Saturday, November 3, 2012

Our House is a Very, Very, Very Fine House

Hello Everyone, and Greetings From New Orleans,

Ann and I are here in NOLA finishing up our 18th trip. After spending 4 weeks working here in New Orleans with Rebuilding Together on a handful of homes for their annual October Build effort, we headed over to Biloxi, Mississippi last Sunday to join our compatriots from Kaiser Permanente. Kaiser comes to the Gulf South twice each year to continue their efforts to help the region recover from Hurricane Katrina, spending one week in New Orleans and one week in Biloxi.

Biloxi, while a lot smaller than New Orleans, was severely damaged by a huge storm surge that directly hit them. The city is situated on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, and US 90, the highway running directly along the beach, used to be home to scores of antebellum homes that enjoyed spectacular views of the Gulf. The storm surge not only wiped out many of those structures, it continued onshore for dozens of blocks, instantly wiping out homes far from the beach. Biloxi's damage was much like what the Lower Ninth experienced here in New Orleans--instant, total destruction.

Just a few weeks before Katrina hit, the family we were working for had just moved into a home over one-half mile inland. The home was tossed off its foundation in an instant, broken in two, and deposited on the neighbor's property. Our single-mother's daughter was 6 years old at the time, and suffered tremendously in the emotional aftermath of the storm. She was convinced she would never be safe in her home again, if she ever had her own home again. Like thousands of kids in New Orleans, thunderstorms brought back terrifying fears of death and loss and lack of control. We were building a completely new home for them, now 9 feet in the air to meet the post-Katrina building codes, on that same property.

Kaiser's team bet the farm this time, choosing to participate in their first Blitz Build, where the goal is to build an entire home in one week. They not only brought 30 volunteers, they also purchased the building materials for the home. A major investment by John Edmiston and his people, as usual.

This project came to us through the Moore Community Center, a Methodist-operated project that provides child care and other services to families in need in Biloxi. Awhile back, the good people at Moore realized that a lot of the moms they were providing child care services for would benefit from training opportunities that would lift them economically. They began the Women in Construction program, which provides free training in the construction trades to 10 or so women at a time. This project was anchored by them, and we were honored to work alongside these super-determined people throughout the week.

The majority of our volunteers come with very little construction experience, and are propelled instead by the size of their hearts and their determination to achieve whatever goals are set out for them. In the process, everyone gains skills and confidence in abilities they did not have at the beginning. Ann and I are familiar with Blitz Builds, made famous by Habitat for Humanity, but we've never participated in one. She and I and most of our Kaiser volunteers approached this week with cheerful optimism, propped up by this romantic exciting notion that this week would be magic and made-for-TV-movie-like. You know--a challenge here or there, a hangnail and a bruise for a few of us, but then, right before the credits roll, the home is somehow finished, with plenty of time to spare for showers, meals, drinks and laughs in between.

Yeah--just like that. Uh huh. It turns out that some editing takes place before that one hour show airs. Our week included the footage that never makes it to air.

Pollyanna was a no-show on Monday morning. We were scheduled to roll at 6:30 am, met quickly with our lead contractor at 6:45, started work at 7 am, and worked like whipped dogs until 7 pm.

The pros erected the 9-foot raised foundation prior to our arrival, and our work began with that and the floor in place, with a large inventory of lumber right next to it. We immediately split into several teams. One team climbed ladders onto the deck to frame the house, one team set about to paint all of the exterior trim and siding prior to installation, and Ann and I were asked to lead teams assigned to build the front and back stairs and porches. We were also asked to get them completely finished in one day, two days max. One minute after we'd met our bosses and been given our assignment, I felt a bit like I was in that recurring dream where I show up at my college final exam and realize I had never read the textbook or even attended the class.

The butterflies dissipated pretty quickly though, as the urgency set in and it became clear that it was indeed up to our team to build those porches and stairs, and to do it quickly and correctly. We split up, and Ann assembled a team to teach them how to cut stair stringers that fit while she simultaneously tried to figure out just where the posts that would hold up the switchback porch, steps and the upper landing were supposed to go so the holes could be dug and the posts could be set. My team had the easy job of the two, needing only to get going building two decks.

I felt a little bit bad that I got assigned to the deck team and Ann got the stair responsibility. I can't do stairs, and Ann does them beautifully. Stairs are much more work than decks, and I don't have the confidence that I could make them happen, and I was guiltily grateful that Ann had the job instead of me.

Reality began to set in for all of us as Monday turned dark. During the day, the framing team got all of the exterior walls and most of the interior walls up. Painting proceeded apace, despite the lack of real estate to stage painted boards while they dried. Ann trained two women to mark and cut stair stingers, and their work was impeccable. The porch deck team erected the frame of the back porch, and cut the joists. But, despite our sucker's notion that it wouldn't get dark before we decided it should, it did indeed get dark, the mosquitoes got mean, and at 7pm it was time to go. We trudged home, buoyed up by the shape of an actual home, held down by the weight of tasks unaccomplished, and now tempered by the reality that this is how the week was going to go.

On Tuesday, our goals were to finish the framing, install the roof trusses, sheet the roof in preparation for shingles, finish the front and back porches, finish the back stairs and prepare the front for stairs, and complete the painting. We did part of that, and then, go figure, it got dark again. Ann assembled a small team to stay late to site and dig the final holes for the posts that would hold up the back steps, and pour the concrete so those final posts would be ready by morning. Ann's team left for home at 8:30 that evening, and it occurred to us then that, by God, we were going to get our work done come hell or high water. Joaquin, John, Ann, and I left dead tired, but happily agreed on that fact.

Pizza, beers, a quick shower at 11 pm, then crash to bed and up again at 5 am. When we got to the work site on Wednesday morning, Ann's team kicked ass and those two extra hours we spent the night before paid big dividends, as her team quickly erected the switchback platform, installed the stair stringers, and bam! The back stairs were up. It was a moment for the entire group not unlike when the rest of us watched the framing team tilt up the walls on Monday. The day went like that--the porch team finished the back porch and installed the rail, the truss team got the roof trusses completed and began sheeting the roof, windows were installed, and at the end of the day the place looked like a house. We moved to the front to knock out the front porch, and got it all framed and ready to deck. Now it felt to us emotionally like we were really rolling. You could feel the momentum building as our collective confidence lifted us. By now, rookies were veterans, and the teams had subdivided into sub-teams, with new leaders taking on tasks that freed the other leaders to look forward and figure out how to move the big picture ahead. Wednesday ended with a shrimp boil and beers on the beach near our bunkhouse, hosted by our homeowner and her family and friends.

On Thursday, we rocked. We got all of the posts for the front stairs dug and poured and set, we finished the front porch and got the rail going, the siding was being installed at a furious clip, and the roof sheeting was completed. After darkness fell, we rushed back for a quick shower and a night out together. Only the adrenaline and our shared satisfaction about our progress fueled us that night, but we set off to finally be together for some eating and drinking and laughing that set the table for our final day on site.

On Friday, everyone decided to leave for work early so as to get started as soon as possible. We rolled at 5:30 or so, and set up our tools, power, and air in the dark. At the first sign of light, everyone dove in. Ann's team and my team came together to make use of our new skills to wrap up our projects. Joaquin, Katherine, Rosemary, Christine, Jackie, Michelle, Tanya, Susan and others all meshed so well that by then we knew each others' moves and needs that we were handing tools back and forth before they were requested. Sue Giboney, our longtime pal from the first project we worked on with Kaiser volunteers, and now a valuable team leader, joined us on Friday after completing her framing work, and she and Jackie Jones, our other longtime team leader and pal, led the rail team far beyond where they thought they could go. The rails on the back were completely finished, and the front rails were as complete as they could be considering I couldn't finish installing the posts in the time allotted. In addition, the front stairs were framed, the switchback was erected, and the stair treads were being installed. The roof team completed half of the shingles. The siding was completed, and the doors were installed. Insulation was installed inside. At night during the week, professional plumbers and electricians did their work after we left. At 4:30 on Friday afternoon, we stopped for a ceremony to present the home to Jana and her daughter Mia, and to collectively celebrate our accomplishment. Two seconds after the ceremony, everyone rushed back to their work stations to continue, trying to beat sunset. At the end of the day, that empty, bare floor deck we woke up to on Monday morning had been replaced by an honest-to-God home. It wasn't ready to move into, but the table is not only set, the meal has been served, and dessert is on its way. And our Women in Construction compatriots will see it through.

And just like that, it was over. 62 hours of work, sun-up to sundown, 5 days, see-through coffee and powdered eggs, showers at 10 pm, reveille at 5 am. At the end, we'd done 5 weeks of normal construction work. And we wished we'd been able to do more.

Lessons Learned

Now that we've been through a Blitz Build, I think it's imperative that we now do it again, and the sooner the better. This past week, while still a blur, will present some very useful lessons on how to do it so much better the next time. That is not to say that we didn't do it really well this time (we did), but by going through this process having been thrown into it, we've learned a lot of tricks that make us ready to do it again, and even better than we did it last week.

An interesting irony of this past week was that, even though this was the first time all Kaiser Permanente volunteers worked together on the same site the entire week (as opposed to previous trips, where teams of volunteers were deployed on different projects in different locations), we probably did less collective bonding than we have in the past. The super-fast pace of the week caused all of the teams to focus so sharply on their specific tasks (and for so many hours of the day) that little time was left over for the bonding that takes place separate from the task. Conversely, the teams that did form to accomplish their specific tasks bonded up quickly. It's not that one way is better than another so much as it's simply the reality of the pace of the work. Turns out that Blitz Builds aren't like going to the prom. Our experience was more like thinking you were going to the prom, and then being told when you showed up that you were instead participating in an Ironman triathlon.

Ann and I have long said that the best volunteer efforts involved doing the work and teaching the work. Our mantra has been that, once you've learned a new task, the imperative was to teach the new skill to two other people, and to pass that ethic on to those we work with. In that way you'd grow the effort and leverage your skills. This past week, there was so much that could be taught, and so little time in which to teach it. The desire to accomplish the actual goal of moving a family into their home was, and rightfully so, the primary focus. The compressed timeline left little time to break down the work into discrete tasks that could be taught and passed on. We all did what we could, and our teams deserve a lot of credit for simply absorbing what they observed and participated in, but I hope we can do more next time. One element that apparently was taught very well was the language of the construction site. One of our very valuable team members, who will now go nameless in case she'd rather not see her name applied to this illustration, was hauling very heavy lumber to the saw to be cut. After a very strenuous afternoon of hustling 6 x 6 pressure-treated posts across the lot to the saw, she remarked to no one in particular, "These motherfuckers are heavy!" Lesson taken. I take full credit for it. And I'm proud of her for it. Do it. Teach it. Tell it.

John Edmiston and his team at Kaiser picked this job, taking it on faith that somehow we could all get this job done. The choice says everything about how much they care and how much they wish to accomplish. The faithful ambition John embraced reminded us so precisely of the early work that Hands On New Orleans took on. I think what happened last week raised the bar so high that Ann and I are excited to see what it translates into when Kaiser makes their next trip to New Orleans next April.

The final lesson we learned is that intense work on behalf of others makes for lasting friendships. This isn't news to us, but last week illustrated to us that a rapid, intense pace accelerates the bonding process. At our first group meeting last Sunday night, when no one knew anyone else and everyone introduced themselves to the group, I told them that by the end of the week, someone I didn't yet know would be exchanging phone numbers and email addresses with me so we could stay in touch. Of course that turned out to be true, and my circle is a bit wider and richer today. Joaquin, Katherine, Carl and Jim are just four of the people I am now honored to call friends. I know I'll see them all again.

Because I am so succinct, I'll close now by saying this: Last week was the most intense, most difficult, most problematic, most stressful, most tiring week Ann and I have had in the 18 months we've spent down here after the storm. And the most satisfying.

Ann and I send out our endless love to Lana Corll, our host for so many of our stays in New Orleans. She not only opens her home to us, she also tosses us the keys to her truck. Her generosity makes it possible for us to continue our trips to New Orleans, and her friendship makes our time in New Orleans feel like we are home. Thanks a lot, Lana.

My Love to All,