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,