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.


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