Wednesday, September 23, 2015

How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?

Hello Everyone, and Greetings From New Orleans,

Ann and I arrived here for our 25th trip on August 18th. A few days later, New Orleans would officially remember the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. We chose to come for a couple of reasons. The anniversary brought back a lot of corporate money and volunteers, and we wanted to be with our Rebuilding Together people to help spend that money and use those volunteers. Selfishly, too, we also wanted to reunite with some of our early volunteer friends we hadn't seen in years, to catch up and remember together the work we did so long ago.

Right after we arrived, we visited our friend Peggy Severe, who lives in a Hollygrove home we helped rebuild in 2007. On every trip home to NOLA, we get to visit with Peggy, often enjoying lunch at her favorite place to eat, Mandina's in Mid City. This time, we had the pleasure of bringing Liz Russell, the woman who headed up the rebuilding of her home, to Peggy's home to reunite and catch up. We haven't seen Liz since I can't tell you when, but we see Peggy frequently, and she never fails to ask us if we've seen Liz and how is she and so forth. Getting to watch the two of them go from room to room of Peggy's home, talking about the work and about life in general made Ann and me happy.

Several years ago, Ann and I decided that our 2 or 3 or 4 trips a year to help could be scheduled to avoid the summer heat. The summers here are murderously hot and humid, just like it was for thousands of New Orleanians stranded in the city after the floodwalls failed and the city filled with water. It is a humbling reminder. When the Heat Index hits 111 degrees, as it did on August 24th, you feel the same heat so many New Orleanians felt for days atop their roofs and on top of elevated freeways where they were stranded. If they were lucky. If they hadn't drowned in their Lower Ninth homes, or made the mistake of obeying instructions to flee to the Superdome or, worse, to the Morial Convention Center, where Hell waited for them. And we had water to drink.

We were assigned to two homes on the Westbank in Algiers. At Miss Marva White's home on Pelican Street, we set about to finish window trim on the outside and to build a back porch and stairs. We were paired up with a young architect who was visiting from France and wanted to spend a week helping in New Orleans along her way across the US. Lea was a great addition to the team, and we knocked our work out on time while showing her the joys of fried shrimp poboys. She also got to spend an evening with us at our pal Macon Fry's home on the river side of the levee. I hope we helped provide some memories.

Following that project, we went to work on Murl Street at the home of Mr. and Mrs. James Holmes. Mr. Holmes is wheelchair-bound, and our responsibilities included setting the foundation for a wheelchair ramp that will finally allow him to leave his home under his own power. Ann and Lea and I worked there for a few days ahead of the Katrina 10 Service Day team, getting the project laid out and ready for a productive Saturday with a large group of volunteers from Shell Oil, who also funded the project. In addition to the wheelchair ramp, we were also building a back porch and stairs, a new front porch rail, and setting hardwood flooring in the room adjacent to the wheelchair ramp. On Saturday, our team built the back porch and stairs (Ann ran that project, of course), set all of the posts for the wheelchair ramp, built the entire front porch rail, and laid a bunch of the hardwood floor. A productive day with a team of willing and fun volunteers.

As we worked on the Westbank in the usual summer heat and humidity, we thought often about just why we were there.

I listened to a podcast of This American Life, which restored some of my early Katrina memories. Podcast number 296 aired on September 5th, 2005, less than 2 weeks after the floodwalls broke, and reminded me what we were thinking when we decided to come to help. Paste this link into your browser and devote an hour to some fresh accounts of what happened and why....

I've thought about how different the experience is for us volunteers and for our homeowners. Here we are, both in the same place, working toward the same objective, but often in different dimensions. What it boils down to is, we weren't there, and they were. The shocking things we saw on TV, and then in person, they lived through. The realities of life for poor, often African-American citizens here in this Deep South city that we read about, they lived with. Cops didn't even see us. They saw the residents of Central City. Or worse, if the cops saw us, they looked after us, and warned us about the residents of Central City. Central City became our home. These residents became our friends.

The work we did earned us a spot in the hearts of many people here. And a seat at their tables, where we enjoyed Sunday Dinners in the middle of the week. Soul Food. Their souls, poured out of ladles onto our plates.

This trip, in addition to the pleasures of seeing our friends Peggy Severe, the Bellanger family, Macon Fry, Gabe Sneller, our pals at Finn McCool's, our old HandsOn pals Nic, Liz, Kellie, and others, we also got to think about the juxtaposition between the tragedy wrought upon this city and its people, and the purpose we volunteers found by coming to help. They lived through the troubles, and we were given a gift. How can that be?

I think I know.

The work we did became part of the story our homeowners tell about their recovery. Slowly, we were woven into the lives of the people we served, and they into ours. Their troubles became ours, and our gift became theirs.

I was 49 years old when I first came to New Orleans to help. I laugh sometimes when I think about how much easier the work seemed back then.

Time marches on, for us and for them. Now, 10 years after the floodwalls failed, there are still thousands of homes left unrepaired. Many people are living in homes that have no water or no power, invisible from the street. They fixed the front of their homes to keep them off demolition lists, but had no other resources to go further. Their storm-damaged homes are all they have, and they are still hanging on. It's a complicated situation. Some of these homeowners received Road Home money from the Congress and gave it to unscrupulous contractors, or didn't use it for rebuilding, or didn't have enough to finish their home repairs. They are hiding out because the government might want the money back. Homeless in a home.

This is the kind of shit you get when a major American city is destroyed by a Katrina-class disaster. There is no simple, tidy epilogue. 10 years on, here we are, better in many ways, unchanged in others, worse in still other ways. And the people of this city persevere. I've still got a lot to learn.

My Love to All,


Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Lean On Me

Hello Everyone, and Greetings From New Orleans,

Ann and I arrived here on January 6th, a few weeks earlier than we had planned. We came early because our friend Harold Bellanger had gone into the hospital, and his family was worried about his prospects. After over two weeks in the hospital, most of that time spent in ICU, Harold passed away late in the afternoon on January 20th.

Mister Harold was the patriarch of a family we worked for in the spring of 2008. At the time, they had moved back into their nearly-restored home in Gentilly, but didn't have the funds to complete the rebuilding of their upper level. Our son Kevan provided the funds we used to rebuild the floors and prepare the upstairs walls for paint, and Ann and I, with help from our NOLA brothers Reggie and Nic, worked with other volunteers to do the work necessary to essentially complete the rebuilding of their storm-damaged home.

In the process of doing that work, we formed a bond with the Bellangers that grew. On every trip thereafter, we visited with them, had meals with them, and basically became good neighbors with them. From the beginning, we were drawn to their bond of family. Harold and Baby Ray were anchors not only in their home, but in their neighborhood. They were the family that other homeowners in the neighborhood contacted after Katrina, to see if they were coming home to rebuild. If they came home to rebuild, other families would, too. If they weren't coming back, well.....

Harold Bellanger and his wife Baby Ray were both born and raised in Lake Charles, Louisiana. According to Harold, Ray was his first and only love. They married almost 50 years ago and settled in New Orleans. He had a career in Pharmacy Services for Charity Hospital in New Orleans, where Ray told me that Harold made it his life's business to make sure that no one went without their required medicines, regardless of their finances. "If he heard that a patient needed medicine but couldn't afford it, Harold would gather samples of medicines, and would work on pharmaceutical company representatives to get whatever was needed. He always made sure everyone had what they needed." In 1980, he was one of 10 Louisiana State employees who received the Charles E. Dunbar Award, given annually to state and local municipal employees who, "distinguish themselves through unselfish service to the citizens of Louisiana". Before we met, Harry was the guy who took the garbage can to the street on garbage day for older residents of the neighborhood. He was the guy who mowed their lawns and planted their spring flowers so their yards looked nice. He was a volunteer crossing guard at the neighborhood elementary school, long after his kids became adults. He did all of this because, well, that's what people do, right? He just did it because he was a member of his community, and he cared about the people who lived there.

Harold suffered from diabetes, and from the day we met him almost 6 years ago, his mobility was limited by the damage that disease had visited upon his feet. Sometimes when we saw him, he was mobile, and sometimes he sat on the couch. The Harry Bellanger we met had already lived a full and happy life, full and happy not because of what he owned or adventures he'd gone on, but full and happy in the most essential ways, deriving his joy of life from the love he gave and got from his family, his full participation in the life and happiness of his community, and his straightforward notions of fair-play, justice, and a person's obligation to his fellow human beings. Never strident. Simply living his life as he knew it was supposed to be lived, and happy as a result. His parents must have really been something.

The man loved his family. By his family, I mean his wife and children, their children, his nieces and nephews, their children, cousins, and anyone else close to them. This man set a standard for love of family the rest of us can only aspire to. And he was all in. If a grandson needed a bit of guidance, there he was in the most positive and determined way. Self-esteem was earned, not awarded with purple participant ribbons in that home. And he did it with a light hand and heart.

His spirit lives on. His grandsons walk the neighborhood, taking care of garbage cans and lawns. Fine young men who were shown a way that's been lost in so many other places.

Awhile back, we spent part of an afternoon just shooting the bull, two guys. I remarked to him that he turned 20 in the Deep South in 1962, right in the heart of the Civil Rights movement. What was it like, I asked him, to be a young black man in Louisiana in the early 60's? His high school was segregated, of course, and I was curious what it was like at the time, how his consciousness was occupied. "Oh, it was alright," he told me. "We had what we needed, and everything was OK for us." I didn't push for more information. This man had a backbone of steel, and approached his life as a 20 year old in the same way he did at 70. I think he saw himself as a man, without further qualification necessary or desired.

We buried Mister Harold on Saturday, February 1st. Ann and I had the honor of sitting with his family, and we got to hear stories about him as a younger, healthier man. We saw pictures of him with Ray at their high school prom. We sat in the midst of a grieving family who loved and honored him, sharing stories that helped us laugh our way through our sorrow.

Hurricane Katrina, a terrible disaster, brought us together with Harry and his family. I am forever grateful for that awful event.

Rest in Peace, Harry. You have earned it.

My love to all,


Saturday, October 19, 2013

Biloxi Black and Blues

Hello Everyone, and Greetings From Biloxi,

After our two weeks in NOLA, Ann and I set off on Saturday October 12th for a week working in Biloxi, Mississippi with our friends from Kaiser Permanente. Last year, we worked in Biloxi with Kaiser building a home for Jana Gonzales and her family. After that very intense and productive week, Ann and I couldn't wait to see what they had cooked up for us this year.

Our Biloxi work is anchored by the Women in Construction Program, a project of the Moore Community House (, a 90-year old Biloxi institution focused on providing services to less-fortunate families. A few years ago, after providing day care for poor working women, the folks at Moore decided they wanted to do more than look after these women's children while they worked at often-minimum-wage jobs. They started a training program to teach building trades to these women, to help lift them economically. The program has since graduated about 100 students, 70 of whom now have jobs in private construction companies. They recently added a welding program, in response to discussions with ship-building companies down here. This is no do-gooder program. The people who run it have developed relationships with construction and ship-building companies down here, and ask them what skills and attributes help graduates become employees, and then feed that knowledge back into their training regimen. It's working.

Until now, the Women in Construction Program has operated out of make-shift space. Our project this past week was to help build an actual headquarters for them, with designed classroom space and a large, flex-space shop. We were asked to arrive in Biloxi on Saturday, which would allow all of us to spend Sunday seeing the space, talking about the projects we'd be undertaking, forming the sub-teams that would be assigned specific tasks, and allowing the less-experienced volunteers to learn how to safely and properly operate the power-tools we'd be using. The planning was good--we'd hit the road running early on Monday morning. We'd be managed by a commercial contractor, who sent 3 of his people and a site-supervisor to lead, help, cajole, or whatever was needed.

The shop space required 35 custom-built trusses, designed by an architect, and full of angles. The contractor's folks spent a few days before we got there thinking about just how the hell a bunch of volunteers were going to build these. 35 trusses, 5 different truss styles and sizes, all meant to fit together on the shop roof to look like a unified design.

Monday morning, we went to work. A crew worked at a jig set up by the contractor to build the first model of truss, a crew worked at the next station to put finishing struts and gusset plates on each truss after it left the jig, and a third crew drilled holes for and then installed large carriage bolts at key joints on each truss. 22 bolts in each of 25 trusses, and 23 in the other 10. Then each truss was carried by the team to a staging area, where they awaited installation later in the week. I estimate that each truss weighed between 350-400 pounds, and they were over 20 feet long. Those crews eventually settled into a fairly-balanced rhythm, and off they went. I got to work on the bolting crew, and Ann worked on the Stage 2 assembly team.

Other teams went inside to insulate the entire new classroom space, install drywall (12' sheets--yay) and do framing work, including moving a number of previously-installed windows to new locations, and framing a new double-door. Another team went outside and installed siding.

It was fun to watch Monday's progress as the teams jelled. The construction pros began with witheringly-low expectations. Having done these projects before, Ann and I knew they'd be blown away with the energy and productivity of the Kaiser folks. In the meantime, we quietly watched as the Kaiser teams stepped up and everyone took on their roles. As the week progressed, Thomas, Kenny, Willie, Steve, and Dan (the Big Cheese) were all converted. By Wednesday, everyone was on board, and the lines between the pros and the volunteers blurred.

On Thursday, the framing crew had completed the moving of the windows and had framed for the new door. The drywall/insulating crew had completed the insulation and were well along on the drywall hanging. Maritza Castro was the project lead for that team, and she really had them moving. Outside, the crane showed up to hang the 35 trusses. Ann and Nailah ("Doc" to most of us) rigged and guided the trusses as our crane operator lifted them to the teams that installed them. By the end of the day, there they were, 20 feet in the air, all in place. At the end of the day, the crane operator lifted all of the plywood sheeting for the roof into place, ready for the next day's installation crew. On Friday, everyone worked to wrap up as much of our work as possible. Hurricane ties were installed on the rafters, the siding on the main building was completed and painted, the subfloor in the classroom was floated, and a bunch of the roof sheeting was installed.

Then, as always, it was over. Way too soon for most of us. We had one serious accident on Friday morning, when one of our inside workers fell off a ladder and broke her leg in three places in addition to dislocating her shoulder. We always stress safety, and we've been very lucky until now. She had surgery in Biloxi on Saturday morning, and was on our minds all day. This work has its risks. The rest of us (especially those of us old enough to be taking our daily baby aspirin) had our share of bruises, but were otherwise none the worse for wear.

I can't say enough about the women who come out of the Women in Construction program. Ann had the opportunity to work with Simone, and I had the pleasure of working on a team that included CJ, Sharika, and Shauna, women who recently graduated from the program. At the end of a pretty long day on Thursday, CJ and I were talking. She told me that she'd graduated two months earlier, and had then been hired by Women in Construction to join the staff. I wasn't a bit surprised by that. She was experienced, knew her way around the job site, and worked very well with the pros as well as us volunteers. What did surprise me was that, prior to joining the program, she had no construction experience whatsoever. That was a stunner, because I had sized her up as someone who had done this kind of work before. CJ was an example of just how tranformative that program can be. From McDonald's employee (true story) to professional construction worker in less than a year. I think of it as "From $7 to $27". Both she and Sharika were great examples of what is possible when organizations like the Moore Community House and people like Johnny Gonzales and Julie Kuklinski come together with a purpose to lift people and families to new heights. God loves them all. So do we. It made me happy to see such an ambitious and loving objective personified in the faces of those people.

Ed Hume Seeds/Parkway Partners Update

In 2007, our friends here in Olympia, Jeff and Ann Hume, provided a large quantity of sunflower seeds my Ann had asked them for. At the time, sunflowers were being planted throughout New Orleans because they helped leach lead out of the Katrina-soaked soils. Kids would plant them, watch them grow and bloom, all the while the plants were quietly at work cleaning up the polluted ground. Following that, Jeff asked Ann if perhaps New Orleans could use other seeds. At the end of each summer, the Ed Hume Seed Company retrieves their retail racks from merchants all over the region, and recovers a lot of seeds, which will not be resold next year. Jeff offered us all of them. "All of them" turns out to be between 1000-2000 pounds per year. Ever wondered how much one of those seed packets you see in the store weighs? The answer is, not much. That first year, the Hume's shipped 1,541 pounds of seeds to Parkway Partners ( in NOLA, the organization I discovered when I went looking for someone who could do something with the thousands of seed packs the Humes were offering. Parkway Partners is a long-established NOLA organization dedicated to all things green in the city and beyond. After Katrina, there were so many spaces in the city left empty and destroyed that community gardens and wild spaces became a goal. Lots of that work was very grassroots, and came with dedicated neighbors, but often without a lot of resources. UPS shipped those seeds without charge that year, and a network developed to inform and distribute this mother lode of seeds. After Year One, FedEx stepped in and has picked up the tab for the shipping every year since. This has become a very big deal in New Orleans, and the Ed Hume Seed Company, Jeff and Ann Hume, and Federal Express make it possible. Ann and I ran into a number of people this past trip who gush with gratitude and excitement about how much this generosity has meant to them.

My Love to All,


Saturday, October 12, 2013

Long May You Run

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

We spent our two weeks here on the ground working at Miss Mabel's home on Cohn Street, helping Rebuilding Together wrap up her work. We kept busy building deck and porch rails, patching drywall around new windows, casing and trimming those new windows, and getting her home ready for paint, which happens after we leave for Biloxi on October 12th. This project is part of Rebuilding Together New Orleans' annual October Build project, which is funded by corporate sponsors and involves volunteers from those corporations. After the exterior paint and drywall mudding and taping and paint, this lovely 91 year-old will have her home back. She's sharp as a tack, if a bit hard of hearing. It's better that way, considering my construction-site language.

Our Friend Phil

Three days prior to our arrival, our great New Orleans friend Phil Frohnmayer finally lost his battle with a pernicious form of mesothelioma.

Phil was our pal. Our morning coffee buddy. And he fought his cancer with a vengeance. Over the years, we saw him while he was undergoing a round of chemo, and he seemed fine. We saw him in between, and he seemed fine. He always seemed fine because he was a fighter. This man loved his life and his family and his work, and he wanted more of it, as much as he could get. He never bitched, because he was always happy to wake up to a new day.

Phil's fight reminded me in so many ways of the fight so many New Orleanians we've come to know fought after Hurricane Katrina. In the midst of so much loss, they hung in to fight whatever came next, always expecting the best in the face of shitty odds against them. Suffering so much loss from a calamity they didn't cause, they refused to give in, and fought instead. All the while, they expressed gratitude for their blessings. Phil did all of that.

Flash back to early 2008. Ann and I had found a morning coffee shop home at CC's on Magazine Street. It was just a few blocks from Reggie and Mary Ellen's home, which they shared with us when we came to work. CC's felt a lot like our Olympia coffee shop/home at Batdorf & Bronson's, and we had developed a routine of hanging there before work each day.

One Sunday morning, we were engaged by a regular customer who noticed my Oregon Basketball T-shirt. "Hey there! Go Ducks. I'm Phil. My brother works at the University of Oregon."

We introduced ourselves and told Phil that we were Oregonians ourselves. We sat down, had coffee together and chatted. The next day, he was there, and we sat together again. As those coffee shop relationships go, ours grew, and over the next few trips, we became daily regulars.

On our next trip later that Spring, we ran into Phil again. To eliminate any awkwardness that comes from running into someone you are so familiar with but don't quite remember enough about, Ann said, "Hey! I'm Ann Drorbaugh. We saw you last time!"

"Phil Frohnmayer! Good to see you again!", answered Phil.


Phil Frohnmayer, brother of the guy who "worked" at the University of Oregon? David Frohnmayer was President of the University of Oregon. The David Frohnmayer who was the Attorney General of the State of Oregon and almost the Governor. Since Phil didn't say that he "taught" at the University, we figured "worked" at the University meant maybe his un-named brother was a maintenance engineer, or helped in admissions or financial aid.

Phil led the Voice Program at Loyola University in NOLA. To the music world, he was a world-class baritone and recording artist and opera star. To us, he was our buddy. Every morning when we were there, he joined us in the comfortable chairs, and we watched as person after person ran in for their morning coffee, recognized and chatted up Phil, then went on their way.

As our trips came and went, we became close pals with Phil. He always asked when we were going to be back in NOLA, and sure as the sun comes up in the morning, he was always there on our first day back. We hung some lights in his home, and fixed stuff when he or his wife Ellen asked for help. After Hurricane Gustav, we were back in NOLA before Phil and Ellen, and they asked us to check on their home. Stuff like that.

In college, Phil worked in an Oregon lumber mill. There are lots of hazardous substances in lumber mills, including asbestos back in the day. In the mid-2000's, Phil was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a persistent and aggressive form of cancer, caused by exposure to asbestos.

This after a distinguished career as an opera star with his wife Ellen, a recording artist, and a beloved professor of music at several universities, with Loyola University his last stop, where he spent over 30 years teaching and mentoring countless students, including a number of future stars.

After our last trip in April, we heard from him, and he was having some trouble with his latest round of chemo. His cancer was aggressive, and his doctors were especially attentive to his need for whatever cocktail might work. This latest round upset him, and wasn't as easily tolerated. He had a not-so-good summer, and the medicine didn't do what he hoped it would do. He died on Friday, September 27th, in the company of his wife and daughter. There are many of us here in New Orleans who dearly miss our friend. As we work here in NOLA on this trip, we think often of Phil, and how much he loved this city and its people.

As we worked for Miss Mabel, I heard Neil Young sing a song that might have been written for Phil:

Long may you run
Long may you run
Although these changes have come
With your chrome heart shining in the sun
Long may you run.

Rest in peace, Phil Frohnmayer.

My love to all,


Monday, April 22, 2013

Hello In There

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Ann and I arrived here on April 9th. The next day, we headed into the Lower Ninth Ward to see if we could catch up with Don Edwards at his home on St. Claude St. A few years ago, a Kaiser team helped him repair part of his home. At the end of the week, they realized a lot was left to be finished, and they hoped Hands On or some organization would be there to help see the project through to completion. We'd lost Mr. Edwards' phone number, so we were hoping to just drop in on him and find him at home. We did, and he spent a couple of hours with us showing us his home in its current condition, and telling us how it was going. It's still not finished, and Mr. Edwards has been victimized by burglars several times, losing his tools and whatever valuable materials he had stored inside the lower level of his home. "It's as if someone is watching, and when I leave, they make a call, and someone comes to quickly break in and take what they can", he told us. He is continually working on the weakest defense in his perimeter, constantly trying to stay out in front of whoever is coming next. Ann decided then and there that Mr. Edwards needed the money she'd received before Christmas from the sale of her Katrina Gator artwork. Ann has dedicated 100% of her Katrina Gator sales to directly helping homeowners here in NOLA, and Mr. Edwards fit the bill. So she gave that money to him. The next day we returned with a Ramset nail gun and installed a floor plate in the concrete slab of his lower level, and gave him enough stud lumber to finish a wall that had become the weakest entry point and probably the next target for thieves. He had the tools and the know-how to complete the framing with a friend. Mr. Edwards remembered all of the Kaiser team members who worked on his home in 2009. He'd been keeping a journal with the names and hometowns of everyone who came to help him.

We spent the rest of the week working for our friends the Bellangers in Gentilly. You may recall that we worked on a project our son Kevan funded for that family back in June of 2008 (See "I Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans"). During that project, we became friends with Harold and Baby Ray, their daughter Tania, and her son Reggie. Later, Mr. Bellanger taught me how to barbecue baby back ribs, something I'd been trying unsuccessfully to do for several years. His ribs are always perfect, and he always makes me look good when I make them.

Anyway, we spent a few days repairing the posts that hold up the roof over their front porch. The original work included untreated lumber and some interior trim, none of which withstood the elements very well. We banged it out and finished it off late Friday, then said our goodbyes.

On Saturday, we got to spend a good chunk of the day enjoying the French Quarter Festival, a 20-stage music event that happens throughout the Quarter. It has become an annual affair for Lana and us as we take up our customary seats on the neutral ground at the end of Esplanade Street right next to the old US Mint and the stage set up right next to it. The entire festival is free and includes dozens of local bands. Many locals have told us it reminds them of how the Jazz Fest used to be before it grew so large.

We finished the weekend helping our host Lana Corll prepare and paint her TV room, then headed off to meet our new and old friends from Kaiser Permanente, who were arriving to begin their annual week in New Orleans helping to rebuild. Kaiser is still hooked up with Hands On New Orleans, who has shifted its focus from rebuilding homes to improving parks and gardens. Ann and I and many of our old-hands Kaiser pals are still deeply committed to helping families rebuild and return home, and Kaiser asked Hands On to find a couple of projects that involved individual homeowners.

Ann and I got to work for Mr. John and Miss Bert O'Neal, who own a double shotgun home in the Treme neighborhood. The home didn't take water during the flood due to its location on what Mr. O'Neal told me was the Esplanade Ridge, but was pretty substantially damaged by a fire that destroyed the home immediately next door. Funds were available to the O'Neals as a result, and they've been trying to find a way to get at least one of the two living units completed with what they've got so they can rent it and generate funds from the rental to fix the other unit, which has been gutted. The unit we worked on is probably 80% complete, but The Road Home program, which provided some funds to help rebuild, is insisting that it be complete, including a Certificate of Occupancy, by July 18th or risk a demand for repayment of the funds. Kaiser took this project on, knowing we wouldn't get it finished in the time we had, but wanting to pick the most difficult and challenging tasks remaining, so as to leave easier but no less necessary tasks for groups that will hopefully follow ours.

We elected to install the drywall firewall in the attic, repair a damaged floor in the middle of the home, and tile both bathrooms. Shawn Pascale, one of our earliest Kaiser pals, stepped up to take on the firewall project, easily the most difficult of the three jobs. He and our Kaiser project leaders and pals Alex Mustille and Alan Villatuya attacked the work with customary vigor. The attic was accessible only by a pretty rickety attic ladder. The HVAC ductwork had already been installed, which presented a large obstacle along the entire 60' length of the attic. But even though the sheetrock that originally arrived was not what we had ordered (specific material is required to meet the firecode for a wall separating two living units), and the correct stuff didn't make it until the next morning, Shawn, Alex and Alan and their team quietly attacked the work, piecing it together carefully and completing it just like the pros. A 1-hour firewall is required on a party wall separating two attached living units down here, and this team made sure this task could be checked off the list.

Ann and her folks had two bathroom tub surrounds to subsheet and tile. As always happens when she does tile work, new volunteers become experienced leaders themselves. Those two bathrooms look great now.

I got to work with volunteers who were charged with repairing a weak floor in the center room of the house. This room is the one that includes the bathroom and stairs to the second floor. It is not a living room or other family space. Fortunately, the framing under the floor was sturdy and undamaged, but the floor itself was weak and squishy. We fixed it by installing new subsheeting over the existing floor, gluing and screwing it, then installing finish tongue-and-groove flooring on top of that. Before we began, the room was a bit lower than the contiguous spaces, so the increased height the new floor added actually helped fix that problem at the same time. Led by Maritza, my co-workers worked their butts off from start to finish, including filling every screw hole and crack with wood filler, then sanding them all down, and finally mopping then papering the floor to protect it until the O'Neals stain and seal it. As is our custom, we all signed the underside of the last piece of flooring to be installed. Our PL Alex signed for Dakota, Kelli's late son, and we all added our names, Maritza installed it, and we left a bit of our hearts in the O'Neal house.

Throughout our workdays, we were ably led by Kaiser's Project Leaders, volunteers who had previously served as non-leading volunteers but who were chosen to lead future teams because of their heart, capabilities, and understanding of the meaning of and commitment to our work. These people, each of them, are such a joy to work for and to observe. They get it, and they are committed to making the volunteer experience for new volunteers equally meaningful and productive. Alex, Ashleigh, and Alan, our PLs this go-round, all have special places in our hearts. Their hard work and love for the people we serve make us happy and proud.

On Wednesday afternoon, we enjoyed two very-New Orleans treats. First, Mr. O'Neal made lunch for all of us and brought it to us. We all thoroughly enjoyed his red beans and rice, roasted chicken, and salad. Someone asked him how much of our lunch he cooked and how much Miss Bert cooked. "Miss Bert made the salad," replied Mr. O'Neal. The man can cook.

Next, around 1:30, Tania Bellanger arrived with Baby Ray to deliver Huckabucks to our entire team. Huckabucks are cups with frozen Kool-Aid in them, and are a traditional treat in neighborhoods throughout New Orleans.

Tania and Baby Ray came to share their love with us and to meet the new volunteers. We've known Baby Ray and Tania for several years. We know where they live. We know how much they love their family members, how much they love Ann and me, and how they are the anchor of their Gentilly neighborhood. When they met our new volunteers and handed out the Huckabucks, Baby Ray touched me when she told them, "We just wanted you to know there is a lot of love in these neighborhoods. Not everyone here is a criminal. Most of us are good."

Imagine if what you led with when you met people was, "We're not who you think we are." Because you felt you had to lead with that. Not because everyone you met reduced you to a stereotype, but you'd seen enough TV to know that stereotype gets a lot of play. Because they'd had no actual experience with you. Imagine that.

At the end of Day 3, as we were wrapping up our work for the day, Mr. O'Neal was walking through the house to see our progress. He told me that, with the new floor and the bathroom tiling work, he thought that center room was the "showcase of the whole house". Not the parlor. Not the living room. Not the kitchen. The passage room between those spaces. He was so taken with the newness of the space that he concluded it was the space he was proudest of in their entire home. We were humbled.

On Day 4, as our jobs moved to completion, we extended our mission and picked other tasks that we could complete before our time was up. Bri O'Brien, one of the earliest Hands On members and our long-time friend, came down from her home in New York, where she now lives and works. She is good pals with a number of the old-hand Kaiser volunteers who come year in and year out at their own expense to continue their work. She was my team leader on my very first day of work in New Orleans back in September of 2006. Ann and I dearly love Bri, as she represents the doggedness and commitment to help homeowners that Hands On had in the beginning. Bri and Glenn Young, a Kaiser volunteer, teamed up to caulk the upper floor siding on the back of the house in preparation for paint. They also scraped and primed all of the door and window trim on the back side.

Other team members primed and touched-up interior trim, and generally cleaned up the interior, leaving it in great shape for the next teams we hope will arrive soon.

The next day all of the Kaiser work teams came together to help finish a garden in honor of a late teacher at Success Preparatory Academy in Mid-City. After dinner and our goodbyes that evening, the week officially came to an end. Karaoke on Wednesday night at Kajun's Pub interrupted the rhythm of the work with a bang. Jamie Tam's Dance Party gave all of us a needed break in the middle of our work days.

On Saturday, Ann, Brenton Lee (who helps direct this effort with John Edmiston for Kaiser), Sue Giboney (one of our oldest and dearest Kaiser work buds), and I drove over to Biloxi to see the finished home we all worked on last October, when we spent a wild week with a team that built most of it from scratch. We spent a bit of time with the family who lives in it, and got to catch up with Johnny Gonzales and Julie Kuklinski, who run the Women In Construction program for the Moore Community Center in Biloxi. The program trains underemployed women in the construction trades, and we were honored with our Kaiser team to work alongside them last October in a very intense and rewarding week of balls-to-the-wall effort. You can read about that in my previous entry. It was very pleasing to see the home in its inhabited form. Turns out we built more than a house last Fall.

After a Saturday night celebrating Shawn Pascale's birthday, we woke up Sunday morning and had breakfast with Glenn Young, a Kaiser physician from Hawaii and one of our new pals. He was everywhere on the O'Neal project, doing whatever we needed, including becoming an instant master of the tile snapper for Ann and Teri's teams. A good-hearted guy with mad skills--our kind of Kaiser volunteer.

Then it was over. Two quick weeks. Lana Corll took great care of us, as she always does, while carrying the sorrow of losing Jake, her Labrador retriever of 14 years on Easter Sunday. Jakey was a great friend to all of us, and Lana does not mourn alone.

Lana had other company come to visit while we were there, and Phil and Ellen Frohnmayer, our Loyola University professor and coffee shop pals, graciously loaned us the use of their guest condo for a week. We are grateful to everyone who do so much for us when we come to New Orleans. Everyone we've worked for, and everyone who has helped us along the way have made us feel so much at home in NOLA. We are eternally grateful to y'all.

My Love to All,


Saturday, November 3, 2012

Our House is a Very, Very, Very Fine House

Hello Everyone, and Greetings From New Orleans,

Ann and I are here in NOLA finishing up our 18th trip. After spending 4 weeks working here in New Orleans with Rebuilding Together on a handful of homes for their annual October Build effort, we headed over to Biloxi, Mississippi last Sunday to join our compatriots from Kaiser Permanente. Kaiser comes to the Gulf South twice each year to continue their efforts to help the region recover from Hurricane Katrina, spending one week in New Orleans and one week in Biloxi.

Biloxi, while a lot smaller than New Orleans, was severely damaged by a huge storm surge that directly hit them. The city is situated on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, and US 90, the highway running directly along the beach, used to be home to scores of antebellum homes that enjoyed spectacular views of the Gulf. The storm surge not only wiped out many of those structures, it continued onshore for dozens of blocks, instantly wiping out homes far from the beach. Biloxi's damage was much like what the Lower Ninth experienced here in New Orleans--instant, total destruction.

Just a few weeks before Katrina hit, the family we were working for had just moved into a home over one-half mile inland. The home was tossed off its foundation in an instant, broken in two, and deposited on the neighbor's property. Our single-mother's daughter was 6 years old at the time, and suffered tremendously in the emotional aftermath of the storm. She was convinced she would never be safe in her home again, if she ever had her own home again. Like thousands of kids in New Orleans, thunderstorms brought back terrifying fears of death and loss and lack of control. We were building a completely new home for them, now 9 feet in the air to meet the post-Katrina building codes, on that same property.

Kaiser's team bet the farm this time, choosing to participate in their first Blitz Build, where the goal is to build an entire home in one week. They not only brought 30 volunteers, they also purchased the building materials for the home. A major investment by John Edmiston and his people, as usual.

This project came to us through the Moore Community Center, a Methodist-operated project that provides child care and other services to families in need in Biloxi. Awhile back, the good people at Moore realized that a lot of the moms they were providing child care services for would benefit from training opportunities that would lift them economically. They began the Women in Construction program, which provides free training in the construction trades to 10 or so women at a time. This project was anchored by them, and we were honored to work alongside these super-determined people throughout the week.

The majority of our volunteers come with very little construction experience, and are propelled instead by the size of their hearts and their determination to achieve whatever goals are set out for them. In the process, everyone gains skills and confidence in abilities they did not have at the beginning. Ann and I are familiar with Blitz Builds, made famous by Habitat for Humanity, but we've never participated in one. She and I and most of our Kaiser volunteers approached this week with cheerful optimism, propped up by this romantic exciting notion that this week would be magic and made-for-TV-movie-like. You know--a challenge here or there, a hangnail and a bruise for a few of us, but then, right before the credits roll, the home is somehow finished, with plenty of time to spare for showers, meals, drinks and laughs in between.

Yeah--just like that. Uh huh. It turns out that some editing takes place before that one hour show airs. Our week included the footage that never makes it to air.

Pollyanna was a no-show on Monday morning. We were scheduled to roll at 6:30 am, met quickly with our lead contractor at 6:45, started work at 7 am, and worked like whipped dogs until 7 pm.

The pros erected the 9-foot raised foundation prior to our arrival, and our work began with that and the floor in place, with a large inventory of lumber right next to it. We immediately split into several teams. One team climbed ladders onto the deck to frame the house, one team set about to paint all of the exterior trim and siding prior to installation, and Ann and I were asked to lead teams assigned to build the front and back stairs and porches. We were also asked to get them completely finished in one day, two days max. One minute after we'd met our bosses and been given our assignment, I felt a bit like I was in that recurring dream where I show up at my college final exam and realize I had never read the textbook or even attended the class.

The butterflies dissipated pretty quickly though, as the urgency set in and it became clear that it was indeed up to our team to build those porches and stairs, and to do it quickly and correctly. We split up, and Ann assembled a team to teach them how to cut stair stringers that fit while she simultaneously tried to figure out just where the posts that would hold up the switchback porch, steps and the upper landing were supposed to go so the holes could be dug and the posts could be set. My team had the easy job of the two, needing only to get going building two decks.

I felt a little bit bad that I got assigned to the deck team and Ann got the stair responsibility. I can't do stairs, and Ann does them beautifully. Stairs are much more work than decks, and I don't have the confidence that I could make them happen, and I was guiltily grateful that Ann had the job instead of me.

Reality began to set in for all of us as Monday turned dark. During the day, the framing team got all of the exterior walls and most of the interior walls up. Painting proceeded apace, despite the lack of real estate to stage painted boards while they dried. Ann trained two women to mark and cut stair stingers, and their work was impeccable. The porch deck team erected the frame of the back porch, and cut the joists. But, despite our sucker's notion that it wouldn't get dark before we decided it should, it did indeed get dark, the mosquitoes got mean, and at 7pm it was time to go. We trudged home, buoyed up by the shape of an actual home, held down by the weight of tasks unaccomplished, and now tempered by the reality that this is how the week was going to go.

On Tuesday, our goals were to finish the framing, install the roof trusses, sheet the roof in preparation for shingles, finish the front and back porches, finish the back stairs and prepare the front for stairs, and complete the painting. We did part of that, and then, go figure, it got dark again. Ann assembled a small team to stay late to site and dig the final holes for the posts that would hold up the back steps, and pour the concrete so those final posts would be ready by morning. Ann's team left for home at 8:30 that evening, and it occurred to us then that, by God, we were going to get our work done come hell or high water. Joaquin, John, Ann, and I left dead tired, but happily agreed on that fact.

Pizza, beers, a quick shower at 11 pm, then crash to bed and up again at 5 am. When we got to the work site on Wednesday morning, Ann's team kicked ass and those two extra hours we spent the night before paid big dividends, as her team quickly erected the switchback platform, installed the stair stringers, and bam! The back stairs were up. It was a moment for the entire group not unlike when the rest of us watched the framing team tilt up the walls on Monday. The day went like that--the porch team finished the back porch and installed the rail, the truss team got the roof trusses completed and began sheeting the roof, windows were installed, and at the end of the day the place looked like a house. We moved to the front to knock out the front porch, and got it all framed and ready to deck. Now it felt to us emotionally like we were really rolling. You could feel the momentum building as our collective confidence lifted us. By now, rookies were veterans, and the teams had subdivided into sub-teams, with new leaders taking on tasks that freed the other leaders to look forward and figure out how to move the big picture ahead. Wednesday ended with a shrimp boil and beers on the beach near our bunkhouse, hosted by our homeowner and her family and friends.

On Thursday, we rocked. We got all of the posts for the front stairs dug and poured and set, we finished the front porch and got the rail going, the siding was being installed at a furious clip, and the roof sheeting was completed. After darkness fell, we rushed back for a quick shower and a night out together. Only the adrenaline and our shared satisfaction about our progress fueled us that night, but we set off to finally be together for some eating and drinking and laughing that set the table for our final day on site.

On Friday, everyone decided to leave for work early so as to get started as soon as possible. We rolled at 5:30 or so, and set up our tools, power, and air in the dark. At the first sign of light, everyone dove in. Ann's team and my team came together to make use of our new skills to wrap up our projects. Joaquin, Katherine, Rosemary, Christine, Jackie, Michelle, Tanya, Susan and others all meshed so well that by then we knew each others' moves and needs that we were handing tools back and forth before they were requested. Sue Giboney, our longtime pal from the first project we worked on with Kaiser volunteers, and now a valuable team leader, joined us on Friday after completing her framing work, and she and Jackie Jones, our other longtime team leader and pal, led the rail team far beyond where they thought they could go. The rails on the back were completely finished, and the front rails were as complete as they could be considering I couldn't finish installing the posts in the time allotted. In addition, the front stairs were framed, the switchback was erected, and the stair treads were being installed. The roof team completed half of the shingles. The siding was completed, and the doors were installed. Insulation was installed inside. At night during the week, professional plumbers and electricians did their work after we left. At 4:30 on Friday afternoon, we stopped for a ceremony to present the home to Jana and her daughter Mia, and to collectively celebrate our accomplishment. Two seconds after the ceremony, everyone rushed back to their work stations to continue, trying to beat sunset. At the end of the day, that empty, bare floor deck we woke up to on Monday morning had been replaced by an honest-to-God home. It wasn't ready to move into, but the table is not only set, the meal has been served, and dessert is on its way. And our Women in Construction compatriots will see it through.

And just like that, it was over. 62 hours of work, sun-up to sundown, 5 days, see-through coffee and powdered eggs, showers at 10 pm, reveille at 5 am. At the end, we'd done 5 weeks of normal construction work. And we wished we'd been able to do more.

Lessons Learned

Now that we've been through a Blitz Build, I think it's imperative that we now do it again, and the sooner the better. This past week, while still a blur, will present some very useful lessons on how to do it so much better the next time. That is not to say that we didn't do it really well this time (we did), but by going through this process having been thrown into it, we've learned a lot of tricks that make us ready to do it again, and even better than we did it last week.

An interesting irony of this past week was that, even though this was the first time all Kaiser Permanente volunteers worked together on the same site the entire week (as opposed to previous trips, where teams of volunteers were deployed on different projects in different locations), we probably did less collective bonding than we have in the past. The super-fast pace of the week caused all of the teams to focus so sharply on their specific tasks (and for so many hours of the day) that little time was left over for the bonding that takes place separate from the task. Conversely, the teams that did form to accomplish their specific tasks bonded up quickly. It's not that one way is better than another so much as it's simply the reality of the pace of the work. Turns out that Blitz Builds aren't like going to the prom. Our experience was more like thinking you were going to the prom, and then being told when you showed up that you were instead participating in an Ironman triathlon.

Ann and I have long said that the best volunteer efforts involved doing the work and teaching the work. Our mantra has been that, once you've learned a new task, the imperative was to teach the new skill to two other people, and to pass that ethic on to those we work with. In that way you'd grow the effort and leverage your skills. This past week, there was so much that could be taught, and so little time in which to teach it. The desire to accomplish the actual goal of moving a family into their home was, and rightfully so, the primary focus. The compressed timeline left little time to break down the work into discrete tasks that could be taught and passed on. We all did what we could, and our teams deserve a lot of credit for simply absorbing what they observed and participated in, but I hope we can do more next time. One element that apparently was taught very well was the language of the construction site. One of our very valuable team members, who will now go nameless in case she'd rather not see her name applied to this illustration, was hauling very heavy lumber to the saw to be cut. After a very strenuous afternoon of hustling 6 x 6 pressure-treated posts across the lot to the saw, she remarked to no one in particular, "These motherfuckers are heavy!" Lesson taken. I take full credit for it. And I'm proud of her for it. Do it. Teach it. Tell it.

John Edmiston and his team at Kaiser picked this job, taking it on faith that somehow we could all get this job done. The choice says everything about how much they care and how much they wish to accomplish. The faithful ambition John embraced reminded us so precisely of the early work that Hands On New Orleans took on. I think what happened last week raised the bar so high that Ann and I are excited to see what it translates into when Kaiser makes their next trip to New Orleans next April.

The final lesson we learned is that intense work on behalf of others makes for lasting friendships. This isn't news to us, but last week illustrated to us that a rapid, intense pace accelerates the bonding process. At our first group meeting last Sunday night, when no one knew anyone else and everyone introduced themselves to the group, I told them that by the end of the week, someone I didn't yet know would be exchanging phone numbers and email addresses with me so we could stay in touch. Of course that turned out to be true, and my circle is a bit wider and richer today. Joaquin, Katherine, Carl and Jim are just four of the people I am now honored to call friends. I know I'll see them all again.

Because I am so succinct, I'll close now by saying this: Last week was the most intense, most difficult, most problematic, most stressful, most tiring week Ann and I have had in the 18 months we've spent down here after the storm. And the most satisfying.

Ann and I send out our endless love to Lana Corll, our host for so many of our stays in New Orleans. She not only opens her home to us, she also tosses us the keys to her truck. Her generosity makes it possible for us to continue our trips to New Orleans, and her friendship makes our time in New Orleans feel like we are home. Thanks a lot, Lana.

My Love to All,


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Take These Broken Wings and Learn to Fly

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Ann and I have made two trips to New Orleans since we last wrote you in April of 2011.  We spent February here to celebrate and enjoy Mardi Gras with our pals down here, and then went to work immediately after that with Rebuilding Together New Orleans to work on Miss Ruby's home in a far corner of the Hollygrove neighborhood.  Hollygrove is a section of New Orleans immediately east of the 17th Street Canal, and many homes took lots of water from the storm surge that stormed up the canal from Lake Ponchartrain.  We helped install siding on her home, and made it ready for paint to be applied by a Spring Break group of college students who arrived right after we left.

Ann went home a few days before I did, and Kelsey was able to make it after that for her third trip to volunteer.  Kelsey was a pro from the beginning, gutting a large home with me on her first trip in March of 2007.  Kelsey and I got to prepare a large home on Gravier Street for exterior paint, supplied the following week by Spring Break college kids.  We also discovered the joys of a shrimp po' boy at the Coye Food Store in the heart of the bleakest section of the Hollygrove.  It felt good to do business with a local business in an area that still needs so much help.  The woman who ran the kitchen in the back of the store made a mean sandwich for us, and we've returned a few times since.

Ann and I spent most of March in Olympia without unpacking.  I flew back to NOLA on April 5th, and Ann joined me on the 10th.  We joined up with Rebuilding Together New Orleans right away and worked on a few homes in the final stages of rebuilding.  It has been a great pleasure for us to work on projects that are nearly finished.  When we come to NOLA to work, we get plugged into whatever is going on at the time.  This trip, we were able to work on homes that were nearly finished.  That is a guilty pleasure.  To be able to punch-list a home is a privilege we aren't often given, and it's a rare treat to back out of a home for the last time to make way for a homeowner to return.

Chinese Drywall

The first home Ann and I worked on was one of Rebuilding Together's 51 Chinese Drywall homes.  After Katrina, the Southeast Region ran short of most building supplies, including drywall.  To meet the huge demand that couldn't be met in time with American-made drywall, suppliers imported tons of Chinese-made drywall, and for-profit and not-for-profit organizations alike purchased and installed it.  Rebuilding Together alone used it in 51 of their rebuilds.  The product turned out to be tainted with contaminants that off-gassed toxic fumes, corroding copper wiring and plumbing, ruining electronic components like TVs and microwaves, and making residents sick, driving them from their rebuilt homes.  After the storm, after insurance companies ignored claims, after two years in a FEMA trailer, after finding organizations like Rebuilding Together to come and help, after moving back into a newly-restored home, after all of that--they were forced to vacate their home so it could be gutted completely again, and rebuilt completely again.  Each rebuild takes several months to complete.

What else could happen to these folks?

Rebuilding Together, Habitat for Humanity, Operation Helping Hands, and other organizations all chose to do the only thing they felt they could do--they committed to rebuilding each and every home at their expense.  Doing so took down Operation Helping Hands, who, following the remediation work, shut down, exhausted and broke.  Rebuilding Together estimates the cost of each rebuild to exceed $40,000.

One of the Chinese drywall manufacturers, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, has entered into a settlement that will provide some assistance to homeowners who can prove their product was used.  Other Chinese manufacturers, because they are not subject to US jurisdiction, have simply ignored the lawsuits.  Makes you wonder about the benefits of globalization, doesn't it?  I mean, if foreign manufacturers are entitled by treaty and law to sell their products in our market, where is the reciprocity if their products cause us harm?

Our Work

We spent a bunch of time at Miss Audrey's home on Spruce Street in the Hollygrove.  Miss Audrey's son suffered a massive stroke, and is now confined to a motorized wheelchair.  Ann and I had one of those "Aha!" moments at her home when the work was described for us.  Miss Audrey's home is a solid single shotgun home, in pretty good shape, but when a wheelchair is added to the equation, the level of the floors becomes very apparent.  Between the back bedroom, where Miss Audrey's son lives, is a bathroom/laundry room that he has to pass through to make it out the side door to his wheelchair ramp.  That room was the place where all of the imperfections of the floors came together.  The foundation had sagged, and her son could no longer traverse the floors with his wheelchair without Miss Audrey's help.  Miss Audrey is several sizes smaller, and a number of years older than her son..

Our Rebuilding Together's boss' plan was to build a small ramp to get Miss Audrey's son from his bedroom to the bathroom/laundry room level (several abrupt inches below his bedroom).  While we took a small break Ann and I were sitting on the floor and it came to us: the span from the edge of the bedroom level to just a few feet inside the bathroom level, WAS LEVEL.  In other words, right there at the transition was a foundation sag that had added the drop between the rooms.  Instead of building a ramp that acknowledged the sag, if we pulled up just a few square feet of floor, fixed the joists underneath, then installed new subfloor and tiles, voila!  We'd have a level floor he could pass through on his own, without Miss Audrey's assistance.  After proving our discovery, we all went to work on what turned out to be a really great solution, leaving all of us pleased with the outcome.  Several times, Miss Audrey showed us her love with her wonderful lunches.  Lunches we've been served so often during our time down here in New Orleans, lunches we've long referred to as Sunday Dinner.

Ann has become the Tile Master on any Rebuilding Together team she is a member of.  In fact, she is assigned to RT teams based often on the need for someone to do and teach tiling.  On this trip, she worked on four consecutive tiling jobs, each time adding her skilled touch and her desire to teach others.  Prior to Miss Audrey's job, she hid my errors and finished a bathroom tub surround at the project in the Lower Ninth I was working on before she arrived.  She finished that one beautifully, moved on to Miss Audrey's floor, then was sent to Miss Hazel's home in Gentilly.  Again, the subfloor there had a transition to the next room, which our RT team removed prior to Ann's arrival.  Ann then set new tile on the entire bathroom floor, and another old problem for a homeowner was removed.

After three very productive weeks working for Rebuilding Together, Ann and I switched gears and joined our pals, old and new, from Kaiser Permanente.  You may remember our earlier work with Kaiser Permanente back in January of 2008 (See "A Perfect Job With a Perfect Team") and last April (see "Praise for Jobs Well Done").  Kaiser has been sending teams to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild every year since Katrina, and, while each year includes a new group of first-time volunteers, each year also includes a very happy reunion with a core group of volunteers who now come on their own dime to join the effort.  Between these now-named Repeat Offenders (a very apt name for a very lively group), the Project Leaders (who were volunteers the previous year and were chosen as official team leads based upon the success of their earlier experience and the size of their hearts), and the new volunteers, this group of very special people came together in New Orleans to throw themselves into the most challenging projects they can get HandsOn New Orleans to throw at them.  They honor us by including us in their work and the fun that takes place after work.

Ann and I were asked to help with the team KP sent to Miss Doris Johnson's home in Gentilly.  Miss Doris' home took 4 feet of water when the floodwalls on the London Avenue Canal failed.  We came to help Miss Doris because she'd given all of her money to a contractor that not only failed to finish, but returned to sever the wiring above her new electrical panel when she refused to give them more money than the deal called for.  Our team set to making her second floor livable for her granddaughter and great-grandchildren.  Ann, Teri and Lisa went to work on the bathroom tile, and the rest of us went to work in the other rooms, dead set on finishing and/or fixing walls and trim.  Her kitchen and laundry room had been drywalled, but not mudded or taped.  In the other rooms, we removed and replaced battered paneling, rotten or missing trim, and then completely repainted walls and trim.  At the end of our three days there, the place was ready for the electricians to finish their work.  We arrived at Miss Doris' home a group of strangers, and left a team of friends.

On Wednesday afternoon, John Edmiston, the KP leader and heart-and-soul of this on-going KP effort here in NOLA, arranged for all members of the group to come together at Success Preparatory Academy, a charter school here in NOLA.  At John's direction, KP purchased 40 new Specialized brand bikes of various sizes.  Each teacher selected 2 students that best epitomized the spirit of effort, determination, and commitment that Success Prep seeks to instill in every student, and those students then joined their parents for a ceremony where they were awarded one of those bikes.  We all got to spend the afternoon in small teams assembling all of these bikes, and KP volunteers were then each individually paired up with a student and his/her parents to select the bike, get a helmet and lock, and go outside to try the bike out, get pictures taken, and generally bask in the praise bestowed on them by all of us.  It was an incredibly fun afternoon for all of us, and one I'm pretty sure won't soon be forgotten by those smiling kids.

We followed up that Wednesday with a wee bit of karaoke at Kajun's Pub on St. Claude Avenue.  I went by Kajun's later that week to thank them again for their hospitality, and told them I hoped our beverage bill helped pay the rent for the month.  "Oh, yeah, it did that, alright", was the bartender's reply.  Those KP folks know how to light up a room.

Finally, on Friday, John arranged for all 4 of our KP work crews to come together one last time to work on a community garden being built in the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth.  The garden sits on a side lot next to the home of Miss Arletta Pittman, and she had dedicated it to the senior citizens of her neighborhood.  As we had become accustomed to doing throughout the week, the team all found their individual tasks and set about to accomplish the whole project in one very warm day.  Even though it was Friday, the last of their 5 workdays, and even though it hit 90 degrees and was pretty humid, the team seemed stronger and more full of energy than ever before.  By then, all of these strangers had become friends, and the day breezed by in gales of laughter, sweat, and dirt.  Then, with a final goodbye dinner that evening, where we all got to say a bit about what we'd seen and done, and talk about the people we'd met, it was over.  A very fine week with a very tight group of talented, good-hearted, and very hard working folks.  And now the circle expands to include all the new folks, now veterans.

These past few trips have included a bit of a Magical Mystery Tour for me.  Added to all of the work and the fun and the NOLA friends we've made along the way, I've experienced this accompanying nostalgia for the early days of our work here in New Orleans.  Every job we've worked on has included this alternate reality for me, where I remember so well our earlier work for homeowners long since returned home, work accomplished alongside volunteers and dear friends no longer with us in New Orleans, 4 minute showers (OK, 8 minute showers when shared with Ann) in our outdoor showers at our beloved and only true bunkhouse on First and Dryades, and community meals and after-meal beers at Igor's with some of the finest people I'll ever know.  Working alongside our friends from Kaiser Permanente opens these floodgates of memories for me.   All the while, I'm so nostalgic for the early days of urgent work, managed by the original Hands On construction staff--Nic, Bri, Amy, and others, and executed by long-term volunteers--Reggie, Chandra, Sean, Eric, Liz, Caliopie, Bill, and so many others, set to the background music of zero creature comforts, little personal space, and even less quiet time.  That said, we all give thanks for how much better life is for many New Orleanians now, and we keep plugging away on the homes still left to fix.

Happily, our NOLA reality now is based upon the incredible generosity of Lana Corll, our hostess and benefactor, who so graciously opens her home to us, gives us a wonderful space to live in, allows us to store our tools and work clothes in her home, tosses us the keys to her truck, and does nothing short of making our continued trips to New Orleans possible.  This new reality is a wonderful one, indeed, and includes unlimited shower time, cold beers an arms-length away, plenty of New Orleans charm and hospitality, and more creature comforts than we have any right to enjoy.  Buzzing joyfully in the background is the happiness and satisfaction we, both volunteers and homeowners, have in our hearts and our memories for those early days when we counted on each other so fiercely and helped each other in ways we hadn't always expected.

My Love to All,


Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Praise For Jobs Well Done

We’re home from trip 15. It was short but filled with fun and work.

We started our trip with a great party- the Grant and Associates 16th Annual Crawfish Boil. They cooked 1200lbs of crawfish. 1200lbs! They were fat, spicy and delicious. On Friday we attended the ordination of our friend Lance Eden. It was a nice evening and we got to meet many of The Rev’s friends and family. It was also a chance to fulfill my need to make and wear a really BIG hat.

Our work projects were to help build 2 wheelchair ramps with our friends from Kaiser Permanente. One ramp was for a community space in the Holy Cross neighborhood and the other one was for Mr. and Mrs. Sims. It was a great reunion of old friends and a chance to make new friends. Kaiser always brings their A Game. Since we only had a few days to get our work done Dave and I had to split up. We love to work together but it was a chance to share our experience with 2 teams.

I worked with 6 KP volunteers on the ramp in the Holy Cross. We had 4 days to complete our ramp. It was a great team and a fun build. The ramp had a 29-inch drop so that meant a 29 ft. ramp with a switch-back. We had a slow start because of generator problems but it gave us a chance to stain the 500 balusters and break concrete out of the ramp’s path. We worked hard and got the job done. The Holy Cross neighborhood is in the Lower 9th. There is only one place to get food- a small corner market that also has hot food. There we found the biggest, cheapest po’boy I’ve seen- a 32 inch shrimp for $11.95.

David worked with a Kaiser team that built the ramp for the Sims.They built a long straight ramp in only 3 days. They fell in love with the Sims family and got that great feeling of helping someone who really appreciates the help. They also built a greenhouse for the Hollygrove community garden.

The whole Kaiser group came together on Friday to work on several projects for Success Preparatory Academy. This was Kaiser Permanente’s 5th trip to help rebuild- both in New Orleans and Mississippi. They always bring a great group of enthusiastic and FUN volunteers. This group was no exception.

check out their web site:

We were happy to see some of our friends we met when we worked with Kaiser in 2008. One of the many wonderful things about volunteering is the friends you make. We have lifetime friends that we have met working to rebuild New Orleans. One of those people is Lana Corll. She is our great friend who always makes us feel very welcome in her home. Not only does she provide us a wonderful place to stay in New Orleans, she lets us use her truck AND she generously hosts parties at her home for our fellow volunteers.

Without the help of volunteers like our friends from Kaiser, many people would not have been able to return to their homes in New Orleans.

Kaiser says ALOHA to New Orleans.



Monday, September 13, 2010

Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign.

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Ann and I arrived for our 13th trip to our adopted hometown on August 18th. We came to help Rebuilding Together execute their 50 For 5 project to commemorate the 5th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Their project encompassed 50 homes in the Gentilly neighborhood, which is located immediately west of the Industrial Canal that destroyed the Lower Ninth Ward. Curiously, the Industrial Canal did very little damage to Gentilly. The flooding that destroyed large portions of Gentilly came from the London Avenue Canal to the west. The water in many areas of Gentilly was 10-12 feet high, and the destruction, while not as explosive as that done to the Lower Ninth, was every bit as total in many areas.

We got to lead a project to help finish the rebuild of Mr. Enox Ragland's home. He purchased his Pauline Street home in March of 2005, just in time to get ready for the floodwaters to top his roof. 5 years later, we helped finish the siding, apply paint, build a porch and stairs, and tile his kitchen counters and bedroom floor, all while he lives in his small, unfinished home.

The 50 For 5 Project is the largest ever undertaken by Rebuilding Together, and included volunteers from Rebuilding Together affiliates around the country. A number of very generous corporate sponsors participated, and the project was showered with a lot of media attention, which was especially useful, given that we are 5 years past the storm with years of work still to go. Ann and I are grateful for the work Rebuilding Together New Orleans continues to do, and we are really happy we have such a great organization to plug ourselves into when we come to work.

Coming to work here in the late summer, as we've done three times, is a great opportunity to not only reflect and remember the damage and the loss caused by the storm, it's a first-hand chance to live with the same insufferable heat and humidity that thousands of New Orleanians had to live with in the aftermath of the storm. We think we are suffering until we pause to remember that they lived with it on their roofs, and in the Superdome, and on top of Interstate 10, and many did it without food, water, or necessary medicine. These people are tough.


Over the four years Ann and I have been coming to work here, a common theme has been how much needs to be done vs. how much IS done. The corollary of that theme, of course, is always how much ISN'T done. On this trip, we reflected quite a bit about what we've seen, and how now compares to then. Every individual story has its own nuance, of course, and for every step forward for someone, someone else has a story of being left behind.

Despite injustices and sorrows that can be witnessed and mourned, though, progress is being made here. We looked for milestones, for signposts that illustrate movement, even grudging movement, forward. Here are a few of those stories.

That House on Jackson Street

On our very first day here in September of 2006, as our van returned to the Bunkhouse, we passed a home on Jackson street that was nearly completely destroyed. A metal spiral staircase hung from the front of the home, but was no longer connected to the second-story balcony because the balcony was badly damaged. Out front, a sign proclaimed "I AM Coming Home. I WILL Rebuild." That statement, to me, was one made more of faith than cold-eyed reality. In March, when I returned for my second trip, the home had been partially destroyed by a fire, not an uncommon occurrence in abandoned structures here. The sign remained, as did the metal spiral staircase, which was now connected only to its concrete pad because the second-story balcony was now, well, gone. It seemed like a good breeze would finish this home off. One year later, we saw signs of life. A temporary power pole and meter arrived. Siding disappeared from one wall, and new framing appeared. As we came back for each new trip, this home rose from certain ashes, and now is nearly ready for occupancy.

Carrollton Street

When you look at the picture below, try to figure out why I took it. It looks like a street scene you could see anywhere. And that's exactly what it is, except for the fact that it didn't look at all like this a year ago.

It's the street itself. Newly paved, actually smooth, wheelchair cut-outs at the corners, striped, including a bike lane. Until it was completely torn up and rebuilt last year, it was a boulevard to be reckoned with. The pavement was dangerously interrupted by sinkholes and leaking water lines. The sidewalks were unlike any I have seen in this country, nearly impassable for the bodily-able, impossible for anyone with even a minor physical disability. And we took it for granted. This public works project was a long time coming, and it is, to me, a sign that perhaps, finally, maybe, possibly, the City has figured out how to deliver on one of its fundamental responsibilities to its citizens. New Mayor Mitch Landrieu may not have been in office long enough to be responsible for any of the Carrollton Street project, but it sure got completed at a time that extended his mayoral honeymoon and put the Ray Nagin hangover a bit further back in our memories.

Our Own Truth and Reconciliation Committee

For over a year after the failure of the floodwalls damaged or ruined 80% of the homes in New Orleans, the Army Corps of Engineers stonewalled, obfuscated, or lied (pick your position--there are really only about three to choose from), then finally fessed up to inferior work on floodwalls and levees our tax dollars purchased to protect the city and its people. was formed with the mission to hold the Corps accountable and to tell the truth about why and how New Orleans was nearly destroyed. Katrina largely bypassed New Orleans proper. Storm surges lifted and removed floodwalls that were not built to the Corps' stated standards. These floodwalls were designed to withstand surges in excess of those that Katrina delivered.

As part of their work, the folks sought official recognition and admission of responsibility. Further, they worked to ensure that the true story would be told to future generations. Ann and I got to attend the ceremony at which the official historical marker was unveiled at the site of a catastrophic failure on the 17th Street Canal Floodwall. To many, this effort may seem to be tilting at windmills, an insignificant little marker telling us what we already knew. But, that marker is a government marker, established by the state to tell all of us, presumably in perpetuity, what happened there, and why. And it belongs to all of us.

The Projects

Several of the public housing projects in New Orleans are now, finally, in the process of redevelopment. And not without a lot of controversy. Like every large American city, these projects engender strong opinions. After Katrina, they were closed, and people were not allowed to return to them, even to those buildings that sustained very little damage. And there they sat, empty reminders of both the failed ideas that spawned them in the first place and the sorrows of thousands of good, if poor, fellow human beings who lost their homes.

The new thinking is to redevelop these properties into mixed-income apartments, with some units reserved for public housing, some with rent subsidies for limited-income people, and some for market-rate housing. Streets were daylighted through the properties, reconnecting them with the neighborhoods they belong to, amenities like swimming pools were added, and new buildings replaced most of the old.

I don't know enough about this issue and the policies and realities that surround it to say anything more that this: they look great, they represent a physical improvement to the area, and I hope they lead to greater dignity, less human warehousing, and a brighter future for all who live there. They by no means solve every problem for those who lived there before. Indeed, the number of units available to public-housing clients is nowhere nearly equal to the number available before the storm. Further, the designs themselves seem to have come without much input from former inhabitants, or even from any New Orleanians, if only evidenced by the lack of front porches on many units. Front porches are the social center of many neighborhoods in this city, and they seem to have been left out of these new designs not out of malevolence but out of ignorance. Nevertheless, units are opening, and people are coming home. Welcome home.

The Hollygrove Market and Farm

Throughout the City, vacant lots and blighted properties dot nearly every neighborhood. One of the great challenges facing the people of New Orleans is what to do with them, and who should do it. Dedicated organizations and people are busy teaching citizens how to turn vacant properties into community gardens. With the help of people like Macon Fry, who used to help run Parkway Partners and now works with organizations like Hollygrove Market and Farm, people are learning how to start and operate their own neighborhood gardens. Macon handled the delivery and distribution of over 3,500 pounds of vegetable and flower seeds that have been donated by the Ed Hume Seed Company over the past three years, and that effort continues. When you see a community garden, you not only see a formerly blighted property that is now beautiful, you also see neighbors of all ages and races, working happily together on their project. It's one of those sights that universally raises a smile. There's a lot of vacant property in this city, and I think Macon will take a day off just as soon as it's all put to productive use.

The Falstaff Brewery Apartments

Back in the day, the good people of Falstaff Brewing made thousands and thousands of gallons of watery 3.2% beer for thirsty workers and high school kids nationwide. Their old brewery sits in Mid City, and until recently was a hulking, abandoned shell. It has now been renovated and converted into apartments, kind of a mini Pearl District of its own in the midst of a recovering Mid City. I cite this as a sign of progress because I had no idea this much private capital could be accumulated to undertake such a massive project to provide concentrated market-rate housing in New Orleans. By itself, it's a sign to me that demand of a normal kind is returning. It's a joy to see such a great building return to productive use, especially now that new NOLA Brewing is in New Orleans, making much better beer than Falstaff ever did.

So, you see, things are happening. Not always in the order we'd like to see, and certainly not always to the benefit of those New Orleanians still scattered around the country, wishing they could return home but having no legitimate prospect of doing so anytime soon. But progress begets progress, and the winds that are blowing through New Orleans these days by tireless people like Davida Finger, Macon Fry, and countless others who are doing something magnificent every day as they bang away on their nearly-destroyed homes give me hope that maybe, just maybe, we were right about it taking just 10 years to rebuild.

My Love to All,