Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thanksgiving, Indeed.

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from Olympia,

Ann and I ended our 4th trip to New Orleans yesterday morning and headed home for the holidays. Our last week there was both satisfying and fun. After seeing Kelsey, Stephanie, and Jessie DuVall off over the weekend, we went back to work on Monday at Miss Peggy Severe's home on Leonidas Street. Ann and I did the telephone installation work we'd mistakenly left out of the original plan, and performed other miscellaneous tasks in the effort to finish her place by the holidays. It's at the stage now where the last of the hand-coped baseboards are going up, the cabinets are being installed, and sinks and toilets are coming to life. Soon, we'll watch her FEMA trailer head off into the sunset, just like Miss Jessie's. I can't help but wonder just what that next phase is like for folks like Miss Peggy and Miss Jessie. After months of seeing our people, feeding our people, and watching them work, one day they will look around and we'll be gone, moved on to the next home. Ann and I have seen Miss Jessie several times since we've finished our work (most recently on Saturday, when we hung a few mirrors and assembled some new furniture for her), and it just seems like it might be a lonely time once we've all left. Kind of like having a baby. All the excitement and anticipation, then the actual event and all the oohs and aahs, and then home to care for the newborn, all alone. That solitude after all the happy commotion can be deafening.

On Tuesday, Ann and I went with Rose Romero, a really wonderful long-term volunteer who has shed sunlight wherever she has worked, to the Lazarus Project, which is a group home for HIV/AIDS patients run by the Archdiocese of New Orleans. We spent the day chatting, playing games, walking together to the local market for goodies, and so forth. These folks are all alone, each of them, with very little or no outside contact with friends or relatives. It reminded me that their need for some companionship has nothing to do with Katrina, and there are places like the Lazarus Project everywhere in this country. I'm going to find a place here in Olympia and get hooked up. Having and taking the time to spend with them is the only qualification.

On Wednesday, a group of volunteers from Chicago Cares, the Chicago-based Hands On affiliate, arrived to work with us for the day. Ann and I got to take 8 of them to Second Harvest, the mother of the food banks in southern Louisiana. They are the wholesaler, if you will, for all food donations for the region. They receive, sort, process, repack, and ship tons of food to the multiple food banks in the region. They've been in business for 25 years. In the 23 years before Katrina, they processed and shipped 14 million pounds of food. In the two years since Katrina, they've handled 80 million pounds. Do that math. There's lots of need down here, and they've increased their activity level nearly 40-fold. Our team did their part that day, as we processed 16,000 pounds of food. It was one of those really good days with volunteers, where the enthusiasm is infectious, and everyone pulls together to do as much as they can, getting more energy as they work harder and harder. A really fun day with a good group I hope to see down here again.

On Thursday, we helped lead a group of 40 volunteers who were attending the National League of Cities convention that had come to town. Our volunteers were city councilpeople and mayors from cities large and small. I was really excited to work with these people because they are influential people, and the chance to talk about the condition of the city, the snail-pace of its recovery, and the quantity of work yet to begin was a rare opportunity to broadcast a clear message to folks who can make a difference when they return home. We helped to refurbish a stadium owned by the New Orleans Recreation District, one of the few that have been reopened since the storm. Hopefully, we sent them all home with a better understanding of the state of our city. I was pretty surprised that a number of them I spoke with just had no idea how things were down here.

On Friday, Ann and I returned to Miss Peggy's home to work. Since Miss Peggy was heading off to Texas for Thanksgiving with family, she spent most of the night, and all of the morning making a complete Thanksgiving dinner for everyone at Hands On that she could invite. Erika and Petra set up a makeshift dinner table with plywood and sawhorses, Miss Peggy deep-fried a Louisiana-rubbed turkey on the stove of her FEMA trailer, served it with her special oyster dressing, gumbo, greens, and lots of other stuff I can't remember to list, then finished it off with sweet-potato pie tarts she made for each of us. I've had many really wonderful Thanksgiving dinners, but that one occupies a special place in my heart.

I want to welcome a new member to my routing list, Captain Andreas Hatch of the US Army. Captain Hatch is currently serving in Iraq, and contacted Hands On after he found us on the Web. He is coming home in the Spring, and is coming to New Orleans to work with us. His email address is Feel free to drop him a note and send your own good wishes. Captain Hatch, I wish you a quick and safe return home, and can't wait to swing a hammer with you in our adopted City soon.

I want to send special thanks to some folks who made this trip particularly special. Thanks to Mary Ellen and Reggie, who invited us to share their home and treated us like family. Thanks to Lana Corll, one of our pals from the Loyola College of Law, who tossed us the keys to her truck so we'd have transportation whenever we needed it. Lana also showered us with her friendship, attention, and New Orleans personality. Can't wait to be there for Mardi Gras with you, Lana. Thanks to Brent at Batdorf and Bronson Coffee Roasters, who loaded us up with Omar's Organic for us and for the troops. Finally, thanks to Liz, Sean, Kudi, Stephanie, Tim, Tim, Nic, Brianna, Dallas and everyone else at Hands On, who go at it day after day, mostly without a break to keep this train rolling. You all have special spots in our hearts for the work you do and the care you do it with. We love you all.

Ann and I are headed back in early January for another month on the ground. We are still looking for a matching corporate sponsor for the Tool Fund, and if you know of any organization that wants to help, please let me know. We've collected $9,900 as of today, and we are looking for a corporation that wants to participate in this Reverse-Matching grant. Usually it's the corporation that gets the ball rolling, challenging individual donors to match. We've done the matching part already. Now all we need is a business to match the money and we'll put $20,000 worth of tools in the Tool Shed. It's a chance to facilitate a whole bunch of good in one of our own American cities. Every time one of our folks picks up one of those tools, that gift gives all over again. Miss Peggy, Miss Jessie, Miss Rose, Mr. Gibson, and people like them are the beneficiaries. And so are all of us who have pulled together to demonstrate that we haven't forgotten.

My love to all. Happy Thanksgiving.


Sunday, November 11, 2007

Life in the Crescent City...

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

It has been an interesting couple of weeks here in New Orleans. I arrived on October 30th, having said goodbye to Ann in Houston when she got off the plane to work at the Houston Quilt Festival. I checked into our new bunkhouse on the corner of Napoleon and Camp that Tuesday afternoon, and on Wednesday went to work with Reggie at Miss Evelyn's home on Baronne Street, just a block from our old bunkhouse on First and Dryades. Reggie and I attempted to set a brick foundation pillar to replace one that had crumbled at the corner of this large two-story home. Brick-layers we aren't, but we gave it our best, and spent the day jacking the home up, setting temporary pillars to keep the house above the new pillar, and then went to laying bricks. At the end of the day, we had set all of the bricks that would fit. Over the next two days, however, the house settled on the temporary pillars, and then set about to compress the new pillar we had laid, basically destroying it. First time I've laid bricks, and last time I'll probably be asked to do it here.

Wednesday evening was a lot more successful. Ann sent along a bunch of candy bars for us to give to kids in our old Central City neighborhood, and Reggie, Mary Ellen, Miranda and I bought more that afternoon, then headed into the Hood after dark with 100 full-sized candy bars (as Ann and I like to say "There's nothing FUN about Fun-Sized"). Down Dryades Street we went, and found dozens of happy, decked-out kids with their moms and dads, enjoying Halloween evening in what most people consider one of the roughest neighborhoods in New Orleans. I've always hated that description about my old neighborhood here in New Orleans because it paints a one-dimensional picture of life here in Central City. As if there are no families, no kids, no elderly, no disabled people here, just criminals. The truth is, this place is full of decent human beings scrapping to make a go of it in the poorest section of a decimated city. Take a look at the pictures and you tell me who are the real victims of crime here in New Orleans. The four of us had the best Halloween night we'd ever had, and none of us even got any candy. Second and Dryades was one of the happiest places in the city that day.

The week ended with a bang. On Thursday, the 1,543 pounds of vegetable and flower seeds that were donated to the People of New Orleans by the great folks at the Ed Hume Seed Company arrived at Parkway Partners, a non-profit here that manages over 40 community gardens among their other good deeds. They agreed to be the agent for the 56 boxes of seeds that the UPS Foundation generously shipped at no charge. Off they went to a number of organizations that gratefully lined up to receive and use these seeds. An edible schoolyard at a middle school will be full of the Hume's generosity, as will community gardens and other spaces throughout the city. Jeff and Ann Hume: thanks a lot to you, your company, and to your people.

The fun just keeps on coming. On Friday, I was working for our team-leader, Liz Russell, at Miss Peggy Severe's home when we got a phone call from Miss Jessie Washington, the woman whose home Liz, Sean, and Erik had rebuilt over the past 8 months. I had worked in Miss Jessie's home in March when we had begun the process of un-doing what a bunch of half-assed contractors had done before running off with Miss Jessie's money. In August, Ann and I had helped to install ceramic floor tiles and provide other finishing touches. Miss Jessie had moved back into her home after we left in August. On Friday, Miss Jessie's excited call was to let us know that the folks were there to take her FEMA trailer away. I hopped into the car and raced to Gentilly to be there with her. This was no small honor for me, and a very big day for Miss Jessie. There were two guys there disconnecting the trailer from water and sewer, preparing to haul it away. I spoke with one of them as they worked, and he told me that they were jobbers paid by FEMA to haul these away. It's a big business these days, and more and more trailers are being removed. FEMA has been squeezing all of these jobbers along the way, reducing the per-trailer fee they pay to guys who have given up their other jobs to take this work on. The trailers must be delivered to a 500-acre site in Livonia, LA, which is past Baton Rouge, over 100 miles away. These guys now get $300 per trailer to disconnect, clean up, haul, and deliver these trailers. The lead guy told me the fuel alone now costs him over $100 per trailer. FEMA's got the needle in their arms now, though, so on they go, averaging two trailers a day. The trailers are stored at this giant site, and there are no plans to sell them yet, because of the formaldehyde problem inside them. No problem letting human beings in New Orleans live in them, but no way they can sell them once they have been removed. Go figure. Our tax dollars at work.

Ann, Kelsey, Stephanie (one of Kelsey's college roommates), Spencer, and Jessie DuVall (a pal of ours from Olympia) arrived on Sunday, and I was sure happy to see them. The new bunkhouse is what it is, but what it didn't feel like to me was home until they all arrived. Our new home is gender-segregated, and feels very different from the old, one-big-room bunkhouse we had on First and Dryades. On Monday, we split up to work different jobs. Spencer and I got to help lead a team of volunteers to paint the exterior of Miss Bird's house on the corner of Apple and Mistletoe Streets, Ann went to Miss Peggy's home to help finish bathroom tiles, Jessie went to the Singleton Charter School library, and Kelsey and Stephanie went to the Louisiana Children's Museum to help. On Monday evening, we were all guests for dinner at Miss Jessie's restored home, and enjoyed a great evening of New Orleans food and hospitality. The next day, we all went back to Miss Jessie's to provide the final tweaks to her new home--closet shelves, caulking in the bathroom, touch-up paint, curtains, etc. We banged out most of the punch-list that day, and Ann, Kelsey and I went back on Wednesday to finish up. It's all done now, our first Hands On-completed home, and it is a real joy to behold. Miss Jessie is now unpacking in her new-old home, having seen it completely ruined by 6 feet of water from the London Avenue Canal that broke a few blocks from her home, having been kept away from her home for 7 weeks by the authorities, having come back from her daughter's home in Atlanta to find her home destroyed, having used her own savings and what little insurance settlement she received to hire contractors who hosed her with really crappy work that she paid full-rate for, and then having found Hands On, with Liz, Sean, Erik, and a slew of volunteers who came day after day to provide free labor along with materials to make her house a home again. I can't properly describe what happened here, but Miss Jessie calls it "Angels who showed up to help me just because they could". That about covers it. There is something really significant going on down here. This place has been the center of so much goodwill for so many people from so many angles. Volunteers have come from all over the world to help people who have been abandoned by our government. Yet, it wasn't just the people who received the help that benefitted. Those who were helped and those who provided the help (both physical and financial) are all feeling the benefits. Ask Kelsey. Once you have done this work, you understand what I am talking about. I want all of you who have financially contributed to feel this too. Together, we are doing something important down here for our fellow Americans. By doing this just because we can, we have become part of New Orleans. Believe me, that's a really good thing.

Spencer went home on Wednesday, and we saw Kelsey, Stephanie, and Jessie off this weekend. We miss you guys. Kelsey and Stephanie especially added a lot of life and laughter to our bunkhouse.

That's more than enough for now. I'll leave you with this: most estimates now say that over two-thirds of New Orleanians have returned. That is certainly good news, but it comes with the reminder that over 150,000 citizens of this great city still haven't returned home. During the recent wildfire tragedy in Southern California, over 1500 homes were destroyed, and 7 people were killed. In New Orleans alone, over 200,000 homes were destroyed, and over 1500 killed. Yet, the White House staff was callous enough to internally-brand their image-scrubbing response to the California disaster as their "Anti-Katrina". Really.

I've got an idea for them if they want a project to help them scrub their post-Katrina image with. How about showing up here in New Orleans?

Love to all,


Monday, September 3, 2007

August Week 5

Hello Everyone, and Greetings From Olympia,

Ann and I arrived home on Saturday evening, September 1st. Our last week in New Orleans was a good one. We started out with the wedding of Caliopie Georgiadis and Adam Walsh, two great folks who met while volunteering down here last fall. I could take up the rest of this email with great stories about these two, but let me abbreviate by telling you that they came down here to be married because New Orleans meant that much to them. The wedding and reception--well, Ann and I have been to a few weddings, but we've never been to one this fun. It was a great evening to celebrate their love and our love for each other and for our adopted city. We ate a heart-stopping meal of New Orleans' delights, danced the night away first to Washboard Chazz and his trio, then to our headliners the Soul Rebels. As a gift for Caliopie and Adam, Ann spent part of the summer making a quilt commemorating their commitment to New Orleans and their Hands On experience, and she gave it to them at the reception. Everyone who had worked in New Orleans with Caliopie and Adam had a space on the quilt to sign and express sentiments, and it made for a very special gift. Ann and I went to bed before our younger, more late-night-capable compatriots closed the place down. Needless to say, Ann and I were up earlier the next morning.

We went back to work at Miss Jessie's in Gentilly on Monday, and finished the floor
and bathroom tiling on Tuesday. Eric installed her toilet, bathroom sink, and shower, which all work now for the first time since six feet of water inundated her home after the storm. Ann, Sean, Jordan and I finished tiling her family room, and Sean then began and nearly finished installing her Pergo flooring in the other spaces of her home. On Tuesday afternoon, she came into her family room when we were busy installing tile and told me, "This home is shouting. I AM SHOUTING." It was the most poignant moment I've had here in New Orleans. There she was, admiring her nearly-new home, two years after being routed from it and then kept from returning to it for two months after the storm, left only to guess the condition of her home and her life in New Orleans. She told us that her first look at her flooded home in October of 2005 was devastating to her. She found her couch in her kitchen and her refrigerator in her living room. Nothing was spared. Everything was ruined. She persevered, and here I was with her to see her home nearly completed at the hands of a bunch of volunteers who might work slowly, but goddamnit, they do good work.

On Monday night, Ann and I took Miss Jessie and three of our fellow Hands On volunteers to dinner at Commander's Palace. For those of you who haven't been to New Orleans, Commander's Palace is a world-class restaurant located in the Garden District and known for its impeccable cuisine and wonderful service. Reggie and Amanda, two Hands On volunteers who've been there since before Ann and I showed up last September now work at Commander's Palace, and joined us for dinner with Mary Ellen Bartkowski, the teacher I told you about last week. The complimentary appetizers flowed, the entrees were superb, the desserts were way over the top, and the evening was wonderful. Miss Jessie's first words to us the next morning were "I haven't enjoyed myself so much in I can't tell you how long." She then went to the doctor because her back had been bothering her immensely. The doctor diagnosed her with shingles, due to stress. Her home is nearly complete, the 2nd anniversary of the storm comes, and boom--the stress finds a way to do its damage.

Wednesday was the 2nd anniversary of the hurricane, and the city was full of remembrances. We weren't very productive that day. First, we attended the dedication of the Katrina memorial to the unidentified victims of the storm. Following that, we headed over to another gathering at Jackson Square which Arnie Fielkow, the President of the City Council, invited us to attend so he could thank Hands On publicly. On our way to that gathering, we were stopped by a police roadblock at an intersection near Interstate 10. We waited for several red-light cycles before we asked the police why we were waiting. He told us the President was coming through, and we'd have to wait a few minutes. The four of us looked at each other, and then all jumped out of our van like clowns jumping out of their wagon at a circus. We were right there to give our President our very best salute and take some pictures. Emma looked at us and said "Hey--we all have our Hands On shirts on--". We looked down at our shirts, and, without any discussion or hesitation, immediately pulled our shirts off and turned them inside-out. After a good laugh, we knew we were ready to "salute" the President without bringing any disrepute to our organization. The police officer, who had refused to let us through for the previous 10 minutes, saw what was up and immediately waved us through the intersection and told us to be on our way. We arrived on time for the Jackson Square event, but damn, we missed seeing the President. For those of you who saw him on TV when he was in New Orleans, you saw more of him than the rest of us in New Orleans did. Amazing how he can make himself look so among the people when he is so hidden. Mission Accomplished.

We closed Wednesday by attending Anderson Cooper's CNN show, which was shown live that day. He's been down here 25 times since the storm, and has continued to keep his viewers informed on the post-Katrina conditions in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. If you missed the show, you can catch it on

On Thursday, Ann, Reggie, Jordan, Kudi and I went back to finish the siding on Miss Rose's home. Except for an error estimating the materials we'd need to complete the job (thanks to your author), the day went perfectly. Kelsey, Ann and I will be back to bang up the 15 final pieces of siding in November. After work, Reggie and I went to Miss Irma's home on Stroelitz Street in Mid City. Her home is directly across the street from the 17th Street Canal and took about 6 feet of water. Miss Irma is on the custodial staff at the Audubon Charter School, and we met her when we helped Miss Mary Ellen get her classroom set up a couple of weeks ago. Her home is finished and looks wonderful. Reg and I provided good-neighbor services--unpacked her refrigerator, hung a TV, stuff like that. It was pretty amazing to look out her front door and see that canal, right there.

Louisiana is one of the states that participates in Powerball. The jackpot exceeded $300 million while we were there, and Reggie, Ann and I started buying tickets as the jackpot built. The talk among us was what we'd do to help people in need when we won. That alone was well worth the buck we each spent for each drawing. Reggie has a complete plan for what we'd do. He talked about it like it was a certainty, asking key members of his to-be strike force if they were "in or out". Who could be "out" when Reggie asked? We were, of course, all "in" and ready to go. We didn't win this time, but just you wait and see what happens when we do.

I always have a tough time writing to y'all after I've left New Orleans, because I'm no longer among the really great people who live there. I feel really at home in New Orleans, especially when I'm there with Ann. It's a very special place to me now that I've spent 3 of the previous 12 months there. It's not that I really know New Orleans, or that I understand everything about it. It's that New Orleans has gotten into my blood in a way a city never has before in my life. I love Portland, but when I say that, what I really mean is I love the people I know in Portland. There's a big difference between those two positions, I have learned. Portland to me is the people we know who live or who have lived there--Bryan, Kelsey and Spencer, Kevan, Mike and Catherine, Bobby, all of the Spiekers, the Follen family, the great people who educated me at Jesuit (some of them were teachers), the Morford family, Ed Israel, all of the great folks I worked with at CTR and Stoel Rives, and so forth. But, as I spent my three months in New Orleans this year, I learned that there's a difference between loving the people who live somewhere, and loving somewhere itself. There's something about the rhythm of New Orleans which adds to the deep feelings I've developed for many of the people down there.

A happy postscript to last week's email: Davida Finger, the attorney who runs the Katrina Clinic at Loyola Law School, went back to appeal the case of the blind woman who was told she couldn't have an additional three weeks in her FEMA trailer. This time she won. Three more weeks to stay in her FEMA trailer so she can look for permanent housing she can afford before she is evicted. I sure do regret not having had a chance to visit the President when he was down here last week. Here we were, doing what we do well, and I missed the chance to ask him to do what he could do with ease. He could wave a hand and make sure that needy, disabled, elderly, poor people weren't kicked out of their shitty-assed FEMA trailers just because people were tired of looking at them. I really regret missing the opportunity to speak with him. I was having lunch with Miss Jessie in her FEMA trailer. He was having lunch on Air Force One. I couldn't ignore the irony that we helped pay for both her trailer and his aircraft. His lunch probably cost more than Miss Jessie's FEMA trailer, but Miss Jessie's gumbo beat the hell out of whatever they served him up there. Pisses me off that we paid for his lunch, but Miss Jessie would not hear of us helping to buy the ingredients she turned into many great meals for us. January 20, 2009....January 20, 2009....I keep repeating it in the hope the day will come sooner that way.

OK. Enough ranting. Ann, Kelsey and I head on back down to New Orleans at the end of next month. Miss Jessie's place ought to be about finished by then, if not before. It's going to be a very good day when she watches her FEMA trailer roll away, and she turns to enter her home and close the door.

One nail, one screw, one board at a time. It's better for me to concentrate on what's getting done than it is to spend time steaming about what isn't getting done.

To those of you who contributed to the Tool Fund, and to any of you still considering making a contribution, thanks again. The folks at Hands On really can't believe how generous you have been. Let me tell you, they are in serious need of some new tools. Can't wait to have new batteries for those screwguns, and enough ladders to allow every crew that needs them to have them available for work.

My love to all of you.


Sunday, August 26, 2007

Chillin' in New Orleans

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Just kidding about chillin'. It's still plenty hot down here.

Ann arrived here in New Orleans after a red-eye from Seattle on Wednesday the 15th. She promptly went to work with me at the Audubon Charter School, putting the finishing touches on Miss Mary Ellen's 4th-5th grade classroom just in time for her
students to show up for their first day at school on Thursday. Mary Ellen is a very resourceful person, and found a family that had saved 70 cases of books from the dumpster after the storm. Lots of textbooks, lots of workbooks, and lots of literature. Reggie and I loaded all of this stuff into our truck on Monday, and Mary Ellen and I sorted it by grade level and relevance on Tuesday. On Wednesday, Ann and I dropped off several cases of 1st-grade-relevant stuff to Maria Kramer for her class at the James Singleton Charter School right around the corner from our old bunkhouse in Central City, then took the remaining surplus the Audubon School couldn't use over to the Habitat for Humanity ReStore on Royal Street. They set up an end-base with all of it on display, inviting kids and their parents to take whatever they wanted. Nothing went into the landfill save for the case or so of miscellaneous stuff that sustained water damage during the flood.

Once school got started, Ann and I returned to Miss Jessie Washington's home in Gentilly to lay floor tile. Miss Jessie's home is just 5 or 6 blocks from the London Avenue Canal, which broke very close to Lombard Street where she lives. Her home took water to the top of her windows. She got out on the Saturday before the storm hit, staying first with her sister in Natchez, MS, then with her grown kids in Atlanta for the next 8 months. No one was allowed back into Gentilly for two months after the storm, so Miss Jessie had no idea what was in store for her. Once she returned, she rolled up her sleeves and went to work. Using her insurance proceeds and her own savings, she hired contractors to help rebuild. Hands On got involved in March when we heard about her from her good friend Miss Peggy Severe, for whom we were doing work. Miss Peggy told us that the
"contractors" had only done part of the work they were supposed to do, and the part they did was so bad as to be unusable. Of course, they'd been paid for far more than they actually completed. We went in and saw a real mess. Much of the drywall had to be removed and replaced because different sheet thicknesses had been installed on the same wall or ceiling, sheets were sagging from the ceilings because the workers apparently had no idea how to actually hit a roof joist with a screw, and the cuts around outlets, switch boxes and vents looked like they'd been cut with a chainsaw by a guy with Coke-bottle-thick eyeglasses. Sean and Liz led the crew to fix and/or replace the drywall. Following that, they taped, mudded, and textured the walls, and we then painted her home inside and out a couple of weeks ago. I have attached before-and-after pictures showing the interior of her home. It's with no small amount of pride and happiness that we all are working in there whenever we can now, as we can begin to see the end in sight. Miss Jessie insists on fixing us a hot lunch every day we are there, and I can happily report that its awfully easy to get used to gumbo, crawfish etouffee, candied sweet potatoes and sweet tea for lunch.

Anyway, Ann, Sean, and I laid the floor tiles she purchased for her bathroom, utility closet, and kitchen, and we will do the same in her family room this coming week.
Ann provided the precision and care to make perfect tile cuts, Sean, Ann and I laid 'em down with care, and Reggie came on his days off and did the grouting, and the floors look pretty darn spectacular. Every day, Miss Jessie spends more time in the house with us, and you can tell how deep her pride in her home and in us runs. We are angels, she told us. I understand what she is saying, knowing that before we came, all she had was a mess caused by unscrupulous-at-worst/dumbshit-at-best workers who neither knew nor cared how to do a job correctly. We showed up, and all we've
done is really first-class work just to help someone out. This is the essence of the value of the experience for us HONO people. One day pretty soon, Miss Jessie is going to get to watch her wretched FEMA trailer drive off down Lombard Street and disappear. Ann and I will be there with her when that day comes.

Two quick stories about how cold people can be, then one quick story about resourcefulness under extreme conditions:

1) Ann and I sat down with Davida Finger, a young, energetic, committed attorney who runs the Katrina Clinic at Loyola Law School. She told us she is used to losing when she goes to court to try to help people with all manner of problems related to the storm, but this one tops 'em all.

Jefferson Parish sits on the Westbank of the Mississippi, and is a hodgepodge of small communities and unincorporated spaces. The powers-that-be are trying to get rid of the FEMA trailers once and for all, and their leaders have decided the best way to do that is to set a hard-and-fast deadline. Davida represented a woman who has pretty much gone blind from macular degeneration in the two years since the storm, and whose daughter died in the aftermath of Katrina. This lady had been ordered to vacate her trailer by a certain date, but she had been unable to find another place to live. So, into court she and Davida went on Tuesday to ask for a three-week extension. Not an indefinite extension, not a one-year extension---a three-week extension. The woman brought her late daughter's ashes into court with her. She brought them in the cardboard box the Coroner gave her because she can't afford an urn. She explained to the judge that she had gone blind, that she had lost her daughter to the storm, and that she wasn't trying to take advantage of the system. She just needed some extra time, because finding affordable housing here in the New Orleans area is damn near impossible. Did the judge grant her request for a three-week extension? Nope. A rule is a rule. Get out. Next case.

2) Davida had also asked Ann and I to visit the home of Mr. Miller, an 80-year old man who lives in a FEMA trailer outside his flood-damaged home in Marrero, also in Jefferson Parish. Immediately after the storm, lenders were asked to voluntarily suspend collection activities against mortgage clients whose ability to make their payments on-time had been impacted by their evacuation, loss of employment, use of any surplus funds for survival, etc. Most lenders complied. And we are just talking suspension. We aren't talking about forgiveness of any debt, just ignoring the fact that payments were late. In most cases, the lenders who cooperated required all late payments to be made up in a year. Imagine that. However, Mr. Miller's mortgage lender chose not to participate in the forebearance program, and Mr. Miller was given no allowance for late payments. The lender then foreclosed on his mortgage, but they charitably agreed to rent him his own home, I'm sure out of Christian selflessness and charity. They brought in some half-assed contractor to repair his flooded home. The house isn't habitable, and Mr. Miller is still living in his trailer. Inside we found a disconnected furnace and central a/c unit, "replaced" with two in-window air conditioners, one of which operated, but wasn't cold, and the other connected to an outlet that shorted out and threw sparks when I plugged in the a/c unit to test it. The bathtub walls had cracks in them through which you could see inside, there was mold growing up several walls, and the hose bib in the back was leaking, resulting in a $100 water bill for Mr. Miller last month. I fixed the hose bib the other day, but the lender scoffed at the remainder of our report, telling Davida that "I am losing faith in our ability to satisfy Mr. Miller. Our understanding that the window unit installs were the end of the complaints, was apparently not the case. I think that at this point, you should advise Mr. Miller to look for other housing since he is so dissatisfied with this house. We cannot continue to focus so much of our time, money, and energy on a house that is a losing proposition for our company anyway. I am sympathetic with his situation, but not the way he has handled the relationship with our company. At this point it appears we will never have this house in the condition he expects." That is a direct, verbatim quote.

Who are these people?


OK, the resourcefulness story:

St. Bernard Parish lies immediately east of the Lower Ninth Ward. If you check the map, you will see the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet ("Mr. GO" to the locals), a man-made navigational channel built by the Corps in the 60's as a shortcut from the river to the Gulf. At the river end of Mr. GO is the Industrial Canal, whose floodwalls failed when the storm surge funneled to it by Mr. GO hit the end of the line. Lower Ninth, poof. Along the way up Mr. GO, though, that massive storm surge exceeded 20 feet, and along the way up the line kicked aside the levees that were to protect St. Bernard Parish. People in places like Chalmette saw the surge coming. It took less than 10 minutes to make it all the way across St. Bernard Parish, and absolutely inundated everything in its path. The family whose story I'm telling had taken in a number of pets for people who evacuated or were otherwise gone. They saw the surge coming, went to the top of their home, and waited for the 9 minutes they had for the surge to hit. Because they weren't going to abandon the animals, they were all unable to evacuate together. The first rescuers took the women, leaving Mark (the dad) and Justin (the 19-year old son) with the animals. After they separated, there was no communication between them. Father, son and pets survived 11 days in the muck of water and oil burped up by the refinery near their home. Forget food. It was water they needed to survive (oh, yeah, it was nearly 100 degrees during the days immediately after the storm). The guys figured out that if they swam to their neighbors' homes, they could find fresh water in the tanks of upstairs toilets ("2.5 gallons per", Mark will tell you with some authority). By siphoning that water, then swimming back to their home, they lived and were rescued and reunited with their loved ones 11 days after the wall of water hit.


It's our last week here in New Orleans. We're going to try to finish the tiling at Miss Jessie's, and wrap up some unfinished siding work on the other two sides of Miss Rose's house. We've been spoiled by the generosity of the good people at Wyndham Resorts, who set us up in a one-bedroom unit gratis for the entire 33 days of my stay, and by our friends at Batdorf and Bronson Coffee Roasters, who made sure we had Omar's Organic Blend every morning of our stay. We've also been inspired and humbled by the generosity of so many of you great folks who have contributed financially to the work that is going on down here. The Tool Fund money you contributed (about $7500) will be spent soon, and that will not only make a tremendous contribution to our ability to do more work, it also serves as inspiration to the people we have been helping. I've heard from several of them that it means so much to them personally to know that you know there is still so much work to be done. Hope sustains many people in this American city of ours, and every single person I have spoken to down here about all of you who have helped has told me to tell you how grateful and blessed they are to know you care.

My love to you all.


Sunday, August 12, 2007

Ah--Now I know what "Heat Index" means....

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

It's warm here in New Orleans. During the week, it got steadily hotter every day, with the temp hitting 98, and the Heat Index hitting 113. I really don't have any idea how the Heat Index is calculated, but let me tell you, it's accurate. I have never, and I mean never, been in a hotter place on this Earth as I was Thursday afternoon outside Miss Rose's house. While you are busy, you don't notice it, but heaven help you if you stop for one second to think about something or simply stand there. You've got to keep moving, and pouring the water into your body. I can't imagine how humans inhabited this place prior to air conditioning.

Anyway, the work: As I told you last week, Hands On is not taking volunteers at this time while they move from our old bunkhouse to our new one. Nevertheless, we had a family of four here to help, and Reggie, Mary Ellen and I got to work with them on Miss Rose's home. Larry Schall and his three oldest kids, Jamie, Lindsey, and Tyler, were down for the week from Atlanta. Larry is the President of Oglethorpe College in Atlanta. Jamie is just settling into his new digs in Philly, getting ready for his first year of teaching. Lindsey is a student at Brown, and Tyler is entering his Junior year in high school. Larry is also a member of the Hands On Network national board. They all came down together to help, and I can't tell you how happy we were to have them on the Miss Rose siding project. On Monday, Reggie, Mary Ellen and I spent the day casing the windows on the one side of her house that had no siding on it at all. After we sheeted and wrapped the house in March, other teams were able to side almost one full large side (a bit left at the top for us to finish) and half of the rear side. On Tuesday morning, we met Team Schall at the work site, and went right to work. Over the course of Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, in the wilting sun, we completed the unfinished side, all the way to that last crazy row along the roofline, which has to be measured every 12 inches to make sure the top board fits the uneven roofline. The house is 64 feet long. Mary Ellen has become quite proficient with the saw, and we quickly agreed on the terminology we'd use to communicate measurements from the top of the ladder. Every piece she cut, every measurement she marked, was perfect. As the heat of Thursday built, I stopped the team about 2:30, when we still had the top row to complete before we could call that side really finished. I told them it would be absolutely OK if we quit then and packed up. After all, we'd done more work in three days than most teams could get done properly in 5. Nope, they said--let's really finish it. So, finish it we did. As is our tradition, we all signed the back of the last piece of siding, and Jamie did the honors of nailing it up. Jamie, Lindsey, and Tyler were a very effective unit. Very cool for me to see three siblings so tight and so motivated. Tyler was a real expert on the air nailer. I just quit trying to get that nailer to fire just once when I pulled the trigger. Tyler, then Jamie and Lindsey, could all do it properly without fail. Not me. I was the comic relief whenever they had to hand me the nailer. With those three on the nailer, we got it done in style. It really looks great, especially when you consider that's the home we literally had to jack up and rebuild a number of foundation beams, floor joists, and wall framing before we could even try to seal it up. Team Schall headed back to Atlanta on Friday morning, leaving Miss Rose quite a bit closer to moving back in.

On Friday, Reggie and I went with Mary Ellen to her new job at the Audubon Charter School in Carrollton. Mary Ellen was a teacher in the Chicago Public School system when she and her sister Lauren came down over spring break to volunteer. They were on the team that sub-sheeted and Tyvek-wrapped Miss Rose's home during my last week here in March. The experience, and the city, kept calling Mary Ellen after she returned home. She and Reggie together raised $1000 to help beautify the Singleton Charter School grounds right around the corner from our old bunkhouse. Mary Ellen then decided she belonged in New Orleans, so she put in her application and was immediately scooped up by the district. Now, this 24-year old Chicago native calls New Orleans home. Mom and Dad miss her back in Chicago, but I want them to know they have not lost their daughter, they have gained a city and its love. And my love, admiration and respect. Her coming down here to live and work says way more to you about this city and its people than I ever could try to convey to you in writing.

Reggie and I helped out at the school for the day, moving textbooks, furniture, and what-not from one room to another. This is Audubon's first year in this school building (which was a different school last year, and was originally a grand old courthouse), and they have lots of work to do to get ready for the school year to begin next week. I think Reggie and I earned some points for Mary Ellen.

Oh, yeah--I told you last week I was going to scout a home project for a fellow who recently had a leg amputated after stepping on a nail while working on his home. On Tuesday evening after work, Reggie and I drove out to 3434 Roger Williams Drive to meet Davida Finger, who runs the Katrina Volunteer Law Project at Loyola Law. Davida was the attorney who made sure Miss Rose got her Road Home application in on time, and she has been looking for help for Mr. Smith after he was taken for $60,000 he borrowed from the SBA to rehab his home. After losing that money to an unscrupulous contractor, Mr. Smith had no choice but to get after the work on his own. He was injured, didn't get proper care in time, and lost his leg as a result.

So, we find Roger Williams Drive, but we can't find 3434. We stop when we see a woman on her front porch to ask for help, and she points to the vacant lot next door. Vacant except for a foundation and several piles of lumber. The house had been dismantled to the ground. Davida drove up a few minutes later and she explained to us that the pictures she had seen of Mr. Smith's home showed an actual house in need of restoration. She couldn't believe we were at the correct site, but we were. Stay tuned for more details. We are all mystified at this point.

I don't want to leave you on a low note. I have been driving around this city and the surrounding area in my spare time, and I have to tell you it's quite encouraging to see lots more rebuilding going on. It's getting harder and harder to see high-water marks on houses, and there are not nearly as many of the spray-painted "X"s that were painted on every home by the rescue workers right after the storm. More and more, you see new or repaired siding, lots of new porches, and more homes without FEMA trailers outside. There's years of work to do still, mind you, but every day more and more people are banging away on their homes, and getting closer to coming home.

Love to all of you.


Sunday, August 5, 2007

The Cool Summer Breezes of New Orleans...

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

I arrived for my third month on the ground here in New Orleans at midnight last Monday. Bright and early Tuesday morning, I went out on a crew led by Sean and Liz, two hard-core, long-term volunteer leaders who are the most even-tempered, positive-thinking, unflappable leaders I've ever worked for. We were back at Miss Jessie's home in Gentilly, which I also helped with back in March. We came to help Miss Jessie after we found out she'd been taken by several very shoddy contractors, who had, among other things, installed drywall so poorly that much of it had to be removed and replaced by us. Sean oversaw that project, and we were making very good progress back at the end of my visit in March, especially if you don't consider the "quality" of my drywall taping work. That's difficult to do well, I have found. Anyway, since then, Sean and Liz and their teams had finished all of the drywall, seaming, taping, and mudding, and had textured the walls as well. When I joined the team on Tuesday, we were patching cracks in the outside stucco, and priming the exterior and interior walls prior to painting. I can tell you, when you are working next to a bright-white wall in this heat and humidity, you sweat a little. We finished that work on Tuesday, then went back with a visiting Vista team on Wednesday to paint everything, inside and out. For those of you who have watched your new home being built, you remember just how good it feels the day paint goes on and the appearance of the finished project takes shape. Imagine, in addition to that, that you were a widow whose home had been flooded, and the contractors you trusted to fix your home screwed you and took your money, and then angels like Sean and Liz showed up and did the work right, and for free. Imagine the day after all that when the paint goes on your home. Miss Jessie is happy and proud of Sean and Liz, and their team. I am, too.

On Thursday, I was asked to help lead the project to complete our departure from the First Street United Methodist Church, which has been HONO's home from the very beginning. We knew from the start that the day would come when we'd have to find a more permanent home, but it isn't easy finally facing up to that. The bunkhouse is empty, and the beds are disassembled and gone to storage. No volunteers live on that site now, and it's a very lonely place. It's easy to get nostalgic about our time there, and funny that one great big bedroom with 100 bunks could become so important to us, but there you go. Anyway, I was asked to help coordinate the removal and replacement of the floor in the dining hall, and to help manage the move of our tools and miscellaneous crap to our new digs on the corner of Napoleon and Camp Streets. This move included the move of our 10X30 tool shed, which was to be transported by a team with a very large truck.
I've attached a picture of the shed once the two guys got it as far as they could onto their truck, which turns out wasn't really designed to haul 10X30 tool sheds. They arrived at 9:30 on Friday morning, and spent the next 4+ hours trying to figure out how to drag that shed onto that truck. It was pretty obvious they weren't in the business of hauling tool sheds, and they were making it up as they went along. They finally decided the shed was "on" the truck when they had loaded about the first 25 feet of it onto the trailer. They just couldn't figure out how to get the last 5 feet to cooperate. No worries for them, though. Off they went about 2 pm, and I just kept myself busy with other stuff while they took an hour to travel the 2 or 3 miles to the new place. I didn't want to think about what the shed would look like after it fell off that truck somewhere on St. Charles Avenue. They made it though, and gravity helped them get it unloaded a lot faster that it took to load it.

Yesterday, I drove into the Lower Ninth just to visit and see how things are going. I dropped in on Common Ground, a volunteer organization helping residents of the Lower Ninth in a lot of ways. I learned a lot about the Lower Ninth yesterday, and was quite surprised to learn that it is actually above sea level, one of the four large areas in town that are. In fact, the Holy Cross Neighborhood at the southern end of the Lower Ninth is one of the highest points in New Orleans. People are pissed in the Lower Ninth because the only reason it flooded was the failure of the floodwalls along the Industrial Canal. The floodwalls failed because they weren't even built to the Corps of Engineers' specifications, and the intense storm surge that raced up the Corps-built Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MR-GO) had nowhere to go once it hit the Industrial Canal except into the Lower Ninth and Gentilly. The Lower Ninth was founded by runaway slaves in the 1700's before Louisiana was even part of U.S. territory. There's lots of history there, and lots of people angry at suggestions that perhaps casinos and cruise terminals would be a better use of their properties.

Time Magazine's issue this week features several pieces about New Orleans two years after the storm. Yep, it's been two years, not that you can tell from driving around the city. I hope you can take the time to read these articles. I did this morning, and they provide a lot of context to the cause of the extreme damage, and the prospects for New Orleans and all of lower Louisiana. National Geographic also has a very interesting article about New Orleans and the flood in their July issue, as well. Both articles can be read in their entirety on-line. I urge you to check them out.,28804,1646611_1646683_1648904,00.html

Today, I went visiting. I went back to the Lower Ninth to say hello to Charles Brown, whom you might remember from my letters home last September. Troy and I happened upon him working on his home at the very end of Robertson Street, immediately next to the Industrial Canal floodwall. I've been back to see him on my subsequent trips, just to say hello, see how he is doing, and see if there's any help I can lend on my days off. His home is coming along, powered by his own sweat and the sweat of any family members he can rope into helping him. His place is almost completely drywalled now, with the only remaining exposed studs in walls where the plumbing has yet to be inspected by the City. A good man who continues to persevere, and to believe he has been blessed.

I then went out to Habitat for Humanity's volunteer living quarters, which they have named Camp Hope. Camp Hope is housed in an abandoned elementary school in Violet, LA, about 18 miles from New Orleans. It can house up to 900 volunteers at a time, although there is a strong preference for about half that many people at a time. It's a real production out there. They house not only Habitat volunteers, but also volunteers who come to work for other organizations. $20 a night per person, including a bunk, a shower, and three meals a day. It's a little city in that big building. Every day, they shuttle their volunteers to their job sites, some in St. Bernard Parish near Camp Hope, and many all the way to New Orleans, where they have an 8-acre site in the Upper Ninth where they are building 70 homes. I've attached two pictures of one of the streets their project faces. The homes are colorful and tidy. It's a project known as Musician's Village, begun with inspiration and funding from the Marsalis brothers and Harry Connick, Jr, and some of the homeowners are displaced musicians. A very sizable project having a very positive impact on the neighborhood. On the periphery of the site, you can see that other homeowners have restored their homes in a way that resembles the new Habitat homes, including the bright colors.

That's it for now. Reggie and I get to help finish the siding on Miss Rose's place this week, and we're both really looking forward to that. I also get to scout another potential job for us Tuesday evening, when I visit the home of a man who had one of his legs amputated last week after he stepped on a nail working on his home but didn't get medical treatment for it in time. He had recently borrowed $60,000 from the SBA, which was stolen by a contractor. I'll fill you in on this one next week.

You may be wondering just where I am staying down here right now, what with the bunkhouse being shut down. I found out that Wyndham Resorts has a timeshare property not 5 blocks from the church. Ann and I own a timeshare week with them, so I contacted them to see how they felt about me and Ann using one of their units for the month so we could come down to help. Occupancy rates this time of year in New Orleans are pretty low, and they graciously donated a unit for the entire month. Pretty cool people, those folks at Wyndham.

The Tool Fund has $7,350 in it right now, and General Tool Company of Portland has expressed interest in partnering with us to match it. Thank you so much to all of you who were able to contribute. If you can think of anyone you know that might be interested in helping, I'd sure appreciate you forwarding my email on to them. We can really use the help, and, who knows, maybe we can reach our $10,000 goal.

My love and best wishes to all of you. Talk to you next week.


Monday, March 26, 2007

Madeline and Ed Curtis/Miss Rose/The Road Home

Hello, Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

As I told you last week, some of Hands On New Orleans' work now involves construction projects that nearly finish homes. I have been involved in several of those projects, and it's pretty cool to see the typical Hands On determination overlaid with our growing in-house expertise. I've done some work for Madeline and Ed Curtis, who live on the corner of Fairmont and W. St. Roch in the Gentilly section of New Orleans. Gentilly sits between the London Avenue Canal to the west and the Industrial Canal to the east, and much of it was hit hard by the overtopping and subsequent failures of sections of both levees. Mr. and Mrs. Curtis got out before the trouble began, first traveling to nearby Slidell to stay with their daughter and police officer son-in-law, then on to Houston to stay for several months with their other daughter. Every home in their neighborhood was hammered by the flooding, and not everyone left before the floodwaters arrived. Directly across the street from the Curtis home is a home where the occupant stayed inside as the water arrived, hoping for safety. The waters forced her to her attic, and continued to rise until she saved her own life by breaking through the roof, where she was rescued by helicopter. There is still a blue tarp covering the small hole in her roof, a wincing reminder of how it went during the time the waters rose.

Mr. and Mrs. Curtis live in a FEMA trailer directly in front of their house. Their entire block is full of FEMA trailers. At the end of their street is an abandoned school and neighborhood park, derelict and overgrown. Mr. Curtis told me that he considered he and his wife lucky. "After 46 years of marriage, we are lucky. We've been literally forced to be closer, and it's been OK for us." His concern was for the families down the block, staying in FEMA trailers with their children. No place to play, and way too little space inside. I hear this all the time, this theme of "we are lucky, but look at our neighbors. They've got it tough, but we're OK."

During the time I spoke with Mr. Curtis, I told him I was really happy to work on his home, especially to see it so close to completion (we finished the sheetrock today). I said I wished I could be there with him and his wife the day the truck backed up to his FEMA trailer, hooked it up, and drove it away forever. He looked at me and said, "Do you really believe that's going to happen?" He's 77, spent 35 years as a Jefferson Parish school counselor, and has a masters degree in education. Yet, after these past 18 months, he has lost his ability to envision the completion of his nearly-complete home. I told him of course he was moving back into his home. I assured him it would be soon, given the status of the work. He was stunned. He just didn't perceive that an end was near.


On Tuesday, Erik and I went back to Miss Rose's home on St. Andrew Street. When Kelsey was here, I took her over to meet Miss Rose, and discovered that the City had cracked the water line leading from her meter to her home when they removed that giant pecan tree stump I showed you last fall. Bless 'em for taking the stump out for her, but shame on them for leaving her to fend for herself with her broken water line. She got a $700 water bill last month, which the Water Bureau expects her to pay. Erik has done some plumbing work professionally, and is a long-term Hands On volunteer, so he and I went over there and dug up her water line from her house to the meter. Erik fixed it and we re-buried it. We had to break the sidewalk from her property to her water meter, and a crew that was pouring a large slab two blocks away gave us concrete in a wheelbarrow that we borrowed from volunteers who were working at a church across the street. (A perfect storm of resources, don't you think? A couple of Hands On volunteers up to their knees in muck from Miss Rose's super-saturated yard using a wheelbarrow we borrowed to get concrete a professional crew around the corner gave us. I don't know why that makes me laugh, but it does.) Miss Rose scratched her name in the concrete later that day. Erik and I went back on Sunday after the ground had had a bit of time to dry out, and we raked the yard smooth, removing the remaining debris, which included one last syringe, a broken crack pipe, and a lighter from the squatters who took over her home after the flood.
When she wasn't watching, we then snuck a bunch of Jeff and Ann Hume's donated sunflower seeds into the ground to give Miss Rose something to look at over the summer. The best day off I've spent while I've been here.

Miss Rose pulled me aside on Sunday morning to speak with me privately. She asked me if I knew of anyone who could help her fix the title to her home. Although she is, and has been, the only resident there for years, the deed is still in her dead parents' names. Like many homes in New Orleans, the people who live in the home aren't the people whose names are on the title. I told her I'd try to find someone who could help. Before Ann came back to New Orleans for her second trip last November, she worked at the Houston Quilt Show, where she ran into Lana Corll, who, in addition to apparently loving quilts, is the Director of Continuing Legal Education for the Loyola University College of Law here in New Orleans. She and Ann had a nice chat about the work down here, and they traded contact info so they could get together when Ann made it to New Orleans after the show. They never did get together, but Ann had her info, and I contacted Lana yesterday to ask if she could provide any assistance for Miss Rose. She said yep, she could, and I heard from her today after she had contacted a number of colleagues. She then sent a bunch of forms to me so I could help Miss Rose gather the appropriate info for her title work. In addition, she sent along all the contact info I needed for Miss Rose's Road Home application. The Road Home is the name of Louisiana's program to provide HUD money to homeowners to help them rebuild, and Miss Rose confided to me that she hadn't done anything about that yet, either. I got the package, and, let me tell you, it ain't simple. So, some evening after work this week, Miss Rose and I will sit down and try to go through this. After we do what we can with the paperwork, Lana is going to find us an advocate who can provide the actual legal services necessary to perfect her title. Then The Road Home process can move forward.

The Road Home program provides up to $150,000 in benefits to homeowners whose homes were severely damaged by the storm and the flood. Over 113,000 applications have been received, but only a couple of thousand have been closed so far, although the program is picking up steam and the State says several hundred a day are now closing. That's progress.

The weather is warming up considerably, and the humidity is rising along with it. Every mosquito egg in the area hatched on Saturday and Sunday, and all of a sudden us pasty-white folks are being eaten alive.

I love it here.

Love to all,


P.S. The pictures this week include a few from last Monday night, when a krewe of Indians (a long story, but a cool one about the old tradition of African Americans down here identifying with Indian tribes dating back to slavery days when runaways took refuge on Indian lands, where slaveowners were generally reluctant to tread in pursuit) paraded down Dryades Street past our home to meet with the Wild Magnolias, another Indian krewe whose clubhouse is one block south of our church. They met ceremonially in the street, and everyone came out to enjoy it.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Back Home in New Orleans

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Kelsey and I arrived in New Orleans on Tuesday, March 6th. Kelsey took a week of her vacation to come down and work with us, and she hit the ground running. Not only was she a hard worker, she was a super-smart worker. Our first day was spent at Henry Carter's house on Louisiana street. He's restoring it so his adult daughter can return to New Orleans. Kelsey dove right in, and never once looked like a rookie. As you might expect of her, she was always the one still working to finish gutting a room properly long after more-experienced volunteers had moved on to another room. I couldn't be more proud of her. She gutted with gusto, and also got to spend one day at the Dryades YMCA Charter School, where she was one of the team leaders for art projects for the kids. The week went by so quickly, and our last work gig together was a neighborhood celebration we staffed in the Hoffman Triangle area. She and I were in charge of the inflated castle. It's that big thing kids climb in and bounce themselves silly. The park is the ONLY city park open in the city. ALL of the others are FEMA Trailer Farms. I was stunned when I heard that one. Anyway, the day was organized to give families a chance to play, and to give kids a chance to just be kids for a day. With the trailer farms and the shortage of schools comes a severe shortage of playgrounds, and the kids are bearing an awfully big burden, given what they saw during and after the storm, compounded by the lack of opportunity to simply have fun. So, for a day anyway, we helped them laugh. Before the event, we walked the neighborhoods and handed out fliers to everyone we saw. People came in droves, and most were unbelieving when we told them there was no charge for anything. Face-painting, games, Sunflower seed planting, hot dogs, popcorn, sodas, Kelsey and Dave's Bouncing Castle--everything was provided. Kelsey and I knew it was a great success when we counted the number of kids crying when their parents told them it was time to go home. Amazing how simple it is to make someone happy. A very good day.

One of the coolest gigs we're doing repeatedly with kids is the Sunflower Project. We're planting sunflowers in plots around the city, to add some color and to give kids a chance to show themselves and others what they can accomplish together. Jeff and Ann Hume of the Ed Hume Seed Company sent about $2000 worth of seeds with me on this trip, and they are being gratefully put to use throughout the city already. They sent a ton of sunflower seeds of different varieties, along with a rich assortment of vegetable seeds for community gardens. Jeff and Ann, thanks a lot for your generosity. It ain't just about the seeds--you can't buy the happiness you are providing these kids.

Kelsey and I also had a lot of non-work fun together. We went to the French Quarter on Saturday night, where she got to see the nightlife of New Orleans. For balance, she went to see the Lower Ninth the next day. This city is such a study in contrasts.

Kelsey went home on Monday, and I really miss her. She's already planning her next trip back, and Hands On is holding a space for her. She's one of us now.

Off to work I went on Monday after seeing Kelsey off. I got to help prep Miss Peggy Severe's home on Leonidas Street for insulation and sheetrock. Miss Peggy's place took about four feet of water. Her neighborhood is one of those far enough away from the levees that they thought they had been spared once the storm missed New Orleans. That evening, before the sun went down, they were celebrating their good fortune and thanking God when they noticed some water in the streets. It didn't quite register what was happening, but it was only a weird little nuisance. Over the next two days, the water slowly but surely continued to bleed into the area. For people who stayed, the danger was not readily apparent. What began as an oddity slowly became a calamity as water finally entered homes on the 31st, and continued to rise until the city's water level finally matched Lake Ponchartrain's on September 1st. Just imagine that sequence of events: The storm misses New Orleans. The day passes, and, while certain areas nearest to the levees have already taken a devastating hit, Miss Peggy and her neighbors thank God for their good fortune and safety. Water silently shows up in the streets, and people think "How strange." The water slowly rises over the next 2 days, and fear sets in, because, by now, who knows when it will stop?

Miss Peggy's project is one that illustrates the evolution of Hands On New Orleans' work. We are now involved in a number of projects that very nearly complete the rebuilding of homes. Insulation, sheetrock, and paint are all part of the repertoire now, and it feels really good to be involved in this work.

I really wish Kelsey had been here for my second week. It's Spring Break season, and the bunkhouse is full of college students investing their vacation in service to these great people down here. During Kelsey's week, we had groups from Viterbo University in Wisconsin, and Clark University in Massachusetts. All great kids, mind you, but the next week groups from Virginia Commonweatlth University (Go Rams!), the University of Florida (Come on Gators----Get Up and Go!), Appalachian State University (Go Mountaineers!), and the Juilliard School in New York all showed up at the same time. I can't tell you what a special week it was. I got to work with most of them during the week, and I was so happy to get to know many of them. Over the course of the week, I watched them bond with each other, and I bonded with many of them myself. One quick week, and poof!, they all headed back to school yesterday. Every single one of them came to work, and I could fill pages telling you about them. I am always impressed and inspired by the efforts and the commitment of young people down here, but these kids were very, very special.
The Juilliard students put in double-duty, working on-site, then heading off to the school to teach their other talents to the kids. And, what attention to detail! I have never seen a neater debris pile than the one they built outside Miss Peggy's house.
Need caulking work on your home? Dial 1-800-Juilliard. As Reggie told everyone at community meeting that night: "Those Juilliard kids really know how to handle caulk." Only Reggie can get away with a comment like that.

And so it went that week. Not only were the VCU and Florida kids similarly committed to doing a great job, their teams are both in the NCAA Tournament. I got to tag along with VCU on Thursday night to watch their opening-round game against Duke at a local sports bar. VCU took it to Duke, and won it at the wire. I was sad to see they couldn't quite put Pitt away in the second round yesterday because I've got a bit of Ram in me now, and knew our kids were on their way home to Richmond during the game yesterday. And the Florida kids--well, they have a right to crow about their team. Let's just say we all learned their various cheers during the week.

I kept forgetting that the four young women who came from Appalachian State were actually college students. Crystal and I got to work together a couple of times, and wow, can she get it done. I figured them all to be long-term, experienced volunteers simply because they approached their work with such confidence and expertise. One of the projects we worked on together was the gutting of a large home that was a group home for mentally-disabled adults. It was, for a normal team, a 4-day job, give or take. With Reggie's organization, and Crystal and Ashley among the team members, we finished this job in a day-and-a-half. Not almost finished. Done.
Reminded me of that scene in Cool Hand Luke where they were oiling that road, and, basically just for the hell of it, decided to knock it out in one morning of kick-ass hustling.

I saw Kelsey in her Tyvek suit as I worked with many of these kids this week. The hard work, the sense of humor, the commitment to help---these kids were the whole package.

I've got lots more for you, but I'll end now. For a comprehensive look at just how and when the flooding took place, check out this animated map done by the Times-Picayune:

I can't close without thanking my friends Alysia and Brent at Batdorf & Bronson for sending Dancing Goats and Capitol Blend coffee with me. You've made many people in the bunkhouse happy and more productive with your generosity.

Special props and love to Ann for taking care of Mom, and for the Care Packages which always blow the volunteers away. I always get a great laugh watching our volunteers take so much pleasure from a Fun-Size piece of candy. You've made a whole lot of new friends, baby. Thanks a lot for taking care of us.

OK, now I really will close by telling you that I'm continually amazed at the goodness of the people of New Orleans. Just ignore the crap the media is feeding you about crime down here. Yep, there is crime here, but to report that as if this city has gone mad is a giant insult to the 99.99% of the other citizens who are scrapping every day to get by, all the while maintaining an optimism that comes from generations of good people facing adversity. I'm humbled by the dignity with which these people carry themselves. It's in their blood, and it's just one of the many attributes that makes this city unlike any other. Tell your friends--nail by nail, stud by stud, this city is fighting.

Love to all,