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.