Friday, January 20, 2006

New Orleans

When Loyola announced the delegation to New Orleans to work with Associated Catholic Charities down there I knew this was the opportunity I had been waiting for. I would have liked to go down immediately after the hurricane to volunteer, but classes had just started and it wasn't feasible. But this time it was. So I, along with 15 other Loyola folks, headed down (we flew) early in the morning on Fri., Jan. 13. We had had two "prep" meetings, but really didn't know what we were heading for. But we were prepared, with work clothes and boots, work gloves, swiss army knives, and such. From the air, we were struck by the blue roofs--the blue plastic FEMA tarps as we later learned. Occasionally we saw a destroyed building or uprooted tree. It didn't look too bad. On the drive (in our 3 rented minivans) to the Catholic Charities facility where we were being housed we saw damage, but again, it didn't look horrific. We were given an orientation and then headed to the French Quarter (thinking we might be too tired on subsequent nights--we were right!).
The Quarter did not appear damaged at all. We did notice a heavy military presence, and it wasn't crowded. We had beignets at Cafe du Monde, and some of us found a wonderful bar with live jazz.

The next morning we had to be at the work site at 8 a.m., so we were up bright and early to drive over the bridge and find the place. That's when it started to sink in. The neighborhoods we drove through looked worse and worse--piles of ruined possessions out front, hundreds of rusting cars--and no people.
The absence of working traffic lights made driving sort of a crap shoot. When we arrived we were greeted by Deacon John, who distributed hard hats and safety goggles and talked to us about what they were doing. This is new, for Catholic Charities to find themselves in the relief business down there. But they have organized a program for elderly and low-income home-owners, gutting and rehabbing their damaged homes. We would be working on the home of an 87 year old woman which had been under 4 feet of "water" (for lack of a better term for the toxic mix) for two weeks. We drove there through streets guarded by workers in orange safety vests, absent of anyone other than road crews.

We learned to interpret the signs on the houses--the 0 at the bottom means no dead people were found in the house.

When we reached the house, the owner and her daughter were waiting for us to unlock the door. We all instantly fell in love with her!

None of us were prepared for what was behind the door of what appeared to be an intact dwelling.

The walls and floors were mildewed, kitchen cabinets ruined, some ceilings were damaged, and there was a gaping hole in the roof of one room (covered by blue tarp, of course).

The owner had lived in the house since 1945. The few things she had been able to salvage were in the bathroom.

We were given our instructions: take down the drywall, pull up the floor (her once-beautiful hardwood floors that she had loved) and the sub-flooring, remove the ceiling in several rooms, take out the furnace. So we set to work, wearing protective coveralls, face masks, and hard hats. We spread out through the house.

I had put up drywall before, but never taken it down. I liked swinging the crowbar to knock holes in the wall so the drywall could be pulled down. When I needed a break from that I picked up the debris and hauled it out to the curb. Later, I started pulling out nails.
It was interesting how each of us found things to do. Although some of the guys had construction experience, none of the women did. But we caught on pretty quickly (although some guys were entertained by may wearing a baseball cap under my hard hat--but it fit better that way!). It was hard work--I was worried when I looked at my watch and it was only 10 a.m.--I wasn't sure I would make it till lunchtime. But I did, and that ready-meal tasted just fine!

But the highlight of the day for me was in the middle of the afternoon, when we were tired, and sweaty, and filthy dirty. The owner's daughter brought us ice-cold sodas! When I saw that Diet Coke, I almost cried. Somehow she knew just exactly what we needed--I don't know how far she had to drive to find a store.

So we made it through the day, and by the end the house was completely gutted.

The curb was piled with boards and other materials. The owner watched the piles grow, and said that this was the second time her house had been gutted--the first time was when all of her ruined possessions were carried out.

Her son had been in the house when the water started coming in after the levee broke (she and her daughter had already evacuated). He hadn't been worried--the hurricane had passed. They called him to warn him about the water, and it didn't look too bad at first. So he lay back down and went to sleep. But when he woke up, it was a different story. The water had risen fast, and come in hard enough to knock over the refrigerator. One of his neighbors came to get him in a boat and he went to their house, which had a second story. But he didn't have his insulin and needed to go back to get it, so he floated back to the house on a log! This man can't even swim, and he said the water was really scary. He had to go under water to find the insulin, which had been on the counter. He was rescued by boat again.

He ended up in the Superdome, and his stories about that are almost incomprehensible. He will never forget what he saw there, and his feelings about the good of humanity have been damaged. His insulin was stolen, and he almost ended up having to have his toes amputated as a result. He had to have eye surgery. He was evacuated to Denver, where he was able to get good medical treatment, but he is still walking with a cane. He told his story over and over. We all wanted to hear it. He needed to tell it.

All that remained for us to do at the house was to spray it with bleach and let it dry. Then, another crew could start rebuilding. We decided to drive to the ninth ward. I really felt the need to see it. But nothing could have prepared us for what we saw--not the news photos, or television coverage. It is totally, absolutely devastated. Mile after mile is flattened, littered with the debris of what was neighborhoods full of houses and people. I did see a refrigerator or some appliance on the roof of one house still standing. That was the weird thing--every once-in-awhile there would be one house that somehow didn't get totally destroyed (well, the outside anyway). We walked around to try to grasp it. You could still get a whiff of what must have been a horrendous smell. At one point I realized I was standing on an entire roof--who knows what happened to the house. The debris wasn't just house materials--there were kids' toys, bicycles, clothes, kitchen stuff; really some of everything. There were houses on top of cars. There is really no way to describe it. A few places had signs that said NO BULLDOZING!

We were immensely sobered by the experience.

I'm back at home now. I am left with a tremendous feeling of responsibility. The enormity of the damage is something you just can't grasp until you see it. I had seen it on television, and in the newspapers. But it's just so much bigger, and worse, than anything you might imagine. So I ask everyone who sees this blog to DO SOMETHING!!!! Find a group to go down and volunteer. If you can't go, send money. Even if you've already sent something, SEND MORE!! There is no way New Orleans will be able to recover unless many, many, many people help. And if you're feeling judgemental about whether people should be allowed to rebuild in flood-prone areas, just remember: these were people's HOMES. They loved them. That's where they want to live. I actually overheard Walter say, "there's just no place like home."

There's more I could write, but that's it for now. I will put more photos on Snapfish.