Sunday, October 8, 2006

Home is Where Your Heart Is

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from Olympia,

My month in New Orleans ended with wheels-up at 7:25 am Friday morning. It's wonderful to be home with Ann and Mom again, and, at the same time, Ann and I both miss New Orleans, our brothers and sisters at Hands On New Orleans, and our new friends throughout the city--Mr. Gibson, Miss Rose, Charles and Mr. Roosevelt, Jo at Igor's, and many others we have met down there. It was a great month, and both Ann and I are chomping at the bit to get back there. We get to return for a 10-day stay in early November, and neither of us can wait.

It's funny how attached you can get to a new place, having lived and worked there for a month. Although New Orleans is missing 60% of its population right now, you can feel the energy and drive to rebuild. Everywhere I visited, including the Lower 9th, I saw people rebuilding. There is still so much to do, and thousands of homes still in post-flood condition, but you can see the beginnings of New Orleans' rebirth wherever you travel in the city.

We finished the siding on Mr. Gibson's house on Tuesday. Mr. Gibson watched us all day, and, as we cut the last piece of siding, he asked if he could sign the back of it. I grabbed a Sharpie I stole from Ann, and he took it and proudly signed the last piece. I had the rest of our team do the same, and we slapped it up. Mr. Gibson now has a freshly-sided home, ready for paint, and, boy, is he proud. He sent his personal thanks to all of you who pitched in to help. I guarantee you, if you ever knocked on his door and told him you needed a place to stay for the night, he'd knock you down with the screen door trying to let you in.

The leadership of Hands On New Orleans decided that our current home at the First United Methodist Church simply wasn't safe enough anymore, and they've decided to move our home. Only problem is, they haven't decided where that is just yet. They moved our Americorps staff and our volunteers to Hands On's Biloxi, MS site last Wednesday for 10 days, after which they are planning on moving back to New Orleans and a new home base. That announcement caused a bit of a stir among the ranks, given how bonded everyone is to Central City, and how little anyone feared for their personal safety at our current site. Nevertheless, we had experienced some property crime recently, with a car window smashed and a tool trailer stolen, and the accumlulation of little stuff made their decision easier for them. So, our folks are now in Biloxi until the 15th, learning from them and working with them. Biloxi is ahead of New Orleans when it comes to rebuilding, so our folks are hopefully going to learn a lot from their folks about framing, drywalling, and the like. Hopefully, we'll return to New Orleans with skill-sets that will help us get on with the actual rebuilding that New Orleans needs so badly.

I'll close now, if for no other reason than to stun y'all at how brief I can be when I really try. Let me finish by saying that my work in New Orleans is the best, most satisfying work I've ever done. The people I've met, both those we have helped and those I've worked alongside, made Ann and I feel so welcome and so at home so far from home. You just have to do this yourselves to see what I'm talking about.

The first day we were there, Ann and I grabbed a bumper sticker to take home. It says: "New Orleans--Proud to Call it Home." I thought at the time, "This is nice, but it doesn't really fit because we live in Olympia." I laughed to myself as I headed to the airport on Friday morning how nicely the sticker said what I was feeling after one month there. It was my home, and, in a way, it will always feel like home to me. I know every time I visit there in the future, I will be welcomed as if I was a New Orleanian myself. And I'm very proud of that.

My love to all,


Sunday, October 1, 2006

Blown Away in the Lower Ninth

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Last week began with a Saturday gig in what's called the Hoffman Triangle, and area not far west from where we are staying. It was a big event, with several corporate sponsors, Hands On New Orleans, and the New Orleans Saints participating. I was assigned the house of Mr. Whitaker, who lives on the corner of Fourth and Prieur. If you watched ESPN last weekend, you may have seen him on any number of shows highlighting the return of the Saints to the Superdome. Jason Fife and Al Lynch were the two Saints assigned to Mr. Whitaker's home, and I had an especially fun visit with Fife, who was the Oregon Ducks quarterback right after Joey Harrington moved on to the NFL.

Reggie and Amanda made pals with Steve Gleason, who became quite the hero on Monday night when he blocked a Falcons punt early in the game and his teammate scooped up the ball and scored. Gleason liked Reggie and Amanda so much that they were his guests at the game and the after-game get together. Those of us breathing less-rare air watched the game at the Bulldog, a pub on Magazine Street. We were all adopted and thanked by the Saints fans who packed the place, and we had quite a great time rooting the Saints on. There was just no other acceptable result than to have the Saints blow the Falcons out, and they came through. The city really rocked that day.

Several of us spent Monday back at the Triangle, finishing up landscaping and painting. I worked with Troy and Brian, two new volunteers, and promptly sucked them into Team Nasty when I saw how incredibly hard they worked. Brian broke old sod so we could lay new sod. Try that with a shovel sometime. No rototiller, just a shovel. Great guys, both of them. I met Troy at breakfast that morning, introduced myself, and the conversation went something like this:

Me: I'm Dave. Nice to meet you.

Troy: I'm Troy.

Me: Where are you from Troy?

Troy: Portland

Me: Hey! Me too. Where did you live?

Troy: Northwest.

Me: Hey! Me too. Did you go to Lincoln?

Troy: No. I went to Jesuit.

Me: Hey! Me too.

And so forth. He was Class of '94, and I was a few classes ahead of him, but talk about small world. Anyway, both he and Alabama Brian joined us back at Miss Rose's place the next day, where our job was to "repair" the roof over her kitchen, which is the room all the way at the back of the house. At first, we thought we'd get away with stripping the shingles, installing a new sub-sheet over the old planks, then re-roofing. Whatever we did, it had to be completed in one day, because the risk of rain was too high overnight. So, once we started, we were committed. After stripping the shingles, we found so much rot in the planks that held up the shingles that we decided to remove them before sub-sheeting. After removing them, we discovered so much rot in the rafters themselves that they had to be removed. So, before noon, the kitchen was entirely open to the sky. We spent the afternoon framing the new rafters, sub-sheeting, tar-papering, and reinstalling the flashing. The next morning, we roofed it, then headed back over to Mr. Gibson's to begin the next push of siding. By Saturday afternoon, we'd gotten to the top of the windows on the far side of his house and completed the back wall. Monday should be completion day. Each day, you can see Mr. Gibson's pride grow as he watches his house begin to look new again. He is really happy. He is pretty smitten with Ann, and asks about her every day. "Miss Ann" is his girl.

Today, my last Sunday here, Troy and I took a car into the Lower Ninth Ward to take a look. I've attached pictures that show you what we saw, but they don't in any way give you an adequate appreciation of the vastness of that devastation. The Lower Ninth Ward, by my half-assed estimate using Google Earth, is about 400 blocks in size. It's western edge sits hard against the levee separating it from the Industrial Canal. The levee breached in several places along this route, and the water absolutely obliterated homes near the breaks, and pretty much destroyed everything else in the vicinity. In the two rows of blocks nearest the breaks, there are only foundations, foundation blocks, and concrete front steps left. The homes are completely gone. I can't properly describe what we saw this afternoon. Where houses still stand, entire blocks are abandoned. Water was running in one gutted house, spraying from a broken toilet. One house was lifted off its foundation and deposited on its owner's car in the driveway. Another was torn in two, the two pieces completely reversed in position. There is no high-water mark on the houses here. The water was over the top of them.

We waved to the few folks we saw along the way, and stopped to talk with two fellows who were sitting outside a house immediately next to the levee. Charles and Mr. Roosevelt, his neighbor, were chatting away in the very hot afternoon sun. We introduced ourselves to them, and I commented on how I was happy to see him and to see the condition of his house, which was clearly being rebuilt. He said he just got his electric meter reinstalled so he had power again. Then he said, "God is good." He was happy in general, and happy to see and visit with us, just like neighbors who run into each other and haven't chatted in awhile. I was so taken by this guy's general outlook on life, given what he's been through. Things are looking up for him. Troy and I were so moved by that man's spirit and resilience. His house was three blocks south of three levee breaches. I can't believe it's standing today.

There are pockets of activity in the Lower Ninth. FEMA trailers dot certain blocks, and people were working on a Sunday afternoon. Other places, nothing. Absolutely nothing. It's like a movie set--it seems very post-Armageddon. It reminded me of that film taken at Alamagordo, NM when we detonated the first atomic bomb. Remember the one I'm talking about? It's the one that shows houses exploding in a fierce wind. Near the levee breaches, nothing remains. Beyond that initial area, houses were lifted off their foundations and deposited nearby, completely unrecoverable. Beyond that, houses are bent over, still on their foundations. Further beyond that, houses abandoned, everything inside ruined. Nothing was left untouched.

Nic told me later that the reason there was no debris on the foundations that were right next to the levee breaches was that the houses themselves were washed away, and ended up in the middle of roads and intersections. They were the first ones removed simply because they had to be. He also told me that what Troy and I saw today was "much, much better" than what he saw just several months ago. Unbelievable.

The people of the Lower Ninth apparently are a determined bunch. People are slowly returning from distant cities to begin again, to rebuild below sea level next to levees they no longer take for granted. I can't quite figure out how to feel about that. On the one hand, the human spirit in the face of incredible adversity is something to behold and honor. It's pretty humbling to meet a Charles and see how grateful he is for what he's got. On the other hand, here they are, below sea level, and nothing is going to change that. Most of their homes are total losses.

One thing we all have in common with them is that home is home. These folks just want to go home.

I love and miss you all.


P.S. Thanks to your incredible generosity, we've raised $4000 so far, and more is coming. After Hands On saw what you've done, they shifted gears. The Outback Steakhouse grant did not allow for the hiring of any professionals. Only materials and supplies could be purchased with that money. That severely limited the scope of the projects Hands On felt it could undertake. For example, Entergy will not turn on the power to any house that suffered damage until a licensed electrician has signed off on it. With the funding limitations, Hands On simply couldn't consider getting that far with Miss Rose's house. Now, though, with part of our funds, we are going to hire an electrician to get Miss Rose's house powered-up again. Your money not only made that possible, it led to some out-of-the-box thinking by Hands On staff as to how much we can accomplish when we take on a project. You are personally responsible for that.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Miss Rose

Hello Everyone, and Greetings From New Orleans,

Starting last Saturday, Reggie, Sushi, and I (three members of the Gibson siding team) were asked to join the rebuilding effort about to begin at 2209 St. Andrew Street. This place is just a few houses down from Mr. Gibson's home.

As I told you last week, about 5 feet of water showed up in this area. Miss Rose is 4 feet 8 inches tall. She lived alone in this home, having survived the death of her husband a few years back. This is the home she lived in since she was 4 years old, and was willed to her by her parents. The brick exterior tells me that, at one time, it was a tidy, well-cared-for home, one a bit more tricked-out than others in the area.

If you check this address out on Google Earth (it's St. Andrew St. not St. Andrews St., and Miss Rose's place is the second one from the corner, not the corner place), you'll see her entire front yard and a significant portion of her house is shrouded by a giant tree. This pecan tree looked to be in excess of 100 years old, based on the stump that now exists in the front yard. During the storm, the wind took it out, and took with it the entire electrical panel from her home. There she was, all alone, with water 4 inches over the top of her head when standing on the street. She took shelter in her home, and refused evacuation when a boat came by and offered it. She simply did not want to abandon her home. The following day, she was evacuated by helicopter.

She didn't want to abandon her home out of fear that what happened next might happen. Her home was overtaken by squatters, who were marauding throughout all abandoned areas of the city in the absence of any viable law enforcement. It was used for weeks as a drug den by people behaving more like a pack of wild dogs than people. When we got to it, it was full of syringes and other drug paraphernalia, and the sinks and bathtub were full of human waste. I'm not telling you this for the shock value, I'm simply reporting it so you get a better picture of what we're dealing with here. This home was destroyed by strangers whose behavior was so uncivilized and vile that it's really difficult to imagine. Seeing it gives you a better idea.

I wasn't assigned to this job until it was time to actually do some rebuilding. This project had been referred to as "The Nasty Gut" on our jobs board, and no one save the most experienced AmeriCorps kids were allowed to work on it or see it. They went in every day last week, and cleaned this stuff out before gutting the house to the studs and beams. I just can't tell you how much affection I have for these people who do the shittiest (pun intended) work we've got without bitching or complaining. In fact, they were proud to be assigned to it.

When Reggie, Sushi, and I joined up on Saturday morning, it was to help begin the rebuilding. The water damage in the house was very severe, and structural beams under the perimeter walls as well as most studs were severely rotted. The gutting team pulled out a number of floor beams that had failed, and our job was to jack the house up and replace the failed perimeter beams with new beams. Following that, we were to replace studs that were rotted out, replace the floor beams that held up the kitchen and bathroom floors, and resheet the floors in both spaces.

We did actually succeed in replacing the perimeter beams without bringing the house down, although we did make one quick dash out of the house at one point when the back wall of the house began to swing away from the foundation. Hearing a house frame groan when you are down on your knees in the dirt pumping a bottle jack to lift it will give you pause, believe me.

Anyway, we did lift it, removed the rotted beams, and successfully inserted and spliced the replacements. What stunned me was that, when we released the jacks and put the house down on the new beams, they were in the same plane as the new floor beams, and everything was level. Someone just wanted that part of the job to be finished properly, and level and square was a great reward for our effort.

On Monday, Team Nasty went back in to replace the floor beams in the bathroom, which is the last step before the floors could be sheeted and the house de-molded. Our team leader, Matt, was off for one day to try to get himself admitted to medical school at UNC Chapel Hill, so it was Reggie, Sushi, and me for the day. We got it done, and I was so proud of the work we've become able to do together. It's like our training as a team is now complete, and we're ready to go, except it was Sushi's last day before returning to Japan. It was fun and sad at the same time, all day long.

We worked the next three days mostly on Mr. Gibson's house, getting the sub-sheeting and house wrap put up on the far side of his home in preparation for the siding you folks have so generously funded. On Friday, Reggie, Shawn (newest member of Team Nasty), Melissa, and I went back to Miss Rose's place. In one complete work day, we sheeted the floors in the kitchen and bathroom, and damn, are they solid as a rock. Miss Rose returned from some errand-running just as we were packing up for the day, and we let her go in alone to check it out. Time passed. More time passed. Finally she came out and some teary-eyed hugs were exchanged. I told her we were planning a neighborhood dance on her new kitchen floor since it was so solid. She told me she had just finished dancing on it herself.

Once some roofing and siding repair takes place, our official involvement with Miss Rose comes to an end. What she'll be left with is the shell of a house that is ready for the next phase--wiring, cabinets, drywall, flooring, sinks, a toilet, carpet, and lights. Then, it will be her home again. There's no budget for that on our radar, and she doesn't have the means herself. That's so sad to me, yet, in the short time I've been here, I realize that progress comes in such tiny, tiny doses. What she'll have is a foundation (literally) that will stand up to the next storm. She won't have a place to live in, but it will still be her home.....except for what you have done with your generosity. So far, you've contributed $2610, which is about $1800 more than what we need to complete the siding project for Mr. Gibson. I'm meeting with our Project Manager later today to discuss how we can do more for Miss Rose with the additional money you have sent. Mr. Gibson and Miss Rose are very grateful for your help. Ann and I are, too. Thank you from my heart.

Let's turn the page--now's a good time to stop and tell you a bit about who I've been working with:

The original Mr. Gibson Siding Team consisted of Ann, Reggie, Sushi, Jim, me, and one other person who joined the team each day. This group of people, it turns out, likes each other very much, and worked very well together. Ann brought the design and precision skills to the job, along with her sense of humor and her care for others. Those of you who have seen us work together know that Ann and I make a real good team. We communicate in a shorthand that comes from having built a few things together over the years. Reggie says it like this: "Dave's up on the ladder and yells to Ann: Baby--it's 45 from the right, 3 and 3/4 down from the top at 50, with a groove in 15 from the left for 2-1/2. Ann takes a couple of minutes with the saw and her speed square, then hands Dave the board. It fits."

Reggie Derman is our team leader--a bright, 20-year old South African who will one day rule the world. Remember his name. Sushi (formal name Atsushi Itokawa, pronounced E-tow-kawa) is a 19-year old who came to us from Japan. One day last month, he knocked on the door of the church, and announced he was here from Japan to help out until September 19th, when he'd return home and go back to college. He just got on a plane and came. His English is getting good, but you really have to pay attention to have a two-way talk with him the first time you meet him. After awhile, something just clicked with us all, and Sushi had no trouble being understood. Jim Murray is a retired engineer from Lawrence Livermore Laboratories. Got a rocket question for an honest-to-God rocket scientist? Jim's your guy. He came with his wife Lindsey and UCLA Bruin son Alex for a week. Jim brought a lot of practical experience to the job and a great way with people to go along with it. My kind of Rocket Scientist.

With Sushi's departure last Tuesday, here I am, just a bit over one week into this, and the team I started with, save for Reggie, who is a staff member, is now gone. Other folks have taken their place on the job, but not in my heart.

Sushi now knows a lot of American colloquialisms, I am happy to report. Ask him about music, and he'll tell you ".38 Special--Kicks Ass." "Kansas? Not so much." And, "J. Geils sucks". He has others, too, but, for the sake of our younger readers, let me just close by saying he can say many of the things I often say, including the Bronx alphabet. It was quite poignant on Monday night at dinner, when he stood up and read a farewell he had written so his English would be good enough to be understood. He's a really fine young man (damn, don't I sound old saying that?), and I have a lot of affection for him. He typifies the spirit of what's going on down here. Just showed up and said he was here to work. Can you believe that? Sushi is home now, and all of us here miss him very much.

There you go, folks. I'm all talked out. I'll keep you posted on your fundraising effort, and I can't wait to visit with Miss Rose to tell her about the next steps.

One more thing: I know the pictures make these emails huge, and slow to download. I've done my best to select carefully. If you are having trouble getting my email because of them, let me know, and I can eliminate them for you. I'm still trying to figure out where I could post them on the Web, but Flickr (the app Hands On uses) is a hassle for you to use, and I don't know what else to do yet. I will send just four pictures with this email, then another email with the other four for this week. Hope that helps for now.

Love to all.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

Week 1

Hi Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

After the gutting job I told you about last week, I got assigned to a project on St. Andrew Street, just north of Simon Bolivar Blvd. Our 82-year old homeowner, James Gibson, has lived in this place for 60 years. The water on St. Andrew St. was high enough to make it into his home. All in all, about 5 feet of water made it into this area, and when it came, it came pretty quickly. Mr. Gibson might have been a track star in his youth, but he's not as mobile these days. He made it out, made it back, and has been ambitiously pursuing a complete rebuild, using his own resources as they have become available, and our help where we have been able to provide it.

Mr. Gibson's home was pretty severely damaged, but he has already repaired much of the interior. He ran out of funds when it came time to repair the exterior, and we jumped in by providing funds for siding on one side of his place. As you can see from the pictures, the condition of the exterior prior to our work was pretty bad, jeopardizing the work he'd already done on the interior. We had a very productive 4-and-a-half days on this job. Ann ran the saw, and I provided the manufactured confidence everyone needed to believe we could actually pull this off. We first removed the existing siding, which was concrete-composite shingles, under which was the original wood clapboard. My first instinct was to remove the clapboard, too, since it was nearly dust anyway, but was told by my boss that it was probably holding the studs up (you just can't believe the condition of stuff we simply have to accept as OK, because there's so much to do, and not enough funding). So, we covered it with sheets of plywood, and tied it all together into what hopefully is a stable structure. Following that, we re-cased the windows to provide right-angles for the new siding to meet. We then installed the siding, and spent our last morning on the job caulking the seams. That completed the job we had funds for. The other side of his house isn't in our budget, but it needs the same help. The cost of materials for the other wall is about $850. I talked to my boss about this, and asked if he'd assign my crew to the other side of the house if I could raise the money for it. He agreed, so I'm inviting all of you to help Mr. Gibson out by making a tax-deductible donation to Hands On New Orleans and getting your check to Ann this week. She'll bundle these checks and send them to me. I'll then use them for a directed donation on behalf of Mr. Gibson, and we'll use our new siding expertise to finish his place. No donation is too small, and no donation is too large. If you can help with the funds, I'll provide the sweat to get this job finished, and we can then say we did this together. You'll be proud of our work.

Make your check payable to Hands On New Orleans. Please help.

Hands On New Orleans' current work in the Central City area is funded by a grant from Outback Steakhouse. It is supposed to provide funds to rehab 50 homes here in this area. Some homes require a lot more money than others to do even the basic work required to get a home back on track, so our bosses allocate the money the best they can, budgeting more to some and less to others. For example, on this block alone, we are working on three houses, and Mr. Gibson's is by far the least damaged of the three. It's financial triage at work.

Gibson postscript: Each day we worked on his place, Mr. Gibson sat outside and watched us work. He admired our efforts, our teamwork, and our collective sense of humor. I just can't properly describe how easy it was to work hard for this guy. He'd sit in the shade and always have a kind word when we'd take a break and visit with him. It just felt to me like I was helping out a neighbor I'd known for years. When he asked Hands On New Orleans for help, he told our guy that he knew lots of people needed our help, and since he was 82 years old, we should save money on his job by choosing materials that didn't need to last more than 5 years or so. You gotta love this guy.

On Friday, Ann returned to Olympia to be with Mom, and Jim Murray (a great new pal and very hard-working teammate) and his wife Lindsey and son Alex returned to their home in Livermore, CA. Damn, do we miss them all. Ann's expertise on the job-site is sorely missed by her crew, and her presence in the bunkhouse is missed by everyone. Jim, Lindsey, and Alex all have that gravitational pull that attracts everyone to them. It's pretty amazing to me how bonded you can get with people in a week's time. You four really lit up the room. I miss you all and wish you were here.

Sign That Normalcy is Returning to New Orleans: I visited with a police officer in the area on Thursday night. I asked him if he thought things were beginning to get back to normal. Yep, he replied--"Crime is up." Everyone has their own barometer.

Cultural Exchange of the Day: One of my two South African pals here told me the other night that "It's easier to raise boys than girls." I said to her that's because she's a woman, and women have an easier time with sons than with daughters. She responded with greater specificity: "When you are raising a boy, you only have one penis to worry about. With a girl, you have to worry about an entire neighborhood's penises." Ah, clarity.

In The News:

We had 12 shots fired across our church property on Wednesday right before dinner. Someone emptied a clip at someone else down the street. No injuries, but a bit of excitement.

We went into the French Quarter last night after finishing our work for the week. I had so much fun watching my 20-something partners dance and enjoy themselves. Their energy is very therapeutic. It was neat for me to see them just being kids after spending so much effort and energy all week to help others. They've seen a lot of heartache down here.

Next Email: Meet Miss Rose. I won't extend this email with her story, but let me just say that if y'all send more than $850, I know where we can spend it. This lady currently lives in a FEMA trailer in her driveway, and has nothing but her ramshackle home that became a hell-hole crack house occupied by squatters after she was rescued by a helicopter. Watch for this story. Parental discretion is advised.

Love to all. I miss Olympia, even if the rain is coming.


Friday, September 8, 2006

Day Zero

Well, we're here. It's 8:45pm and 85 degrees outside. We've got wireless broadband here at our living quarters, so I'll be in touch from time to time. We start work tomorrow morning at 8am. I'm on a demolition team, and Ann is working on a community beautification project. She's helping to paint a mural.

Interesting neighborhood we're living in. Our church is two blocks from an area where there are fairly regular shootings among drug dealers. Two blocks in another direction is St. Charles Street, one of the nicest in New Orleans. We've already conditioned ourselves to turn left instead of right when we leave the building.

As I suspected, the volunteers are primarily young, full of spirit and energy, and really fun to be around. It feels a lot like working with Habitat already.

Love you all. More later.