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.