Day One. Day Two's work was done for Ray and Ellen, an eighty-odd year-old couple, with the guidance and assistance of their son Garland. As old as Ray was, he worked alongside us throughout the day, both thanking us profusely for our work, as well as showing us what odd pieces of once-soaked wood he wanted saved (as he planned to return his garage to it's previous status as his woodworking shop). Ray and Ellen weren'’t quite sure whether they'’d return to their home, as the task of reconstructing seemed almost without a point for them. But Ray's insistence on pulling out wood from our debris pile and returning it to the garage hinted that a return was probable.

My team is a great group of individuals whom I'’m afraid to name for fear that I'd leave off a single name. They know who they are. Each and every one gives absolutely everything they have each day, and the proof is in the fiberglass in their pores and their clothing, mud and sweat-soaked, top to bottom.

Days 3, 4 & 5 proved to be almost as rewarding as day two. The work seemed easier, both because my stamina built steadily and I'’ve learned how to best pace myself. As you guys and girls back home know, it has been five years since I was personally gutted and renovated, and it is a huge step for me personally to go from needing so much help to being able to provide it for others, though not without some amount of discomfort (putting it mildly).

All our work is voluntary, however we are only expected to work Monday through Friday. Regardless, I worked a half-day on Saturday and volunteered to lead a gutting team on Sunday. Though it turned out to be the longest, hardest day I've worked so far, it also was the most rewarding, by far.

My team of four arrived at the site expecting to find a house 80% gutted, as we had been told, but instead found a house with enough work needed to keep a team of ten scrambling for the better part of the day. Soon after arriving at the site, Wally and Mildred, the 75 and 73 year-old owners, showed up to spend time with us. Incredibly sweet and almost excessively grateful, Wally and Mildred explained how Wally had built the house with his own hands, as well as all the cabinetry and fixtures. They had been trying to get the house gutted for a year to that point, falling prey to shifty contractors and unkept promises. They continued to explain that their house had been contaminated by the Murphy's Oil spill and that they couldn't get a damage assessment nor compensation from Murphy'’s until the house had been fully gutted. They again expressed their dismay and frustration over the prior year. After consulting with my other teammates, I promised them that we wouldn'’t leave until the job was complete. Wally and Mildred stopped in two other times that day to check our progress, and both they and the gutting team were surprised by how large our debris pile was becoming. We were clearly short-handed, even moreso because Wally was the consummate handyman, constructing cabinets and countertops that even our mightiest sledgehammer blows failed to weaken. Time flew by with progress coming slowly, but steadily. In all, we ended up finishing at 7 p.m., an 11 hour day. We received one additional team member halfway through the day, and had we not, I fear we would have failed to keep our promise.

At the end of the day, Wally and Mildred offered us hugs and a thousand thank yous. I told Wally that I'm keeping a list of the addresses of all the houses I’m working on, and that I'd stop in in five years'’ time to see what had become of each of them. Wally assured me that he and Milly would be there, and Milly promised me a home-cooked meal, an open door, and a place to sleep when I arrived. I told Wally I'd pick up the beers, and he replied, "Those'll be the best damn beers ever".” As those words came from a Korean War veteran, I left humbled, thoroughly exhausted, and more than anything else, assured that I am where I’m supposed to be, doing what I'’m supposed to be doing.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

September 4th, Labor Day

Camp Hope is located in St.Bernard Parish – Southeast and across the Mississippi from the French Quarter. The Murphy’s Oil refinery is the area’s defining characteristic, though the enormous twin cargo haulers docked on the Mississippi add an extra dimension. The Parish is an odd mix of zoning extremes: there are the cookie-cutter suburban tracts mostly inhabited by dock and oil refinery employees; the vast expanse of oil refinery towers that pass by like those in that Michel Gondry video for Star Guitar; and farmland that has been allowed to overgrow with weeds. No crops should be planted here for years to come.

St. Bernard Parish suffered not from the levees breaking, but from the overflow of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. The images you saw of men in rowboats ducking to avoid hitting their heads on traffic lights as they pass were taken here. The MRGO (called Mr. Go by the locals -- inhale that irony deeply) flooded St.Bernard Parish, and took more than two weeks to recede. The waters were twenty feet deep in most places, and rescuers here first resorted to jet skis once the storm passed. No, I do not know where the Fire Department got their jet skis from.

87,000 residents called the Parish home just over a year ago. 12,000 have returned. There seem to be only two options for those who have remained: live in a FEMA trailer on your lawn while gutting and restoring your house, or live in a FEMA trailer in a FEMA trailer park while you figure out what to do next. I did stumble upon one development where those with some wealth were able to restore their houses within the year, but I have no real statistics, only this: that I have seen hundreds of houses in disuse or abandoned in St. Bernard Parish, but perhaps 7 inhabited.

Few businesses are open. One telltale sign of the slow recovery is that the McDonald’s and Wendy’s have yet to rebuild, and the Domino’s Pizza sells from the back of a truck. Shopping centers that used to house Winn-Dixies, K-Marts, and WalMarts sit untouched from one year ago.

The larger intersections have some semblance of life, but if a store is open, heavy odds say that it’s a gas station, a drive-through daiquiri joint, or a bar. Then again, there are the two functioning tattoo parlors.

Very few building here have been demolished. Businesses and homes stand gutted, or seemingly abandoned since the storm. Yet, there is no presence of disaster services or large-scale construction to indicate that anything is out of the ordinary here, or that there is anything but an ‘every man for himself’ effort to rejuvenate the area. The one obvious community effort to help the recovery is the stream of residents that Camp Hope feeds from a gymnasium three times each day, every day.

Today was my first day of work with Habitat for Humanity. There are two main operations being run out of Camp Hope: gutting houses for the elderly and disabled, and building houses in Musician’s Village (an enclave designed to give New Orleans musician’s homes to return to). I’ve chosen gutting houses, and by the end of the first day I wonder about the wisdom of that decision.

We began work on our first house at 6:30 Monday morning. When we arrived at the house, the first thing I noticed was the lack of FEMA trailers in the neighborhood, the cars tossed randomly across yards and the street, and the refrigerator lying on a nearby rooftop, next to a hole dug outward from the attic by an escaping resident. There was no other source of sound in the neighborhood other than that of my crew preparing for work. A different work crew had begun the gutting of the house on the prior Friday, but had only been able to remove the furniture and one large room’s worth of debris, for reasons that soon became clear. Complicating matters for them, and then us, was the 6-inch deep sediment that covered most of the floor space, had found it’s way into the walls, and gathered in cooked pudding-like pools in the bathtubs. This sediment is unique in it’s density (ranging from clay-like to sludge, which gives it an extraordinary amount of weight), it’s color (black, except where a gray crust has formed on the top layer), and it’s smell (which requires it’s own paragraph to explain).

As the neighborhood lies about a half-mile from the Murphy’s Oil refinery, and the floods caused a severe leak of hazardous materials from the plant, those materials found home mainly in the sediment now lying in people’s homes. While the sediment has a pungent enough smell when left alone, it’s full force can be experienced only upon breaking the dried crust. The first thing that strikes you is the strong smell of sulfur, but it is quickly accented by hints of feces, rotting wood, and rotten meat.

It is a singular smell. Now as horribly unique to me as that putrid smoke that wafted from the World Trade Center for weeks.

Once the sludge has been removed from each room, the actual gutting can begin. In our case, the resident wasn’t present, and there were very few items worth salvaging, so the process was as simple as removing everything in the house, from furniture and clothing to sheetrock, insulation, and appliances, and creating a mountain of debris outside the home.

In most cases, the furniture and other items inside the house end up piled together inside the house when the water finally recedes and flows out of the house in one direction. Not coincidentally, the sediment is deepest in that area of the house as well.

It took four of us three hours just to clear the sludge from the single-worst room in the house.

I could talk about the dresser that fell apart in my hands, dropping water-logged clothing, a mother rat, and her three blind offspring at my feet. Or I could talk about the various super-sized insects we came across throughout the day. I could talk about the smell of the Katrina water that would accidentally spill from bowls and glasses left in their cupboards, or how I nearly vomited when I broke my first Katrina mud crust in one of the three bathtubs. I will, however, mention that this work is being done in 95 degree weather by volunteers. Despite my best efforts, there are no words for this horror show.

It took fourteen of us from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. to gut the house entirely. And we still missed a few spots.

I've never felt so thoroughly exhausted before in my life.

Upon seeing the house stripped bare, now just studs and exterior brickface, many in my group wondered aloud whether there was any chance that the house could still be salvaged; whether we had actually accomplished anything other than clearing a house just for it to be demolished some day despite our effort. It was a tough thought to quell.
The thought bothered me enough that after a few post-gutting beers with my group I headed out on my own to drive through a few nearby areas to see the state of residential reconstruction. It wasn’t long before I found a house that appeared to have been in as bad condition as the one we had gutted earlier in the day. It was different though; there were work lights still on inside, and while the east wing was in shambles with exposed studs colored black and green with rot, the west wing boasted studs of the familiar tan of fresh wood. A few pieces of sheetrock were hung from them, and it struck me that they were hung not because the progress of the building demanded it (a whole other wings’ walls needed replacement), but that the owner was impatient to see real progress.

In any case, the roof (with the familiar hole punched through it) was a needed confirmation that the work we’re doing guarantees nothing, but at the very least offers a single home owner the opportunity to rebuild. And that’s enough. For now.

P.S. Yes, there will be pictures, however my failure to bring along the proper FireWire cable for my camera, and the difficulty in taking pictures while in full protective gear covered in soot and sludge has caused some delay. Stay tuned.