Even though it has been seven years since Hurricane Katrina, they are still in the process of rebuilding in New Orleans and the surrounding areas. Last October I went down for a week to help reconstruct the King family’s home. It was a truly amazing and rewarding time, one that I look back on with very fond memories. It was sooo great – I went back again last week!
The organizing group that I went with is called One Brick, a small non-profit that organizes volunteers in several cities throughout the US for various organizations and activities. Here is their mission statement: One Brick provides support to local non-profit and community organizations by creating a unique, social and flexible volunteer environment for those interested in making a concrete difference in the community. We enable people to get involved, have an impact and have fun, without the requirements of individual long-term commitments.
The local New Orleans charity that we volunteered with is called the St. Bernard Project. They have been working nonstop since the hurricane to help the people of Orleans and St. Bernard Parish rebuild their houses and their lives. Here is their mission statement: St. Bernard Project (SBP) is an award-winning rebuilding, nonprofit organization whose mission is to remove physical, mental and emotional barriers for vulnerable families, senior citizens and disabled residents who are struggling to recover from the devastation and trauma caused by Hurricane Katrina and the Oil Spill.
Joining me in my week long endeavor was a fantastic group of 17 people from various cities around the US, including Seattle, San Francisco and the Bay Area, Detroit, New York, Washington DC and Miami. We shared a volunteer house and worked on three homes in various states of rebuild. Friendships were formed, and good times were had. We all had our personal interests in mind but we came mainly for one reason – people needed help. We had to get them home. Simple as that.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind
When I told people I was going to New Orleans they said, “Oh my god! That’s awesome. I’m so jealous.” When I told them why I was going to New Orleans they said, “Really? Wasn’t Katrina like 7 years ago? They’re still rebuilding?”. YES – yes they are, and I’m going to help!
Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans on August 29th, 2005. It was a Category 3 hurricane with winds up to 125 mph. It was not a particularly strong hurricane, but its 30 mile radius made it big. The hurricane approached land over the Gulf of Mexico’s shallow northern shelf bringing with it a massive 20 foot storm surge. This left 80% of New Orleans and the surrounding area underwater. These floodwaters, 4 to 25 feet in some locations, lingered around for weeks. 80% of the homes in New Orleans were rendered uninhabitable, and an astounding 100% of the homes and businesses in neighboring St. Bernard Parish were deemed unlivable.
A majority of the population evacuated under mandatory orders (1.2 out of 1.5 million people in only 38 hours). Some however were unable to leave and some chose to stay. There were over 700 deaths in New Orleans alone, and it is estimated that most survivors suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in some degree in the months and years that followed. Communities up and down the Gulf Coast have similarly harrowing statistics and are continuing to put their lives and communities back together to this day.
Here is an interactive graphic from the New Orleans Times-Picayune that shows the flooding hour by hour from Katrina’s landfall on the 29th of August to the time the water finally stopped rising at midday on September 1st. I have seen the pictures, I’ve watched the news footage, I’ve read the horror stories of what happened in those first few days after the event, I have even met some of the people that lived through it; but I still can not imagine what these people survived and the courage it took to persevere after such a traumatic event.
The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was big news for months, maybe even years. But when the media coverage faded, so did our concern. Many people, myself included, thought that if it wasn’t on the news, it was no longer a problem. Things were fine in the Gulf Coast, back to normal in New Orleans. But they weren’t. It was merely another case of out of sight, out of mind.
The news coverage did pick up again in 2010 when New Orleans as well as the entire Gulf Coast was devastated by the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. This was the largest accidental marine oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. The oil spilled unimpeded into the Gulf of Mexico for months and eventually covered some 3,850 square miles of ocean. Oil and tar balls washed up on shores as far away as Florida and completely decimated the fishing industries.
New Orleans found itself in midst of media coverage again just a little over a month ago when Hurricane Isaac reared its ugly head on the 7th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Most of the news of this event centered around the fact that New Orleans itself was spared. It did not show the results of the 10 – 25 feet of water that wiped out many parts of the region including Plaquemines Parish just south of New Orleans.
The Truth Will Set You Free
There is a horrible and unwarranted misconception that a majority of the people who lost their homes in New Orleans were poor, uneducated, welfare abusing, non contributors to society. This is completely inaccurate, and to perpetuate this fallacy is a great disservice to the proud, hard working, family oriented, patriotic people of New Orleans.
Prior to Hurricane Katrina, St. Bernard’s Parish had an unemployment rate of only 4% and a home ownership rate of 74%. This is pretty amazing considering that the average yearly income was only $36,000. These communities were tight knit. They took care of each other and they took pride in their neighborhood. Generations of families lived within blocks of each other, and it was not uncommon for residents to be able to trace their friendships back to their grandparents and beyond.
The majority of people had home insurance, some people even had flood insurance. Many residents discontinued their flood insurance mere months prior to Hurricane Katrina because they were told that the Levy system assured that they were out of flood danger. These people knew the risks of living in a hurricane zone but they also knew the benefits of living in communities that were rich in friendship, pride, and common decency. Most peoples equity was tied up in their homes and when those were gone they were in a world of trouble.
There are many reasons why people still need help after so many years, here are just a few. Some people who did receive money from insurance were forced to pay off their mortgages before any thoughts of rebuilding could take place. These people were left owning a rotting stinking remnant of a house that they used to call home with no money left to start the process of rebuilding.
Some people who received money from insurance or the government put their trust and a lot of their money in the hands of corrupt contractors who either were inept at proper construction or simply took their money and ran. In communities where trust and the word of a friend were stronger than any legal document, the swindlers and unscrupulous weaseled their way in and there was no legal recourse available to victims after the fact.
Some people lost all of their documentation in the flood and could not prove ownership of a house that they had lived in for generations. They could not receive any money for something they had no proof of owning. They were left with nothing and little hope of receiving help.
Some people who had home insurance and flood insurance still could not receive proper compensation because technically the flooding was caused by wind and unfortunately they did not have the foresight to buy wind insurance as well. Ridiculous as it may seem, the small print was the thing that hurt these people the most.
A majority of people took the proper precautions and had their homes insured, they trusted in their city and their government when they told them the levy system would work. When everything failed and their homes and lives were left in shambles they took what they could from insurance and government recuperation efforts, but for many it was still not enough.
Unfortunately there were some people who made everyone look bad. In any given situation, there are always the users and abusers who manipulate the system and make things more difficult for the rest of us.
In the case of Hurricane Katrina, it was not the people of New Orleans who were the users and abusers, it was everyone else – except the Canadians of course, who in many instances were the first to respond and rescue people after nearly a week. We, the people of the United States of America and the government that some of us elected let these people down. It was shameful.
There were many fingers pointed and many inaccurate accusations made, the truth of the matter and what we should take into the future with us is this: the response was just not good enough. Too many people suffered for far too long and there are still some suffering to this day.
Lending a Helping Hand
The St. Bernard Project has four programs: Rebuilding Program, Opportunity Housing, Good Work Good Pay and Mental Health Programs. They have three overall goals in mind: To create humane, safe, secure and affordable housing. To ensure that individuals, families and the community as a whole are mentally healthy and well. To create living wage jobs for veterans in the community.
I helped with the St. Bernard Project’s Rebuilding Program. This program rebuilds homes for senior citizens, people with disabilities and families with children who can not afford to have their homes rebuilt by contractors. For clients who can afford supplies, the St. Bernard Project provides supervised volunteer labor. For clients who can not afford supplies, the St. Bernard Project buys the supplies and provides the labor.
A typical rebuild takes from 6 -12 weeks and $30,000 in construction supplies to go from a gutted house to move-in condition. There are skilled construction managers who oversee the entire process and trained site supervisors from Americorp who are on site daily to help teach and guide the numerous volunteers.
The SBP Rebuilding Programs has completed 445 homes to date and have 20 homes currently under construction. There are still over 100 families on the waiting list and surely more to come due to Hurricane Isaac. In order to help everyone on this list they need lots of money (click here to donate) and many volunteers (click here to learn about volunteering).
The Reality of Volunteering
I spent a total of 9 days in New Orleans and 5 of them were spent volunteering with SBP. On Monday morning our One Brick group arrived at the SBP headquarters for orientation. We heard about the devastation that Hurricane Katrina wreaked and the reasons that SBP was started. Our group broke into 3 smaller groups and received bios of the 3 homeowners that we would be helping during the week. Then we split up and made our way to our respective houses to begin work.
Our homeowner was Ms. Cynthia Davis and she had lived in New Orleans 7th Ward for almost her entire life. She worked as a payroll clerk at Tulane University for 17 years prior to Hurricane Katrina. A few days before Katrina made landfall she was evacuated to Lake Charles to stay with her sister. The hurricane completely devastated her home.
Only a couple of weeks later, Hurricane Rita hit Lake Charles and Ms. Cynthia was evacuated to Michigan to live with her son. Over the next couple years her health deteriorated dramatically. When the Road Home Program began Ms. Cynthia signed up immediately, but due to her failing health she missed her first appointment and was denied any funding what so ever.
A few years past and she finally got the courage to move back to New Orleans and attempt to put her life and home back together. She moved in with her sister and contacted the St. Bernard Project for help.
“I want to be back in my house,” she says. “After having so many negatives, you breathe a sigh of relief when someone is willing and able to help you… God bless each and every one of you.”
We met our Site Supervisor at the house and learned the details of what we would be doing during the week. Oddly enough I ended up with the same person that ran our house last year when I volunteered – Alex. He is a young high school teacher who came to volunteer one summer for SBP and fell in love with the city, the people, and the cause. He later joined Americorp to help out further and decided to spend another year helping as well. He has proven to be a wonderful site supervisor – encouraging us even when he wanted to scream at us, making the atmosphere light and fun despite the depressing circumstances, and teaching us with patience and expertise. We couldn’t have asked for a better leader.
Our house was at the point where the drywall was up and the seams had been taped. Our job was to float and skim all of the seems so that the walls and ceiling would be ready to be primed, textured, and painted. This is the same work that I had done last year, so I was fairly comfortable with it and jumped right into the task at hand.
It is somewhat messy work. They call it mudding for good reason. The entire day is spent putting the mud on the wall and then scraping it off and smoothing it out. Our mantra according to Alex was, “Kill. Kill. Feather. Feather. Smooth.” This meant that after applying the mud to the seam we would kill both edges (scrape the excess mud off) then feather the edges (make them blend into the wall) and lastly smooth out the center. It takes some time to master, but once you get the hang of it, it’s smooth sailing.
I actually love this type of work. It’s kind of freeing. You are only thinking about getting that seam perfect, nothing else matters at that point – just kill kill feather feather smooth. At the end of the day my clothes were caked in mud, my hair was white was sanding the seams of yesterday, and my muscles were aching from the repetitive motion – it was wonderful.
At the beginning of the week we had a goal of getting two of the rooms primed by the time we left. We exceeded our goal and had three of the rooms primed on Thursday. A unique opportunity was brought to our attention on Wednesday. If we wanted to, we could help gut a house on Friday that was flooded by Hurricane Isaac last month in Plaquemines Parish. We were told that it would be hard, disgusting work. That we would be walking through 6 inches of mud. That we would need resperators and haz-mat suits. That it would be an attack on the senses. That grown men have vomited during such guttings. We all said, “Yes. Definitely, yes.”
Beneath The Mud Lies Hope
As we drove out to Plaquemines Parish, along the Mississippi River and through the Levee gate, we witnessed first hand the devastation of Hurricane Isaac. There was debris everywhere, the chain link fences acted like strainers for the receding water and collected marsh grass, dead animals, and peoples personal belongings. There were houses that looked to be untouched except that they were on the opposite side of the road from where they should have been, and a little further down the road was the foundation and front porch that the house used to belong to. There were vehicles half buried in mud and boats that should have been in the river not on peoples front lawns. The most disturbing image was the group of mausoleums that had somehow floated away from the cemetery, the Dearest Mother inscriptions still clear as day.
As we neared the house that we would be gutting we saw houses with enormous piles of trash and debris in front of them. It was heartbreaking to see peoples lives, their homes, all of their belongings, piled up on the lawn ruined and waiting to be hauled away.
We met Anthony, our home owner in his front yard. The house didn’t actually look too bad from the outside, but the inside was a completely different story. Anthony’s house had been flooded with 3 feet of water by Hurricane Katrina. When he rebuilt, he raised the house 4 feet off the ground. Hurricane Isaac flooded 12 feet, just missing his 8 foot tall ceilings. He is 80 years old and said he didn’t know if he could stomach another rebuild. We were there to find a bit of hope beneath all that mud and muck.
First step was to gear up. Rubber boots, gloves, respirators. We looked like we were headed into a war zone and I guess we were – Mother Nature against Man – we all know who the winner of that one was.
We entered the house timidly, with reverence for this dear old man and the home that he had painstakingly rebuilt only 7 years ago. It was hot and hard to breathe. The mud was everywhere, 2 -4″ deep and horribly slippery. It stunk. Even through the respirators the smell emerged. A rotting combination of decay, mildew, and sewage. The further we got, the worse it was.
The first task was to take out the large furniture items, starting at the front of the house and working our way back. This was extremely difficult work. Not only was the furniture completely water logged, it was started to fall apart. Couches, chairs, dressers and beds. Everything was ruined. The water mark was only 6 inches below the ceiling and everything under that mark needed to be removed.
Once the big items were out of the way, we took out the smaller items, sometimes piling them in wheelbarrows to help speed up the process. There were knick knacks, and picture frames, lamps and a ton of books. We tried to preserve what we could, calling Anthony in from time to time to see if he wanted this or that. I found a porcelain Nativity set under the bed that was amazingly pristine and undamaged. We saved some clothes and some Christmas ornaments, even some of their grandchildren’s toys. It broke our hearts to see Anthony rummaging through the ever expanding pile of debris on his lawn, searching in vain for anything worth saving.
The next task was to remove the mud. We scraped it into piles and shoveled it into wheelbarrows. Load after load, out the door and onto the lawn. The floor finally emerged, the wood warped and disfigured and stained from a months worth of seepage. We tore out the carpet in the bedrooms and the linoleum in the bathroom. We took off the base boards and the door trim. Then finally it was time for the walls.
The drywall came off in crumbling wet pieces. Sometimes the only thing holding it together was the pale green paint like a thin layer of rubber clinging one side. Beneath the drywall was the insulation, dripping and moldy, growing strange fungus and reeking of stagnant water. We piled all of this in the wheelbarrows and dumped it on the growing piles in the yard.
We worked for hours and during this whole time we took periodic breaks – to breathe a bit, to drink some water, and to temporarily remove ourselves from the devastation that we were witnessing. We were covered from head to toe in mud and muck. We were sweating buckets and breathing heavily. We were overwhelmed with the situation, but we persevered and managed to gut close to 70% of the house.
By the end of the day, I was far too dirty to get into our rental car. So I changed into a clean tyvec suit and threw my clothes in with the other debris. It seemed a fitting end to an outfit that I had worn for months doing a range of work from cattle ranching to cow milking. This day was by far the most disgusting, tiring, sweating, stinking thing I had ever done and it was the most the rewarding day I had spent with SBP.
Hope is a powerful thing. And to be able provide someone hope, even just a little, is immeasurably rewarding. There is a reason people volunteer instead or in addition to donating money. It is the personal gratification of helping someone in need, of being present in the moment, of seeing first hand the problems that others are facing, and providing hope when all else seems lost. Volunteering is one of my greatest pleasures. I hope you too are able experience the gratification that helping entails. Go out and do it today!
I would like to thank my good friend Wikipedia for many of the facts and figures as well as the SBP website for information on all of the wonderful things that they do. I would also like to thank all of the wonderful One Brick volunteers who made this week awesome and contributed some of the pictures in this post. Also a big thanks to Chris for a few of the post gut photos. Thanks everyone for your help! I couldn’t have done it without you.
Thanks for reading!