Friday, March 20, 2009

Something's Happening Here

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Ann and I arrived on February 19th. Once again we're staying in our friend Lana Corll's guest room and driving her pickup, and our volunteers are drinking the great coffee always provided by our pals at Batdorf & Bronson- thanks Lana and thanks Batdorf & Bronson. We are very grateful.

The Work

A couple of weeks before we arrived, we heard from our fellow volunteer Bill Goslin. He extended a business trip to Texas with a week in New Orleans before heading back to his family in upstate New York. We love working with Bill because he's a) very talented, b) very motivated, and c) is a great guy with a great heart. Our kind of fellow would-be New Orleanian. We spent a week with Bill (and Reggie on his day off) working at a couple of different sites. Bill just doesn't quit. Between the four of us, we repaired Miss Emma Pearson's home, which was full of drywall fractures that occurred because she had virtually completed the rebuilding of her Upper Ninth Ward home when she received a grant to raise the home several feet. The home got raised, and basically all drywall around the windows and doors fractured. With Ann's and Bill's skill mudding and taping, and all of our brawn sanding and painting, we knocked that job out. I went back last week with Reggie to re-hang all of the interior doors and to prepare the rest of the baseboard and trim for installation. Miss Emma and her daughter Miss Donna spent Sunday cooking an entire Sunday-Mom Meal for us, which we enjoyed with our friend and host Lana Corll.

Bill spent his week in the bunkhouse with this year's group of volunteers from the Juilliard School. You'll remember Juilliard from my entries of March 2007, when I had the honor of sharing the bunkhouse with that year's group of very talented and very inspiring students. They have come back each year with a new group, but with an incredible institutional memory of the work and what their involvement means to it. There is something very special about the Juilliard students who choose to join this annual effort in New Orleans. This year's group was no different.

Bill, Ann and I also spent the first half of our first day together in Hands On's new tool warehouse. They moved in on February 1st, but most of the tools save for rakes shovels and brooms were still not organized or available. We needed tools, so we decided to jump in and organize. By noon, we'd found and organized most of the power tools and most of the hand tools. Made our work a lot easier after that because we now knew where everything was.

That Saturday, Ann and I took a group of Jesuit Volunteer Corps members to Franklin Street to do a mini-gut and clean up for Miss Debra. In 5 hours, they had completely cleaned out all debris left behind by the storm, and had gutted damaged ceilings throughout. These volunteers are in New Orleans for a year, assigned to a variety of full-time projects, but they joined us because they wanted to help with the work we were doing. It was old-school Tyvek and respirators, and they did their work very well. Last week, Todd and I went back to secure a few doors that allow access by squatters and thieves.

In between, Ann and I headed to the Lower Ninth Ward to begin a 3-day project requested by Davida Finger of the Loyola Law Katrina Clinic. To get Miss Jeanetta Cloud's home in the Lower Ninth removed from a City-ordered Demolition List, there was a list of improvements that needed to be made to the exterior of the home. Ann and I removed rotten soffit and fascia boards one one side of the house. The next day, Reggie and I cut and primed the new material, and we then installed the new soffit. That Friday, I had a team of 5 people (Todd, Niko, and Emily from Hands On, and Niko's parents, Barb and Jerry, who were in town for a long weekend with their son). Todd and Niko installed the new fascia boards and trim, everyone painted, we repaired two damaged siding areas, and Jerry and I installed roof flashing on two sides of the house. Our work didn't rebuild the home, but we were pleased to hear last week that the court agreed that our repairs were sufficient to move Miss Jeanetta's home off the demolition list for two more months while she tries to move her Road Home application towards closing, after which she will do what she has long desired to do, which is rebuild and move home.

After Ann went home on March 12th, I spent time at the home of Miss Doretha McCray, who owns a double-shotgun on the corner of Gallier and Roman in the Upper Ninth. We weren't able to get much work done for her, but Todd, Reggie and I installed a few light fixtures and made functional a half-assed handrail Miss Doretha's contractors partially installed prior to walking off her job and leaving her high-and-dry. When Ann and I arrived to scout this home a few weeks ago, Miss McCray and her daughter Wanda showed us through the home. They paid the contractor to complete her home, and it is nearly complete except the bathrooms don't operate yet (and the tile work is so bad I can't believe anyone would have so little pride that they could call what they did "work" at all), the kitchen has cabinets but no countertops or sink, the once-beautiful hardwood floors lie un-refinished, with the gouges, scratches, paint and other damage that comes from first being flooded and then being left unprotected from construction workers and the ancillary damage they cause in the normal course of their work. Miss Wanda just stood there, in my arms, and cried. She explained that they have no more money and no idea what to do next.


The first house Hands On asked us to scout on this trip was a large camelback double shotgun that belongs to Miss Anne Pinckney, who is living in her FEMA trailer in the driveway of the home her grandfather built on A.P. Tureaud Street. As has become a very common story these days, she used her life savings to hire a contractor to repair her home, which took a couple of feet of water. The contractor did not gut the house, but used the money she gave him to install a couple of doors and windows, and then paint the first few rooms. That's basically it, and then he was gone. The wiring had not been done, the roof had not been repaired properly, the camelback portion (the rear of the house) was open to the elements, with rotten siding and framing, missing windows and doors, etc. FEMA has given her and her cousin until May 1st to vacate the trailer for good. The materials needed to actually repair the home will probably cost in the $50,000 range, and that assumes the labor is free. She has no more money of her own. Hands On no longer does these types of projects, save for their involvement in trying to match up providers with those in need. The bottom line? She is screwed. The truth is, I can see no circumstance that would result in her getting her home rebuilt. When the FEMA trailer goes away, I have no idea where she will go or what she will do.

3-1/2 years after Katrina, many flooded homes remain in post-storm condition, and time and the weather are getting to them. What might have been rebuildable/repairable structures during our first few trips down here have in many cases simply deteriorated and rotted beyond repair. Homeowners who are still waiting to resolve issues that are keeping them from getting their Road Home money continue to ask for our help. As Ann and I scouted potential projects Hands On had been asked about, in one case all we could do was to tell Miss Mary Wilson and her son (who had gutted her home himself and was attempting to shore up the foundation) the truth: her home is now almost certainly beyond repair. The roof had been tarped, but the tarp has long ago rotted in the sun and the rain, and the roof and roof frame were ruined. Inside, the water and sun had destroyed large chunks of framing. Below the floor, most foundation beams were rotted away by termites and the elements. We concluded that the only route to providing a home for her on that lot was to knock the house down and start over.

Hope has always been a constant here. Residents, despite their financial circumstances, disabilities or other challenges, have always exuded a resilience and faith that things were getting better.

When do you quit calling it Hope and start calling it Denial? Many people in this city are, in my opinion, nearing the end of the line when it comes to the possibility they might actually move back into their homes. We volunteers have ridden that tide of hope and done our work with the confidence that somehow, someway, it was all going to be OK someday. On this trip, we have seen a number of instances where it would be a lie to say that things are going to be OK. That's a hard fact to swallow. If it isn't the elements slowly hammering a structure to death, it's inept and dishonest contractors slapping some paint on it and demanding more money to continue.

If it isn't that, it's a case like that of Mr. Ronald Tonth, whose home sits on the corner of Forstall and Robertson Streets in the Lower Ninth. Mr. Tonth asked two Hands On Americorps members to come look at his place to see if we could help. They asked me to come along. Mr. Tonth has a full-time job, a wife, children, and mother-in-law that he lives with. In his spare time, he's been rebuilding his home himself. When we arrived to look at the home, I was immediately impressed with the quality and quantity of work he had already accomplished. The exterior was basically complete, and well done. When he arrived, we went inside with him to see what needed to be done. A few rooms still need sheetrock, the sheetrock that has been completed needs to have the seams sanded, there is plumbing work to be done, floors to be installed, cabinets, etc. It wasn't a tiny amount of work left, but it was all doable by volunteers with a bit of money and the proper leadership.

Mr. Tonth told us his story: He rebuilt his home on the slab of his flood-damaged home, which like many in the Lower Ninth took water all the way into the attic. His family had left before the storm arrived, but people directly across the street drowned when the floodwall broke. He had nearly completed the rebuilding, including having added a second floor to the home to accommodate his mother-in-law, when squatters caused a fire in the abandoned home immediately behind his home. Much of the work he'd already completed was destroyed by the heat and smoke of the fire that burned a few feet from his home. He hired a lawyer, and after paying the contingent fee, netted about $20,000. The State is paying rental assistance to help his family live nearby. That assistance stops for good in 4 months. This man has spent what he's got and is nearing completion, but is feeling the time pressure and the burden of worrying about whether he'll be finished before he and his family "End up on the street or whatever happens to people when the rent assistance runs out". He's paying the mortgage on his property, and can't afford to do that and pay rent.

Here's what he asked us for (his words): "Anything. Any help at all. If you could come and paint a room. That would help. If you could help install flooring. That would help. If you could sweep a floor at the end of the day. That would help. Anything at all. I'm doing this by myself because that's the only way we are going to get this done. I'm running out of time and I'm worried I'm losing my mind. It's hard to balance all this, but it's all on me and I've got to find a way."

That man has been at this non-stop since the storm, providing for his family, and spending every minute and every cent he has. As for kitchen cabinets, he has just the sink cabinet because, as he so correctly stated, "If I can get a sink hooked up, we have a kitchen for now". When I remarked that his work on the drywall was really good, and that the walls were going to look great after texture and paint, he laughed and said, "I can afford paint, but I can't afford texture". He has cut every corner he can just to find a way to move his family home in time. My heart hurts for this guy, who has done nothing but work hard to provide for his family, to bring them home after a largely man-made calamity took away every material thing they had, and another man-made calamity burned most of his work as he approached completion the first time.

Our Call to Action

There is nothing I can do, and nothing I can ask you to do, to help people like Miss Pinckney, who needs thousands of dollars and has no time. Nor is there anything we can do to help Miss Wilson, who also needs thousands of dollars to first knock down her home of 35 years and build a new one.

But, there is something we can do together for Mr. Tonth and Miss McCray, and for others like them all over this City who only need a few bucks and some donated expertise to finally get them home.

We've asked you for financial help before, and we know the last year hasn't been kind to those of us with investments and savings. But I want to reach out to you again, to ask you to help Ann and me directly help Miss McCray and Mr. Tonth and his family. These two jobs can each be easily completed with a few thousand dollars and some skilled volunteer help. These two families are very close to completion, but might not be able to get the rest of the way without help. These stories are like thousands of stories in this City so long after Katrina. If we all pitch in, we can help some of these folks get over the top and get finished.

You can contribute one of two ways: If you wish your contribution to be tax deductible, you can make your check out to Hands On New Orleans and send it to me so I can direct it to these projects. If you don't care about the tax deductibility of your contribution, you can make the check out to me personally. In the former, I will restrict the donation for materials for those specific projects. It adds a bit of bureaucracy to do it this way, but it works. If you make the check payable to me, you don't get the deduction, but I get incredible flexibility to spend when we need to, with no delays or process. Either way, I promise that your money will be used for materials, and for materials only, for Mr. Tonth, Miss McCray, or for other small projects I don't yet know about but will inevitably discover when Ann and I return for our 10th trip in April. You can choose the project you want to contribute to, if you wish, or you can leave it to me to disburse the money where I think it is best used and most needed. No matter what, I beg you to consider making a contribution, no matter the amount, and send it to me today. Hands On has a number of skilled volunteers scheduled to arrive there over the next few weeks, and the work that needs to be done is urgent. I will personally see that our money is spent for its best and highest purpose, and that we use it to move these jobs to completion as quickly and nimbly as possible.

Thank you for giving this some thought. On behalf of those your contributions will help, I am grateful for anything we can do together to help.

My love to all,


Postscript: On Mardi Gras, Miss Antoinette K-Doe died. Miss Antoinette was the owner and operator of the Mother In Law Lounge, the first actual rebuilding project Hands On took on. Bill was involved in that project, along with Reggie and several other true believers and early Hands On volunteers. Miss Antoinette had one of the biggest hearts in New Orleans, and the lounge was a magnet for musicians and volunteers alike. After rebuilding the lounge, Hands On enjoyed a special status, and anyone with a purple shirt was golden. We have enjoyed many a Thursday night at the lounge when it was closed but available for band rehearsals. Imagine watching a popular band practice in front of you and a dozen of your friends while you enjoyed Miss Antoinette's red beans and rice. We've had many special times with Miss Antoinette. You can read a blurb about her life and influence on us and the City in last week's Time Magazine at,9171,1883364,00.html.

On Saturday morning after Bill arrived, we all donned our purple shirts and headed to Miss Antoinette's funeral. For those of you unfamiliar with New Orleans' funeral traditions, let me just say that Ann and I decided that, wherever we are when we pass on, we wish to be shipped immediately to New Orleans. There's a saying that New Orleans put the "fun" in "funeral". The service itself was joyful and uplifting in a way that, as you sit in attendance, it occurs to you that this is after all how Christian religions teach you to approach death. They've got it right.

Following the service (and you are going to have to forgive me now for being such a novice in the tradition), we all lined up behind the mule-drawn wagon/hearse that carried her body and walked in the Second Line. Second Lines, if I've got this right, are the loosely-assembled folks that fall in behind the formal funeral procession. It's the hangers-on, the neighbors, the folks along the way who, well, just join in and follow what looks like a parade. There's an entire brass band ahead of us just behind Miss Antoinette and we join in, picking up everyone along the way that feels the urge, some with umbrellas, some dancing, some with beers in paper bags, everyone with a sense of belonging. In Miss Antoinette's case, the procession ended at the Mother In Law Lounge, where her pallbearers lifted her casket from the carriage, and hoisted it three times into the air as we wished her home to heaven. And then the dancing continued. Miss Antoinette's father and relatives were Mardi Gras Indians, and Mardi Gras Indians from many tribes joined us in celebratory respect and love for her.