Monday, June 23, 2008

I Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from Olympia,

Our last week of this trip to New Orleans was our best one.

Davida Finger of the Loyola Law School Katrina Clinic hooked Ann and me up with a family in Gentilly who used their insurance money to rebuild the 5-foot-flooded first floor of their home, but ran out of money before they could finish the upstairs. Miss Ray and Mr Harold Bellanger are in their 80's, and live with their daughter and her son and 18 year old nephew, who just had a kidney removed. The Road Home money hasn't trickled down to Miss Ray and Mr Harold yet, so they all have been scraping wallpaper off the upstairs walls by hand, all of which were damaged when the winds tore off part of their roof. Our son Kevan kicked in a very generous chunk of money for materials, and Ann and I got to lead a team of volunteers to finish the wallpaper removal, texture the walls in preparation for paint, and level and repair the sagging subfloor in the upstairs hall. Ann and I spent Monday pulling up and disposing of the carpet and pad in the hallway, and got a look at the subfloor underneath. It had a high peak that ran down the entire center of the hall, and had several very squishy spots at the sides. On Tuesday, Reggie and several other volunteers joined us to get to work. While Ann and I shimmed and strengthened the floor, they all set about to remove the wallpaper in the other rooms. Miss Ray and Mr Harold's daughter Tania and her son Reggie had spent a lot of the previous week removing all of the wallpaper in the hall so it would be done when we got there to repair the floor. We purchased a wallpaper-removing chemical and special scrapers, and took it along with safety gear to them the week before, and they've been at it ever since. We spent all day Tuesday and Wednesday with this work, and went home Wednesday with the floor completely leveled and set with underlayment in preparation for new flooring, and the walls clear of wallpaper and ready to texture. On Wednesday, we were joined by Eric and Steve, two old Hands On volunteers who now live and work full-time in New Orleans. They provided the expertise to skim-coat the walls to make them smooth in preparation for texture. On Thursday, Nic Bonsell came along with us to show us how to use a texture gun and how to "knock down" the texture once it was applied. I asked a new regular volunteer, Bill, to learn the texture gun, since he was planning on spending the entire summer here to work. By 2pm, we were all finished, and the walls are now ready for paint.

On Friday, Ann and I went back to complete little stuff. We reinstalled the door trim we had to remove in the hall, installed transition strips between the hall and the rooms, and generally cleaned up. We also got to give Miss Ray and Mr Harold a $200 Home Depot gift card as a jump-start on their paint and flooring, compliments of our son Kevan. I had the honor of bringing along a gallon of white paint to finally cover up the orange "X" that was painted on the front of their house. I asked Miss Ray and Mr Harold if they would like to help, and they each took their turn covering up the X that was painted by searchers days after the storm. There we were, 1020 days after the X was painted, finally putting it to rest. It took 3 coats of paint, but I wasn't packing up until none of it could be seen on that home.

For the record, here's what the X read, clockwise from the top:

9-5 (Searched on 9/5/05)
- (No hazards located)
0 (No bodies found inside)
AE (Team that searched)

Now the front of their home just says "4532" (their house number). A great way to end our 6th trip down here. Mr Harold told me that they had been contacted by lots of neighbors before they returned, asking if they were coming back. All of those neighbors said that if Miss Ray and Mr Harold weren't returning, neither were they. The Bellanger home is that home on Feliciana Street that serves as the magnet for others who weren't sure they would return. Today, about half of the homes in their vicinity are either occupied or in the process of being repaired. Lots of Xs are still painted on the outsides of homes here in the shadow of the London Avenue Canal. Hopefully, that white spot on the outside of Miss Ray and Mr Harold's home will serve as another reminder to their neighbors that they too can come home again.

Mary Ellen Bartkowski and Reggie Derman have continued, for some reason unexplainable to us, to open their home to us when we visit, and to treat us like family. We are so grateful to them for their generosity and love. It seems so long ago that the three of us worked together on Miss Rose's siding way back in March of 2007, which led to Mary Ellen leaving her Chicago home to teach at a New Orleans public school.

I've found myself nostalgic in many ways during this past trip. Ann and I invited our pals for a last-evening beer at Igor's, our old hangout on St. Charles Avenue, near our beloved old bunkhouse at the First Street United Methodist Church. I looked around the tables that evening and realized that many of the truest friends I've had in my life were there with me. We saved a seat for Chandra, but Boston was too far to come. Even so, I thought of her that evening, in the humidity of another hot day in that wonderful city in the Deep South, enjoying stories and laughs with Ann and our pals, and I felt that familiar sense that I was home.

Catfish is still $39.99 for a 15-pound box at the Chicken Mart (which still doesn't sell chicken), Gold Teeth are still 2 for $150, Six Flags is still closed, the streets are still ruined, but the city looks better now than it did when we visited in February, when it looked better than it did when we visited in November. Each time we visit, we notice some new signs of life. One time it's the St. Charles streetcar, now fully operational along its entire course, another time it's Charles Brown's home in the Lower Ninth, now occupied and FEMA-trailer free.

Last week, it was a visit by Reggie and me to see whatever happened to the New Orleans East Super Gut that he led in March of 2007 (you can read about it in my 3/18/07 entry "Back Home in New Orleans"). We drove out to New Orleans East to see if we could find it and see what, if anything, had been done to it since we gutted it 15 months ago. The first photo shows our gut pile outside the home, and the second shows what we found last week. Both Reggie and I were pretty taken by the transformation.

And still another time it's a homeowner banging away on a once-decrepit, burned shell of a home on Jackson Street, its new framing now nearly complete, and its wrought-iron circular staircase, once hanging by itself in the air and connected to nothing but the ground, now being used by him and his crew as they rebuild his home. The sign on that stairwell has said, for as long as I've been coming here "I AM Coming Home. I WILL Rebuild".

I now believe it.

My love to all.


Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Hot Town. Summer in the City.

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

After completing the Sarah T. Reed High School project, I got to work trying to help Hands On get legs under its rebuilding program. They are currently busy becoming an independent Hands On affiliate, after these past 2+ years as a project of Hands On Network. Becoming an independent 501(c)3, finding your own money for operations, building a local board of directors, and so forth is a full-time job in itself, all the while trying to keep hordes of volunteers busy and productive. Hands On has found itself concentrating on corporate projects lately, i.e., working with companies who want to bring money and people to New Orleans to help, usually sandwiched between a convention or meeting that brings them to New Orleans. Ann and I are doing what we can to help them also hang on to the on-going daily construction jobs that we have seen make a difference in the lives of the people we have worked for. We are beginning to partner with a volunteer group in Central City that has a backlog of projects but not enough help. We're doing what we can to cement a good partnership with them ( in order to ensure a regular supply of manageable Katrina-restoration projects for our daily jobs' board. Spending a week or two at many of these homes results in a huge step forward for the families that live in them.

On Memorial Day, I got to go to the New Orleans Zephyr's baseball game with Mary Ellen and her class. About half of our kids got baseballs that day, and we had a really good time.

The next day, Ann arrived. We spent our first day together over at Sarah T. Reed High School performing a minor modification to the picnic tables we built. After that, we spent a couple of days with our pal Miss Peggy Severe, hanging the final curtain rods, pulling a phone line, and, using money provided by Jan Matzelle and Sherry O'Connor, my loving 1st Grade teachers at L.P. Brown Elementary School in Olympia, mixing and pouring lots of concrete to fill a large hole which sat squarely in the center of her now-FEMA-trailerless driveway.

On Saturday, May 31st, we went with Nic and Bri and a group of Credit Suisse folks from New York to paint the exterior of a new family-owned restaurant in Gentilly. It's appropriately named Cousins, and 10 seconds of observation would tell you why. Family members, young and old, filled the place as they prepared a lunch of good old fashioned Creole cooking for us grateful volunteers. Kyle and his family leased this space and have been doing the renovations themselves in preparation for their opening on June 16th. We painted the entire exterior and built several benches and planter boxes to spruce up the outside. As we wrapped up, Kyle pulled us all together, made daiquiris and served beers, and broke down crying as he thanked us for coming together with his family to help them start this business that he hopes will sustain them all. Once in awhile when I tell someone we are helping a business, people ask if that seems OK to do, i.e., helping a for-profit business instead of a needy homeowner. I tell them that when we help a small business get back on its feet, we are helping a needy homeowner. Small businesses are a big part of the lifeblood of this city, and are often the best opportunity for people to restore their economic lives (not to mention the economy of the City). Rebuilding homes is my first love here, but jobs are the most important thing for these people. Doesn't really matter, after all, if we've fixed their home if they can't afford to turn the lights back on. Seeing Kyle up there in front of us, this big gregarious man, unable to hold back his tears for the help we provided underscored all of that for me. As this City continues its long slog back to whatever they will someday call Normalcy, it's becoming easier and easier to take the pace of recovery for granted, to see things getting slowly better. Then a Kyle comes along and reminds us all that every sign of recovery comes with a human face, and every day between now and recovery is one more day since the storm took away everything except their optimism and their resilience. You can find dignity all over among these ruins down here, and today his name was Kyle.

We got to experience a bit of New Orleans nostalgia when Boston Cares sent people down for their fourth trip to help. Ann ran into them for the first time when she was here in November 2006, and they've just kept coming back. It was my first opportunity to meet them, and they were as Ann promised: hard-working and lots of fun. We got to buy them a round at Henry's while we watched the Celtics send the Pistons home. Go Celtics, and thanks to Boston Cares for their determination, commitment, and good humor. Hurry back, and let us know when you are coming.

We finally got to see Davida Finger, our lawyer pal from the Loyola Law Katrina Clinic. She's been very busy lately, having become the sole lawyer in charge of all cases heading for court, after her partner moved back to Lafayette and left her alone. Every parish down here now has a deadline for getting rid of their FEMA trailers, and those deadlines are making life busy for Davida and scary for some residents for whom the FEMA trailer is the only alternative to homelessness. Yes, there are some trailer residents who just need a push to get going, but there are many hardcore poor, disabled, and elderly who just aren't able to rebuild without more time and help. Davida is out there fighting every day for them. Thanks, Counselor.

In between projects, we've been working on the first floor of Lana Corll's home, which took two feet of water when the levees gave way. Lana also works at Loyola Law, and has been a constant source of local color, Southern hospitality, and friendship. Oh, yeah--she also tosses us the keys to her Ford F-150 as soon as we arrive, so we have wheels to get where we need to go. Once we got started on her place, Ann did her usual creative work tiling the new bathroom floor, and Reggie and I insulated and installed drywall in the large living area. Lana hired a local guy and his crew to do a bunch of other work, and it's coming together pretty quickly now. It's never a surprise for me to see Ann take what could have been a pedestrian, vanilla tile job and turn it into her canvas. It was surprising though, and a little scary when I realized I'm actually getting pretty good at drywall. I always thought I'd be able to say I just wasn't very good enough at it, and should find other projects to contribute to. Can't use that excuse anymore.

Since we're on a Loyola University theme here, let me also add that we've become pals with Philip Frohnmayer, a Professor of Music at Loyola. Phil found us one day when I was wearing my Oregon Ducks Basketball T-shirt. Phil is Dave Frohnmayer's brother, who is the President of the University of Oregon. Phil and his wife have been down here many years now, and he's become another one of our New Orleans friends.

As has become their custom, our pals at Batdorf and Bronson Coffee Roasters again made sure that we had their great coffee in our coffee pots down here for our entire stay. I can tell you how much our volunteers appreciate really good coffee in the morning, and I can also tell you how much I appreciate that familiar smell in the morning. Having a bit of home here with us in New Orleans makes me feel like we're all in this together. Which we are.

My love to all,