My second day began with cereal for breakfast. There is no group hot breakfast at base camp. Admittedly I hadn't had breakfast regularly in a long time, which probably explains a lot of recent bahviour. I honestly am a happier person with breakfast than without it. We also make our own lunch-usually people have peanut butter and jelly. Some enerprising people take last night's leftovers if there are any. One guy from Massachusetts who works for the Appalacchian Mountain Club dumped an enchilada and rice in a ziploc. (We had enchiladas for dinner the night before).
I found my team leader for the day, whose name was Jess. She's from Wisconsin and Minnesota and is a part of the Americorp group that is travelling and doing community service. After they leave next week, her group will continue onto Mississippi, where they will help with the Katrina rebuilding there. I got my Tyvek, which is that suit that you usually see haz-mat workers wear only this one is white. I also got my respirator mask and goggles and gloves. Then it was decided since we were doing a "last gut" which required primarily nail removal, that carpenter's face masks (those white things that look like a boxer's "cup" would be fine and so I returned my respirator. I did take photos of me in various stages of the get up and hope to post them later.
A "last gut" is the finally stage of gutting a house. Once this is done, then rebuilding work can begin. The people whose homes are receiving this work from HandsOn New Orleans volunteers contacted the office and requested the help. Usually once the request is received, volunteers go to the property and scout it out. If it poses too muich of a risk (unstable floors for example) , then they cannot work on the house and refer them to someone who can.
The house that we went to was on Gallier Street. You could tell by the foundation and the skeletoin that was left that it was well made. We preceded to remove nails, nails and more nails with hammers. I don't think I have ever interacted with that many nails in my whole life. We passed the time talking about ourselves, the recent elections, celebrity breakups and episodes of hte Cosby Show. After the nails were removed, we swept up the nails and other debris that was left in the house. The debris was left on the curb side grass by the side of the house. Jess informed us that debris removal is a part of the garbage pickup around here. They come by and pick it up daily.
We beavered through our project and finished extremely early. We had some time to drive around the city before we started our next task. Usually work takes the whole day but there are times where crews finish early. There is always something that needs doing and something is usually found for idle hands that want not to be idle-which describes all of us here.
Jess was a great team leader and guide. She was informative and had energy. She clearly loved the fact that she was helping people in the best way that she could. She drove around the neighborhood where we completed our morning's work and showed us the houses, some of which had extensive damage. One enduring sight for today were the FEMA trailers. They were in the yards of people's houses or in FEMA trailer parks. I clearly have never lived in a trailer because I was surprised at how small they were. Jess said that FEMA did also locate trailers for those with disabilities. We took a bathroom break at the location of Common Relief, which we were told was a more radical outfit that does the type of work that we are doing. They were a bit more activist. They offered us a hot lunch later, which we declined simply because at the time they woudl have lunch, we would be onto our next job.
As we rmade our way to the now infamous Ninth Ward, we saw that the houses had spray paint on them. We were told that these markings, which have words and/or numbers in either a cross or an "X" represented the teams that swept the properties after the disaster. The upper left quadrant reperesented the team that went in to do the sweep. The lower left represented the number of dead that they found. The lower right represented the number that were found alive. The upper right represented where they were found. After receiving this information, the markings took on a whole new grim meaning for me since we had prior to her explanation, passed a number of places where I saw totals of anywhere between 1-4 in that lower left quadrant that tallies the dead bodies found. The number dead will also include pets, which are also noted in spray paint. The MSPCA did quite a few sweeps. We were also told that earlier in the summer, a HandsOn team was doing a "first gut"-taking down the wall and ceiling-and they found an older woman under her sink that the sweep teams clearly did not find. So many houses to check, so few resources at hand.
We drove into the Ninth Ward. Quiet, except for some green industry crews doing branch removal and some traffic. There is no eletricity here so no one in their right mind (or left mind for that matter) comes here at night. In fact, where there would usually be stop lights, there are stop signs and people are trusted to remember the rules of the road. There are also no gas stations so if you are going over there and you don't plan ahead, you are so outta luck. As we drove around, it was sobering to see that where what looked like plots of open land were places where houses once stood. The Ninth Ward was densely populated-this you can tell from how the remaining structures and traces of the structures are situated. Jess showed us the now repaired levees and indicated about where they broke. It's a sin. These people HAD NO CHANCE. NO CHANCE AT ALL.
We saw some demoltion taking place. Dotted along the area were foundations on top of which houses once stood. On the side of one house I saw, was written "This was home."
As we drove through the neighborhoods of New Orleans that did not include downtown, all you could see were signs for mold removal, insurance and demolition services. Not only were these giant billboards but these were small white and yellow signs that were stuck in the grass. We also saw remnants of the election races. We were told that there was a push to have people get out and vote. New Orleans we were also told pre-Katrina was known for its city corruption. It is felt that this also played a role in the disaster since money that could have gone into prevention went instead into people's pockets. An example of this were a number of the empty schools we passed by. The city had not worked to maintain them pre-Katrina so it was small wonder that they were still standing. Now however, the students have to travel far away to attend school because the buildings will never be in shape in the near future. One mother we were told, has to drive her son a half an hour to school each way.As we drove through Gentilly, again sobering to housing complexes in various stages of "gut" and places like McDonald's standing empty. Gentilly had more signs of life than the Ninth Ward and at least had electricity.
I did mention that I noticed that in many neighborhoods-especially in the poorer ones-it seems that there was a dearth of supermarkets but an abundance of fast food. Coming from a city that has Farmer's Markets and more grocery stores than you can shake a stick at, it was odd to only see the odd Winn-Dixie and a Whole Foods. Jess said that people in NOLA love to eat and that in addition to the wonderful local cuisine, there was also no shortage of restaurants-fast food and otherwise.We were also told that the Hands On New Orleans volunteers had done some work in the Ninth Ward but money that they received from Home Depot, who donate the tools, stipulated that they do more work in the areas where the nearest store was, which is the Central City area.
Jess took us on a tour of the more affluent parts of the city that suffered more hurricane damage than flooding. All around you could see contractors working, but if you visited these areas only you would have never known Katrina had taken place. We were told that Brad Pitt was around filming for his documentary on 'green-building.' (Using environmentally friendly materials in the construction of office and living spaces). We went by Tulane and Audubon Park, which were beautiful.We also drove around Central City, where we currently stay and found out that some of the best po-boys to be had are on magazine street.We returned to base and helped bring in the supplies for our "breakfast for dinner."
After consuming lunch which consisted of po-boys and Rally's, our team traveled to our next site which was down the street. This woman suffered roof damange which resulted in mold. Her house was gutted by HandsOn Volunteers. We were cleaning up the debris, which included lots of plaster. This woman was told by her insurance claim adjuster that the house had no plaster, which was a total lie since we were tripping over it. While we were working, she took photos of the plaster in various locations. I helped her with this task. Another example of corruption. It was one thing to hear on Dr. Phil the story about a poor woman who was being taken advantage of by evil contractors in regarding to building her house post-Katrina, but to know about it in person. And what really burns me is that the victims are almost always our senior citizens who for the most part, deserve better. There are times where you wish certain people were taken away in the flood.
I have never done so much sweeping and hauling in one day in a LONG TIME. Again, another well made house that was well lived in. The woman just lost her husband five years ago. One of the last things that needed to be removed was a box that had items that were damaged by Katrina. This box contained things that she was going to donate.
We returned to base camp. where we had to sterilize our googles and return tools 'n' stuff. The team took much welcome showers and enjoyed some downtime before our "IHOP" experience. Some of the Boston Cares members went out to "raise hell." I decided to save my "hell-raising" for Friday. I definitely want to go to Igor's, which is a bar, restaurant and laundromat that is open 24 hours. (Yes, you read correctly and I totally want to bring that to the Northeast. Great concept!)
I did take some photos of our time in the Ninth Ward and hope to post those in a future blog post.
Each day ends with a group meeting where announcements are made and debriefs on the days work are done. Some of the things on tap for tomorrow is a "super-gut" of a church, some "first-guts" and mural design. Since members choose what team they want to sign up for, as you can imagine after the meeting it is a mob scene at the sign up board. I was only able to sign up for the mural. (Tomorrow I will be elbow more so I can get in on gutting projects. :) )
KP (Kitchen Patrol) was cool. I washed more silverware by hand than I thought was possible. (The only dishwashers are human.) I also got to play some NO (New Order) on the CD player.
Other fun activities are also organized by the volunteers, such as tomorrow's 3 on 3 basketball tournament and the musical that will take place on Monday. They usually have a "no talent" talent show. Another person is arranging for a trip to the Ninth Ward on Sunday for those who had not been.
While waiting for dinner I got a chance to talk to Amelia, who is a staff member at Hands On New Orleans. She told us that they are moving towards becoming a 501 c 3 or a nonprofit in their own right and that this will happen next year. Other Boston Cares volunteers-Corey and Maria- as well as myself offered her advice on how to raise the profile of HandsOn New Orleans given their current constraints as essentially the 'child' of the 'parent' HandsOn Network. We mentioned maintaining a blog-even if it was only updated once a month, it would be welcome because everyone is hungry of knowledge about the rebuilding effort even as Katrina has faded from the national consciousness. We also talking about email lists and newsletters (Corey had high praise for Contant Contact, which Boston Cares also uses) and asking for a small donation from the end of their stay. We get fed and housed and shuttled around for free. I don't know of many volunteer opportunities that offer that. Once HandsOn New Orleans stands on its own as a 501 c 3, it will be more difficult for them to keep this up. Many of their volunteers are young and/or not rich people but they want to provide service. My aunt feels things happen for a reason and I think that it is no accident that our particular group came down. Perhaps, our experience was needed by the staff to help with those other aspects of the non profit experience-fundraising, and stuff.
I spent the rest of the night novel writing ( I am also taking part in NaNoWriMo-National Novel Writing Month), talking to people both on my cell and in person.
On a somber note, as if to remind us that our little slice of heaven is still in the real world, as I was talking on my cell phone to the dearest of my friends in our enclosed gated space in full view of the cop that was on duty to watch over us, I and the others outside heard a gunshot.
Calmly I moved inside while on the phone. The cop was radioing for backup as I went in. We were on lockdown from about 9:20-9:50. I stayed on the phone with my friend until lockdown was over to assure him that I was okay in da 'hood. I was concerned but I guess I take things as I take them. I distracted him by talking about Kenny on South Park and one of our favorite scenes-when Kenny makes his mom her favorite drink, cocoa and vodka and puts "Pregnant No More" in it. He also described the show 'ER' to me:
"There a guy talking. And another guy talking. And a guy with a tube up his nose. They guys talking have white coats. Now they are walking. Now they are walking and talking...."
He never watched ER.