Saturday, September 20, 2008

Wrapping Up Our 7th Trip

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from Houston,

Ann and I are on our way home from our latest trip to New Orleans. Our last week, as has become our tradition for some reason, was a great one. After working with Reggie out in the Bayou helping with trees, we were recruited to help on a home-rebuilding project by a pal at Rebuilding Together. This organization is working in New Orleans to specifically assist elderly and disabled homeowners who do not have the resources to complete the recovery of their homes. Ann, Reggie and I went off to Miss Della's home on Louisiana Parkway Drive, in the heart of the Broadmoor neighborhood of New Orleans. Broadmoor is a very large neighborhood that organized its citizens early and fought the City back when Mayor Nagin suggested that Broadmoor be razed in its entirety and turned over to greenspace. They said thanks, but no thanks, and the area has been a web of activity ever since. Miss Della is a 70-something wheelchair-bound woman living alone in her FEMA trailer next door, and Rebuilding Together has nearly completed its work restoring her home. The three of us were asked to tile her kitchen floor, so we cleaned the subfloor, installed the Hardibacker underlayment, and then laid about half the tile that day. On Friday, Ann and I went back and were joined by two volunteers, Maggie and Mary. Neither had laid tile floors before, so we showed them what we knew and then helped them finish it. By 1pm, we were completely finished, and the result is a kitchen floor ready for grout. This was a really good gig for Ann, Reggie, and me, and it reminded us of so many projects we've worked on with Hands On. Hands On too is gearing up to do more of these types of projects now that they are an independent affiliate of the Hands On Network. Having both of these great organizations scaring up these projects means we'll be busier than ever on our next trip down there in February. The chance to help someone get back into their home 3 years after the storm isn't nearly as rare as we hoped it would be, but there it is, and we're going to keep coming back as long as we can find this work in this wonderful city we call our Home Away From Home.

My Love to All,


P.S. Update on the Tool Fund: For those of you who gave so generously to the Tool Fund, I promised to keep you up to date on our progress towards finding a matching sponsor. I'm very happy to report that Kaiser Permanente not only agreed to match the $10,000 you gave, they matched it 3-for-1 with a $30,000 gift to Hands On New Orleans. Thanks to all of you, from Kathie and Al Faccinto, who got this whole effort started with a very generous seed donation, to all of you who followed and got us to our $10,000 starting goal, and finally to our pals at Kaiser Permanente, who saw what we do with those tools, did it with us, and backed up their efforts and commitment with such a generous matching donation. Tools and volunteers are the lifeblood of our effort to rebuild this very American city of ours, and I'm very grateful to all of you who have joined this effort. Thanks again.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Road Tripping in the Bayou

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans and Places Beyond,

We've been on an odyssey around the state to cut trees wherever we were sent. Ike hit the Houston/Galveston area directly, but it was such a huge storm that all of the lower parishes of Louisiana were inundated by the tidal surge and the winds that brought it inland. As information seeped in, there were organizations and individuals far-and-wide that collected names of neighbors who needed help. Thousands of trees down on homes, across driveways, in the way of powerline repairs, and so forth. Ann and I took Valerie, a young volunteer who found us via the State's volunteer hotline, and we headed off to Lafayette with our gloves, water, gasoline, and chainsaws. We were dispatched by United Way Acadiana, and worked usually as a team of three at individual homes in the area. Boy, oh boy, is that area Mosquito Country these days. They were plentiful, big, and aggressive. All of that wet ground made for one big mosquito bog across the entire region.

At the end of the week, we were sent to the Houma/Raceland area to do the same tree removal work. Reggie joined us for these days, and we cleared a pretty big list of mostly older folks who didn't have the ability to do this work themselves.

I'll tell you, there's no American poverty like Deep South American poverty. We met some really nice folks out in the rural areas we have visited over the past couple of weeks, and we've been humbled by how little so many of those people have. Every stop along the way, though, people were welcoming, tripping over themselves to make sure we were fed and watered. On our first evening in Lafayette, we worked until dusk cutting trees out of Miss Edna's yard. Miss Edna is an 82-year old widow who had been gathering branches by herself, and I asked her to please let us do it. As the sun went down, we hadn't finished, and I knew she was waiting for us to leave so she could come back out and continue working. I told her that we needed to quit because it isn't very safe to operate a chain saw in the dusk hours, but that we weren't going to leave if she was going to come back out and drag branches herself. She laughed because she knew she'd been busted. We went home, and came back the next morning with a few AmeriCorps members to finish. She smiled at me when we arrived, and told me "I waited. I told you I would. I almost couldn't stand it, you kids working so hard while I didn't. But I waited, Baby."

I love it when women call me Baby.

On a job in Breaux Bridge, we jumped out of the truck and began unloading our saws. The woman we were helping saw Ann and I each grab our saws, and she was taken aback. Her words, exactly: "A lady with a chain saw?" I just smiled. Yep, that's a lady alright, but that lady is Ann. What a laugh we had later. People just don't know until they've worked with Ann.

Back to New Orleans for the rest of our third week here. More later.

My love to all,


Monday, September 8, 2008

Gustav Hits Hard, But Largely Spares New Orleans

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Gustav hit Baton Rouge pretty hard. We watched it from inside our makeshift bunkhouse. 95 mph winds trimmed the trees there with fury. The power was off in most of the city and outlying areas for a couple of days, after which it came back on in small areas, and slowly at that. Baton Rouge was largely spared by Katrina, so its 100-year old trees hadn't had a recent trimming. As a result, they came down by the thousands in Baton Rouge and all across the lower part of the State, and made a real mess. Add to that the fact that not only did residents of Baton Rouge not evacuate (no one expected the storm to hit them very hard at all), many people from lower parishes, including Orleans, evacuated themselves TO Baton Rouge. This made for a traffic nightmare as one or two gas stations came back to life, and everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) hit the streets to fill up (or try to).

After helping to set up a Search and Rescue database of qualified volunteers for the government folks we were working for, Ann and I went out with Nic and Todd and a chainsaw to remove a tree from a home outside town. On Thursday, Ann and I were sent on a road trip to scout the Houma area, which is located about 50 miles southwest of New Orleans. That area was really hammered, and since New Orleans was largely spared significant damage, Hands On may be setting up some volunteer effort down there. Then, we returned to New Orleans. There's a lot of debris to clear, but the floodwalls all held, and the city was coming back to life pretty quickly. Some power was already back on, and the utility crews worked furiously through the weekend to keep it coming back on. While it's an understatement to say that the people of New Orleans are significantly relieved, it's equally true that they are weary and broke. The evacuation was pretty impressive--1.9 million people participated (said by many in the media to be the largest evacuation in American history), and it went pretty smoothly until the very end, as people tried to return home. Ray Nagin kept New Orleans closed while neighboring parishes reopened, and Nagin had the NOPD stop cars on I-10 as they tried to enter Orleans parish on their way through to Jefferson Parish next door). That caused a shitstorm that blemished what was otherwise a very well planned and extremely well executed evacuation. People from Orleans Parish were told to turn around and wait another day. Kids crying, parents dead tired, out of money, out of gas, out of food, out of water, out of patience. Nagin gave up a couple of hours later, and the repopulation went on without a hitch after that.

Now, with Hurricane Ike on its way into the Gulf, with New Orleans again inside the probability arc, people are worried. Ann and I can't help but wonder if many of them simply aren't going to leave if another evacuation is called for this week. After all, they already spent a bunch of money they didn't have to get out for Gustav, then Gustav fortunately turned out to hit New Orleans with a much smaller punch than expected (hammering nearly everyone else in the lower part of the State). It just seems like human nature might tell them to go ahead and stay. Whether they do or whether they don't, here's hoping Ike turns around and heads off aimlessly to the sea.

We're off to Lafayette with a chain saw crew today, and planning to be there all this week. Assuming Ike doesn't chase us out, we ought to be plenty busy helping those folks dig out.

My love to all,


Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Gustav Day 2

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from Baton Rouge,

Just a quick update on what's going on down here. Ann and I flew to Atlanta on Sunday (as close as we could get) to help with the initial response to Gustav. John Jowers, our pal who formerly worked for Hands On Network in Atlanta, and his pal Sherrie met us at the airport, and we all hit the road at 11:30 pm for the drive to Baton Rouge. Road Trip!

We arrived in Baton Rouge at sun-up Monday morning, and met Kellie Bentz, Hands On New Orleans' Executive Director, at GOHSEP, the Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Planning Center here in Baton Rouge. As the storm moved into the Baton Rouge area Monday afternoon, we hunkered down at our makeshift bunkhouse at a local rehab center. On Monday evening, we magically caught up with Lana Corll's pickup truck, which she has so generously loaned us time and time again. This time, it was already in Baton Rouge, having been borrowed by a friend of hers for last weekend's LSU football game. We then went back to GOHSEP to begin the process of vetting potential search and rescue teams who have called to volunteer their services. We'll be on that until they are all deployed.

We're fine up here. A big blow came through here for sure, with lots of trees and signs blown down, and a bunch of related property damage, but other than no electricity anywhere here (except for GOHSEP, which has giant generators running all over campus), Baton Rouge is OK. We're just starting to get detailed reports from parishes in Southern Louisiana, but things look far worse down there. Cajun Country got hit pretty hard. The levees in New Orleans all held up.

More later.

My love to all,