Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Take These Broken Wings and Learn to Fly

Hello Everyone, and Greetings from New Orleans,

Ann and I have made two trips to New Orleans since we last wrote you in April of 2011.  We spent February here to celebrate and enjoy Mardi Gras with our pals down here, and then went to work immediately after that with Rebuilding Together New Orleans to work on Miss Ruby's home in a far corner of the Hollygrove neighborhood.  Hollygrove is a section of New Orleans immediately east of the 17th Street Canal, and many homes took lots of water from the storm surge that stormed up the canal from Lake Ponchartrain.  We helped install siding on her home, and made it ready for paint to be applied by a Spring Break group of college students who arrived right after we left.

Ann went home a few days before I did, and Kelsey was able to make it after that for her third trip to volunteer.  Kelsey was a pro from the beginning, gutting a large home with me on her first trip in March of 2007.  Kelsey and I got to prepare a large home on Gravier Street for exterior paint, supplied the following week by Spring Break college kids.  We also discovered the joys of a shrimp po' boy at the Coye Food Store in the heart of the bleakest section of the Hollygrove.  It felt good to do business with a local business in an area that still needs so much help.  The woman who ran the kitchen in the back of the store made a mean sandwich for us, and we've returned a few times since.

Ann and I spent most of March in Olympia without unpacking.  I flew back to NOLA on April 5th, and Ann joined me on the 10th.  We joined up with Rebuilding Together New Orleans right away and worked on a few homes in the final stages of rebuilding.  It has been a great pleasure for us to work on projects that are nearly finished.  When we come to NOLA to work, we get plugged into whatever is going on at the time.  This trip, we were able to work on homes that were nearly finished.  That is a guilty pleasure.  To be able to punch-list a home is a privilege we aren't often given, and it's a rare treat to back out of a home for the last time to make way for a homeowner to return.

Chinese Drywall

The first home Ann and I worked on was one of Rebuilding Together's 51 Chinese Drywall homes.  After Katrina, the Southeast Region ran short of most building supplies, including drywall.  To meet the huge demand that couldn't be met in time with American-made drywall, suppliers imported tons of Chinese-made drywall, and for-profit and not-for-profit organizations alike purchased and installed it.  Rebuilding Together alone used it in 51 of their rebuilds.  The product turned out to be tainted with contaminants that off-gassed toxic fumes, corroding copper wiring and plumbing, ruining electronic components like TVs and microwaves, and making residents sick, driving them from their rebuilt homes.  After the storm, after insurance companies ignored claims, after two years in a FEMA trailer, after finding organizations like Rebuilding Together to come and help, after moving back into a newly-restored home, after all of that--they were forced to vacate their home so it could be gutted completely again, and rebuilt completely again.  Each rebuild takes several months to complete.

What else could happen to these folks?

Rebuilding Together, Habitat for Humanity, Operation Helping Hands, and other organizations all chose to do the only thing they felt they could do--they committed to rebuilding each and every home at their expense.  Doing so took down Operation Helping Hands, who, following the remediation work, shut down, exhausted and broke.  Rebuilding Together estimates the cost of each rebuild to exceed $40,000.

One of the Chinese drywall manufacturers, Knauf Plasterboard Tianjin, has entered into a settlement that will provide some assistance to homeowners who can prove their product was used.  Other Chinese manufacturers, because they are not subject to US jurisdiction, have simply ignored the lawsuits.  Makes you wonder about the benefits of globalization, doesn't it?  I mean, if foreign manufacturers are entitled by treaty and law to sell their products in our market, where is the reciprocity if their products cause us harm?

Our Work

We spent a bunch of time at Miss Audrey's home on Spruce Street in the Hollygrove.  Miss Audrey's son suffered a massive stroke, and is now confined to a motorized wheelchair.  Ann and I had one of those "Aha!" moments at her home when the work was described for us.  Miss Audrey's home is a solid single shotgun home, in pretty good shape, but when a wheelchair is added to the equation, the level of the floors becomes very apparent.  Between the back bedroom, where Miss Audrey's son lives, is a bathroom/laundry room that he has to pass through to make it out the side door to his wheelchair ramp.  That room was the place where all of the imperfections of the floors came together.  The foundation had sagged, and her son could no longer traverse the floors with his wheelchair without Miss Audrey's help.  Miss Audrey is several sizes smaller, and a number of years older than her son..

Our Rebuilding Together's boss' plan was to build a small ramp to get Miss Audrey's son from his bedroom to the bathroom/laundry room level (several abrupt inches below his bedroom).  While we took a small break Ann and I were sitting on the floor and it came to us: the span from the edge of the bedroom level to just a few feet inside the bathroom level, WAS LEVEL.  In other words, right there at the transition was a foundation sag that had added the drop between the rooms.  Instead of building a ramp that acknowledged the sag, if we pulled up just a few square feet of floor, fixed the joists underneath, then installed new subfloor and tiles, voila!  We'd have a level floor he could pass through on his own, without Miss Audrey's assistance.  After proving our discovery, we all went to work on what turned out to be a really great solution, leaving all of us pleased with the outcome.  Several times, Miss Audrey showed us her love with her wonderful lunches.  Lunches we've been served so often during our time down here in New Orleans, lunches we've long referred to as Sunday Dinner.

Ann has become the Tile Master on any Rebuilding Together team she is a member of.  In fact, she is assigned to RT teams based often on the need for someone to do and teach tiling.  On this trip, she worked on four consecutive tiling jobs, each time adding her skilled touch and her desire to teach others.  Prior to Miss Audrey's job, she hid my errors and finished a bathroom tub surround at the project in the Lower Ninth I was working on before she arrived.  She finished that one beautifully, moved on to Miss Audrey's floor, then was sent to Miss Hazel's home in Gentilly.  Again, the subfloor there had a transition to the next room, which our RT team removed prior to Ann's arrival.  Ann then set new tile on the entire bathroom floor, and another old problem for a homeowner was removed.

After three very productive weeks working for Rebuilding Together, Ann and I switched gears and joined our pals, old and new, from Kaiser Permanente.  You may remember our earlier work with Kaiser Permanente back in January of 2008 (See "A Perfect Job With a Perfect Team") and last April (see "Praise for Jobs Well Done").  Kaiser has been sending teams to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild every year since Katrina, and, while each year includes a new group of first-time volunteers, each year also includes a very happy reunion with a core group of volunteers who now come on their own dime to join the effort.  Between these now-named Repeat Offenders (a very apt name for a very lively group), the Project Leaders (who were volunteers the previous year and were chosen as official team leads based upon the success of their earlier experience and the size of their hearts), and the new volunteers, this group of very special people came together in New Orleans to throw themselves into the most challenging projects they can get HandsOn New Orleans to throw at them.  They honor us by including us in their work and the fun that takes place after work.

Ann and I were asked to help with the team KP sent to Miss Doris Johnson's home in Gentilly.  Miss Doris' home took 4 feet of water when the floodwalls on the London Avenue Canal failed.  We came to help Miss Doris because she'd given all of her money to a contractor that not only failed to finish, but returned to sever the wiring above her new electrical panel when she refused to give them more money than the deal called for.  Our team set to making her second floor livable for her granddaughter and great-grandchildren.  Ann, Teri and Lisa went to work on the bathroom tile, and the rest of us went to work in the other rooms, dead set on finishing and/or fixing walls and trim.  Her kitchen and laundry room had been drywalled, but not mudded or taped.  In the other rooms, we removed and replaced battered paneling, rotten or missing trim, and then completely repainted walls and trim.  At the end of our three days there, the place was ready for the electricians to finish their work.  We arrived at Miss Doris' home a group of strangers, and left a team of friends.

On Wednesday afternoon, John Edmiston, the KP leader and heart-and-soul of this on-going KP effort here in NOLA, arranged for all members of the group to come together at Success Preparatory Academy, a charter school here in NOLA.  At John's direction, KP purchased 40 new Specialized brand bikes of various sizes.  Each teacher selected 2 students that best epitomized the spirit of effort, determination, and commitment that Success Prep seeks to instill in every student, and those students then joined their parents for a ceremony where they were awarded one of those bikes.  We all got to spend the afternoon in small teams assembling all of these bikes, and KP volunteers were then each individually paired up with a student and his/her parents to select the bike, get a helmet and lock, and go outside to try the bike out, get pictures taken, and generally bask in the praise bestowed on them by all of us.  It was an incredibly fun afternoon for all of us, and one I'm pretty sure won't soon be forgotten by those smiling kids.

We followed up that Wednesday with a wee bit of karaoke at Kajun's Pub on St. Claude Avenue.  I went by Kajun's later that week to thank them again for their hospitality, and told them I hoped our beverage bill helped pay the rent for the month.  "Oh, yeah, it did that, alright", was the bartender's reply.  Those KP folks know how to light up a room.

Finally, on Friday, John arranged for all 4 of our KP work crews to come together one last time to work on a community garden being built in the Holy Cross neighborhood in the Lower Ninth.  The garden sits on a side lot next to the home of Miss Arletta Pittman, and she had dedicated it to the senior citizens of her neighborhood.  As we had become accustomed to doing throughout the week, the team all found their individual tasks and set about to accomplish the whole project in one very warm day.  Even though it was Friday, the last of their 5 workdays, and even though it hit 90 degrees and was pretty humid, the team seemed stronger and more full of energy than ever before.  By then, all of these strangers had become friends, and the day breezed by in gales of laughter, sweat, and dirt.  Then, with a final goodbye dinner that evening, where we all got to say a bit about what we'd seen and done, and talk about the people we'd met, it was over.  A very fine week with a very tight group of talented, good-hearted, and very hard working folks.  And now the circle expands to include all the new folks, now veterans.

These past few trips have included a bit of a Magical Mystery Tour for me.  Added to all of the work and the fun and the NOLA friends we've made along the way, I've experienced this accompanying nostalgia for the early days of our work here in New Orleans.  Every job we've worked on has included this alternate reality for me, where I remember so well our earlier work for homeowners long since returned home, work accomplished alongside volunteers and dear friends no longer with us in New Orleans, 4 minute showers (OK, 8 minute showers when shared with Ann) in our outdoor showers at our beloved and only true bunkhouse on First and Dryades, and community meals and after-meal beers at Igor's with some of the finest people I'll ever know.  Working alongside our friends from Kaiser Permanente opens these floodgates of memories for me.   All the while, I'm so nostalgic for the early days of urgent work, managed by the original Hands On construction staff--Nic, Bri, Amy, and others, and executed by long-term volunteers--Reggie, Chandra, Sean, Eric, Liz, Caliopie, Bill, and so many others, set to the background music of zero creature comforts, little personal space, and even less quiet time.  That said, we all give thanks for how much better life is for many New Orleanians now, and we keep plugging away on the homes still left to fix.

Happily, our NOLA reality now is based upon the incredible generosity of Lana Corll, our hostess and benefactor, who so graciously opens her home to us, gives us a wonderful space to live in, allows us to store our tools and work clothes in her home, tosses us the keys to her truck, and does nothing short of making our continued trips to New Orleans possible.  This new reality is a wonderful one, indeed, and includes unlimited shower time, cold beers an arms-length away, plenty of New Orleans charm and hospitality, and more creature comforts than we have any right to enjoy.  Buzzing joyfully in the background is the happiness and satisfaction we, both volunteers and homeowners, have in our hearts and our memories for those early days when we counted on each other so fiercely and helped each other in ways we hadn't always expected.

My Love to All,