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.