Day 1: New Orleans – 15 Months Later Thursday, Jan 25 2007 

10/29/2006: Day one for me in New Orleans.  I was here last in the spring following Katrina.   I was shocked by the damage by Katrina when I visited.  As I drove though the Lakefront neighborhood in April, I started sobbing—the extent of the destruction was too much for me to comprehend, it was overwhelming.  How would New Orleans ever return?   Here we are 6 months later from my last visit here. How have things changed?

Mary and I started the morning by having coffee in The Garden District.  There is a feeling of emptiness in the city.  For a city that once had many people in it; both tourists and locals, you can sense fewer tourists and fewer residents—Especially African Americans.  It’s a much more Caucasian city at this time; how many of its Black residents will return eventually is hard to tell.  The change of demographics is noticeable.

The wealthy areas and tourist areas like the French Quarter have pretty much survived and moved on.  Commander’s Palace, perhaps the most iconic and upper heeled restaurant in town reopened 3 weeks ago; unable to do so up until now because there was such a shortage of workers.

 Poorer areas have not fared as well.  There are places in the city where blocks of stores, are gutted, looted, abandoned.  But there are islands of hope where people have moved back in.  There is pride in home ownership, and it is heartening to see people tending to their yards, sweeping the sidewalks even though most of the rest of their block is still in a state of devastation.

The middle class areas do show rays of hope.

We drove through the upper ninth ward and Lakefront today and there are signs of a return to some normalcy.  The Lakefront district is one that many of us could identify with; middle class, mostly modest homes.  In the spring it was totally devastated with piles of moldy rotting garbage that used to be people’s possessions in front of every home.  It was the sight that drove me to tears.  Today, although most homes in this part of the city are still uninhabitable, the piles of garbage are gone.

Tangible progress is being made.  I would say that the rebuilding process is 20-25% percent complete in most neighborhoods that were devastated.  That may not seem like much but compared to what I saw in the spring it is genuine progress.  We spoke with a local tour guide who described his neighborhood as 25% of folks moved back into their homes, 25% living in trailers working on their homes, 25% who are planning to return (Like himself) to begin the rebuilding, and the other 25% abandoned.

Our tour guide, David Roberts’ roots in the area run hundreds of years back.  He has been living in San Diego with his grandchildren since Katrina.  He has been back for 3 weeks staying with friends relieving the lone tour guide from the company he worked for.  He told us he hoped to rebuild his home in Lakefront in the spring, when some relatives who were handy finished rebuilding their homes.  Because builders are in such demand and overworked, going that route was prohibitively expensive.  The lowest estimate he got was 125,000.  Before Katrina a similar job would have cost him 65,000.   His wife, after vowing never to return is coming back for Christmas.  He told us, “It’s not a cliché when you say Hope Springs Eternal”

We did not visit the Lower ninth Ward, which I’m told is still in a desperate shape. Perhaps we will venture there later in the week.

There is a feeling of hope today as opposed to the hopelessness months ago.  The reopening of the Superdome three weeks ago is a huge boost of the spirits of the region.  The symbol of chaos is now a symbol of hope for the rebuilding of the city.  You cannot underestimate how big the reopening of The Superdome is to psyche of the people here; and the Saints for the first time in years are winning.

Another sign of return to normalcy will be the return of the St. Charles Street Streetcar which should happen in the spring of 2007.  The oldest streetcar line in the country is an emblem of this city, and having this city without this streetcar line is like having San Francisco without its cable cars.  It’s sad to see the tracks still buried in mud.  We did witness workers doing some track cleanup today.  It was a welcome sight.

We also visited the Site where we’ll start working at Habitat for Humanity tomorrow.
I am really looking forward to starting work.  As Dave the tour guide said, since Katrina, acquaintances have become friends, friends have become closer friends.  He also told us, despite the failings of the government, the outpouring of volunteers from all parts of the country, all walks of life and political leanings, is a great untold story here.  People helping people…

When he was first displaced; church groups came to his hotel in Dallas and brought food, when he was too tired to care for himself and his family; and no matter what side of the political aisle there are countless people have come to this unique city to lend a helping hand.   That gives one hope to see this kind of outpouring of generosity when at times we seem so divided politically in this country.

There is still so much to do in this city…Besides the rebuilding, the problems of cyclical poverty, corruption and crime that still loom large in the future.  Hopefully this is a new beginning and not an end.

-Marc

Day 2: Volunteering for Habitat: Our First Day at The Worksite Thursday, Jan 25 2007 

10/31/2006: Today is the first full day at the worksite.  We get there early.  It’s a large group, perhaps 65 people.  Things seem disorganized… to add to the confusion it’s Halloween so marching orders are given by guys and girls dressed like Raggedy Andy, Abe Lincoln and Robin Hood.  They are waiting on a corporate group of 50 who are volunteering for the day.  They are late, and we don’t get started until 8:15, which is an hour and 15 minutes after we arrive/

Work assignments are handed out.  I end up with the soffit and facing group.  I have no idea what soffit is…  They try to explain. I’m still clueless.  We load the pickup truck with ladders – 16 and 24 footers.  Oh great, I’m not the most comfortable around ladders, and it looks like I’ll be climbing.  Our construction supervisor is Alain—A Parisian contractor who has lived in New Orleans for the past 3 years, and Kelly, an Americorp volunteer.  We actually go offsite from the Musicians village to a house a few blocks away on Mazant Street.  The house seems to just be known at Mazant, since it is the only house on the block that street they are working on.  The keys to the house are missing and by 9:30AM the whole day just seems chaotic.

Click here for map.

As we start to work a 20-something African American male walks up to ask if he was eligible to apply for housing,  “I’m single, and most programs are for guys who are married with families. “  We don’t know the answer and send him to the main office.
I notice he has a tattoo on his neck the says “In memory of Darnell” probably a brother or friend.  Death of young African-American males is a fact of life in New Orleans; and it obviously has touched the life of this young man from the neighborhood.  The whole exchange was sobering and sad—He walked away, and I really hoped life would work out for him. 

We start slowly as we grasped the learning curve of measuring, cutting and installing the soffit, which is one of the finishing touches under the eaves, and on the roof of the porch.  Work is slow, our crew of 10 seemed too large, and the group dynamics are still getting worked out.   I’m getting used to climbing ladders and working with a chop saw.  It’s the first time since 9th grade shop I’ve work with this kind of power tool.  I forgot that I was pretty handy at this kind of work once upon a time, and like riding a bicycle, I pick It up pretty quickly again.  Thank you Mr. Daniels and Mr. Moore; my high school shop teachers.

The one part of this experience I miss is working alongside the future homeowners.  One of the volunteers explains to me that most of them are working two and three jobs, and do most of their sweat equity on Saturdays when they aren’t working their regular jobs.  You got to work to feed your family.  You quickly understand that in Post-Katrina New Orleans there are an awful lot of people who want to rebuild their homes and lives and but can’t afford to do so.-even with all the relief money being spent in these parts-those with the most money get the fastest help from contactors who have guaranteed work for years to come.  The going rate for construction work has doubled in Post Katrina New Orleans.  The well-off win the rebuilding game.

We decided to go to lunch with Alain—always dine with the Frenchmen… He’ll know where the best food is.  Not much has reopened in the upper Ninth, We end up a a local superette that’s more than a little scary for me on the outside—bars on the windows and all… I would not venture in this place without Alain.  My theory works.  We order Fish po-boys (Hero sandwiches) that are aircraft carrier large and tasty.  It is enough food for two people.  I scarf it all down as does Mary.

We pick up steam as the day goes on.  There seems to be a mixed reaction in the neighborhood.  Some wave to us as the drive by, others scowl or pay no attention. 
There is no other house on the block that is currently occupied.  Next door there is a family living in a trailer outside of their gutted home.  That’s it.

The workday ends, and most of us want to finish the job we started.  We get about halfway done, but we’re working much faster and efficiently by the end of the day.
I’m looking forward to Wednesday.  I’m feeling a bit of pride for work well done—and I’ve learned how to install soffit on a day when 8 hours before I had no idea what it was.  The goal of “finishing” the outside of the home is attainable in a day or two.  I want to work that job to its end.

As we walk back to our car we see a bulletin board with a bunch of pictures on the wall—they are portraits of future occupants of the housing we are building.  As I start to read the board, I am struck by the stories of the people listed… Some victims of Katrina—others just trying to survive and get ahead.  The American Dream in the midst of chaos.  It strikes a good chord.

Marc and Mary

Day 3: Building Homes: Getting the Hang of It Thursday, Jan 25 2007 

11/1/2006: The morning has a good start.  We know the job we need to complete, the materials to bring, the house to go to.  The job is to complete the installation of soffit around the house. 

I get right to it; Get up the 16 foot ladder to install facing to finish the soffit on the side of the house along with Kelly, one of the college-aged Americorps volunteer.  I am getting the hang of it.  I’m still not crazy about ladders, but I’m getting the job done, hammering in the facing—being careful not to ding the aluminum facing.

In the front of the house is Megan who on the tippy top of a 24 foot ladder doing the same job I am.  I get dizzy just watching her.  I think we’re all impressed that a female college student has more bravery than most of the group hammering nails on a ladder 20 feet in the air with little supervision.  God Bless!

The house is looking more and more finished from the outside.  The soffit and facing look great in their completed state.

As the day goes on, cars go by the house, as do folks walking by from the neighborhood.  Some wave or nod, others ignore us.  I’m always aware of who they are. From time-to-time there are some shady characters who walk by, they seem to be casing the site to see if they may grab something of value.  Keeping a vigilant eye on our tools and materials is a job in itself.  Even the toilet paper in the Port-o-potty disappears overnight.  Crime in Post Katrina New Orleans is still rampant.

As 10am rolls around, a car pulls to the front of the house; an elderly African American man rolls down his window and starts to smile broadly.  He pulls his car to the side of the road, his car has handicapped plates.  He gets out of the car and walks towards us with a cane.  “You guys are working fast” He looks around the house and nods with approval. It is a moment that makes it all worth it.

By the time we hit lunch, the soffit is done.  Our job in the afternoon is to touch up the house with caulk where it was missed and does some paint touch up. 

Like Tuesday we go to lunch again with Alain our French construction supervisor and Zach, a 20 something supervisor for the New Orleans Habitat project.  We end up in the Spot Diner, one of the few places open for lunch in the Ninth. 

Al lunch, Alain tells us how homeowners are between a rock and a hard place to save or sell their old homes.  Because the older homes are less than 4 feet off the ground, they are uninsurable.  Most can’t be saved because the bottom of the homes are rotted.  Local developers offer to buy homes in our neighborhood for the whopping price of five thousand dollars.  Even in the wealthier neighborhoods, 20 cents on the dollar is about the most you can expect if you want to sell your flood damaged home.  The going rate is less than that here in the Ninth Ward.

Mary and I talk to Zach about his background.  He is a recent college graduate from a state school in California and majored in philosophy.  He’s done a bunch of volunteer work to this point in his life.  I know he can’t be making much money from Habitat.  We learn the he lives in a rooming house in uptown New Orleans with 20 other Habitat and Americorp volunteers.   He is not tainted with the cynicism of someone my age.  We picked up his tab.

When we get back, we caulk and paint and finish some areas where others before us have missed.  Alain at times is not the most patient teacher, but you can tell he is a craftsman.  It must be tough to work on a job where your crew is different every few days; mistakes are made and corrected on a daily basis.  He is retiring for good in a few months.  Habitat is his last contracting hurrah.

As we pack up to leave we ask Kelly and Alain if they’d like coffee in the morning.  Both really appreciate the offer.  There’s a Starbucks close the where we’re staying-and a Starbucks coffee is a welcome luxury in a neighborhood where getting coffee at 7:00AM is an impossibility.  I leave the site very satisfied with the work we have done today.  It’s been a long time since I felt I have made a difference with volunteer work and it’s immensely gratifying.

Later that evening Mary tells me about the woman who will occupy the House on Mazant Street. She’s a single mom with three young children who lost everything due to Katrina.  So many stories like this in New Orleans.  To think in a few weeks she will get to occupy a brand new home, and a new start after losing it all is a pleasant thought that soon will be reality. I’ll sleep well tonight.

Marc

Day 4: Misery Thursday, Jan 25 2007 

Misery11/2/2006: As we wake we can sense that it’s considerably cooler the past few days in New Orleans. I check the temperature to find that it’s 57, certainly cooler than the past few days but not cold.  I decide on shorts and t-shirt which I would soon regret. 

On the way out of our hotel, we make a Starbucks run for ourselves Alain and Kelly.  It’s cool, but not uncomfortable.  By the time we get to the central gathering spot for the worksite, it feels frigid, it’s damp, with a blowing wind.  Alain and Kelly are very appreciative of the coffee, and many volunteers quiz us on where the heck we found a Starbucks.  Many of them are staying at the Habitat dorm, Camp Hope in East New Orleans.  We are in modest inexpensive hotel on the other side of town in The Garden District.  Compared to most of the Volunteers, we are living large.

The hot coffee is a Godsend.  I am almost at a point of shivering.  I tell Mary I’m going to make a run back to our hotel to get long sleeved shirts, about a half hour round trip. As I make my way out of the Ninth ward I spot a Dollar Family Store that’s open.  I park go inside find a rack of sweatshirts for 10 bucks each.  It reminds me of my college days in the Bronx when I would shop on Fordham Road.  I won’t mind getting paint on my 10 dollar sweatshirt. The round trip takes less than 15 minutes.

Today starts much like the first day.  Confusion and waiting around.  Alain is locked out of the house on Mazant.  He can’t find the key…it turns out 2 other crews are also working  on the house today.  They grabbed the key before he did.  We get to the site and spend much of the day waiting…waiting for materials, waiting for tools, waiting for something to do.  The other two crews at the house seem to have the material they need, but we don’t.   We spend a good deal of the morning doing nothing.  We lend a helping hand to the other crews when they need gruntwork or a person to help with another task but for the most part we are sitting.  It’s terribly frustrating.

Alain leaves the site several times, scavenging for tools and material.  Today we are installing banisters and railing.  We trim the deck on the porch and install the railing on the left side of the porch by lunch.  We should have completed the job by now, but we’re barely 50% done.  Alain apologizes

I notice as I sit on the porch a military Humvee patrolling the area.  I’m beginning to recognize the people in the neighborhood, even though it’s 85 unoccupied.

At lunch we learn that a large group of 200 would be volunteering in two weeks.  When groups that size comes to the worksite, there can be a shortage of tools.  Though many corporations donate tools, trucks, and other goods, resources are still needed to support the volunteers.  Saw blades dull, and tools wear out.….When large groups come to the site, the infrastructure of this volunteer organization can be stressed.  Today’s group was only about 40 people.  I wonder how it would be with 5 times the amount of people.

After lunch, Alain takes off on another foraging trip.  He returns with all the materials and tools we need.  Eureka!  We finally have what we need, but there are only two working hours after lunch—not much time to get stuff done.  We spend much of that time correcting mistakes made on the banisters and railings.  By the end of the day, the job isn’t completed.  I’m resigned to returning tomorrow to finish a job that should have been completed today.  We drove back to the hotel in the afternoon.  Neither of us are talkative.  The exuberance of the past two days is robbed by the weather and the slow progress made today.

I get to the hotel and check my email.  The wife of a fellow I play basketball with writes a personal note thanking us for volunteering—It is very heartfelt.  She had been here in the spring doing recovery work and knows what everyone is going through in these parts.  It is a welcome note of encouragement for us on a day that is very frustrating.  Tomorrow is a new day.

Marc

Day 5: Au Revoir to the House on Mazant Thursday, Jan 25 2007 

11/3/2006: Again the morning was relatively cold, but a bit warmer than the day previous.  We checked out of our hotel, and I’m eager to start work, erase the memory of yesterday’s unproductive day.  We have to finish the front porch railing today along with the railing of the rear door entrance.

Today we have what we need, materials, tools, knowledge and time.  I am still making “learning curve” mistakes (Though fewer than days past) which aggravates me, on the other hand I am also being more of a perfectionist… Making sure that top rails are level, side rails are consistent; I have pride in my work.  Work goes slowly, some of the rails were mistakenly cut with the grain and split when we screw them in.  The split rails have to be removed, and new ones put back in their place.

The home we are working on has been fast-tracked for completion.  There are three different crews working on 2531 Mazant and flooring is supposed to installed next Tuesday; one the last steps of finishing the home.  By lunch we are finished with the front rail and get started on the side porch.  I am breaking some new ground on my knowledge of deck construction on the side porch and I have Alain inspect our work.  “Looks good” he says.

Lunchtime arrives and we follow a young couple in our car who are friend’s of Alain working on our site.   It turns out they are future home habitat homeowners, Kyle is a musician who does some kitchen work in a friend’s restaurant to get by, his wife is a writer, and they have a two year old daughter.  Though most of the future homeowner is this part of town are African-American, they come in different races, ages and circumstances. New Orleans continues to be a melting pot…better yet… a Gumbo.  I’m a little surprised that the first future homeowners I meet are much like me… white, coming from a middle class background.  One thing I have learned is that musicians in the town are colorblind.

Good housing in New Orleans has skyrocketed since Katrina and like many; they are getting priced out of the city.  Unlike many here, their apartment survived the storm with little damage, this was their only chance to afford living in a city they truly love.  Their landlord jacked their rent by hundreds of dollars post-Katrina.

Mary meets Deb Clark, the single mom who will occupy the house.  She was working on finishing touches to the bathroom.  I find out after I leave the house who she is.  I am disappointed I don’t get to speak to her or even say hello.  With 20-25 people on site, working in different areas, it is hard to meet and chat with everyone.

We have lunch at a small rib joint that has reopened in the upper ninth.  It is next to a military installation where the military personnel who patrol the streets in Humvees dine.  The Rib house is filled with Habitat volunteers and military personnel.  It is a mom and pop type luncheonette and like the ones that have survived after the storm the food does not disappoint.

We get back from lunch for our last segment of work of the week.  Work on the railing on the side goes slow. We make progress but time is running out.  One of the team leaders tells us we have 15 minutes to cleanup.  My heart sinks.  We won’t finish the job I came to complete.  The last 10% of the job we started will go to someone else to finish.

2:30 hits and it’s time to say our goodbyes.  Goodbye to Alain, goodbye to Zach, Kyle other workers and future homeowners who we worked with side by side for the week.  Trading e-mail addresses, getting some final pictures, and then driving away.  Deb Clark and your new home on 2531 Mazant. In the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana goodbye and good luck. 

Marc

Week of Rebuilding New Orleans Epilogue Thursday, Jan 25 2007 

11/6/2006: The day after we finished our work on 2531 Mazant, we take one more drive through the city.  Through the lower 9th, upper 9th, to take a last look at the home we worked on. 

When we passed by, the cement from the front stairs to the street is drying, another small step toward completion of the home. Alain was in the front but didn’t see us.  Building a house with rotating volunteers is not the most efficient way to build a home, but the end result is pretty darned good. These modest homes do make a difference.  The sweat equity aspect of Habitat gives pride in ownership. As we met and worked alongside of future homeowners at Musician’s Village, you could sense their excitement, and hope for the future.  Mary spoke with a client who worked on the same project in the summer.  At that point, there were three homes completed.  In November, that number is in close to a dozen.  Real progress is being made.

One of the things that struck us was the reaction of New Orleans when we told them we were building homes for Habitat.  Most times, their eyes welled up as they extended a very heartfelt thank you.  That reaction touches your humanity on many levels.  Sometimes we get so stuck in our own lives, and forget to help others.    I have written checks for charity, and did so for Katrina victims in the past year.   This is much more tangible and personal.  When you see that look in a person’s eyes who is thanking you, you realize you are making a difference.

To this day, and probably for several years, the city and surrounding area needs help.  I am not exaggerating when I say parts of the lower 9th ward look like it was hit by a nuclear bomb.  All that is left is concrete slabs.  There are other areas just like this in the city and surrounding areas, and large swaths where less than 50% of the homes are salvageable.

Can you directly help?  The answer is yes.  Habitat can use volunteers in the Musicians Village and other lower visibility projects in the area, especially when school is in session.  Visit their website to get details.  You can volunteer for only one day, though I’d suggest you do it for 2-3 or more.  Find out when they need volunteers, or when there is a lull in large groups that occasionally come down to help.

You can also help by just visiting. Mary and I love New Orleans for its music, unique culture and great food.  If you have enjoyed visiting there in the past, make a point to go down as a tourist and spend some money.  The main source of income for the area is tourism, and they need your support.  You don’t need to volunteer to help… Go down to Bourbon Street and buy hurricanes, (but not too many) Go to a Preservation Hall and catch some Dixieland jazz, Go to the Garden District and have a great meal, Take a walking tour of the historic cemeteries, then take a detour to the 9th ward or Lakeview and see for yourself…let your friends know the job of rebuilding isn’t done.  It’s really just getting started.

During our weeklong stay, we heard stories, many of them.  The Bellman who lost everything in the Gentilly Area, A tour guide who was displaced to Arizona, hopeful he could get started on rebuilding his house in the spring, 20 months after the storm hit.  A 50-something couple, whose daughter lost everything and moved to Kalamazoo, a brother who checked into a hospital  for some minor respiratory problems to be on the safe side just before Katrina, ending up trapped in the blacked out hospital for 8 days, fanning dying patients.  Fifteen months after the storm hit, the wounds are still deep and raw.

We also heard stories of kindness; people helping people.  Church groups; giving clothes to people who were displaced, opening their homes to give shelter.  As one person said, I was so traumatized right after the storm; I could not take care of the smallest things like going out and buying underwear.  The volunteers took care of this for me when I couldn’t.

Despite our differences of Red State vs. Blue state and corrosive politics when a disaster like this happens, you can take pride in helping fellow citizens in need.

This is an experience that will never leave me. I know my next trip to New Orleans I will be stopping by the home at Mazant to see it completed, and occupied, and I’d venture to guess I’ll be making that same stop 20 years from now when I’m in New Orleans, God willing.

It is very satisfying to see the handful of homes in the Musicians Village with hanging plants on the porch and mailboxes full of mail.  It signifies a return to normalcy. shattered lives being put back together.   For someone, a chance to live The American Dream, home ownership, complete with a porch with a picket fence that was built by me. It’s a gift to myself and the city I love so much.  It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Marc

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