One More Post about New Orleans

Back in October I wrote a series of posts about the week I spent in New Orleans as a Katrina relief volunteer. Last week I put together a slide show of the trip for use during church yesterday. The slide show was a huge time sink, as such projects can so often be. The problem for me was that when I started I had no clear idea of what story I wanted to tell. There’s a bit of that indecision still visible (at least to me) in the final product.

Nevertheless, I’m linking the slide show here. If you’ve read this far, I hope you enjoy the show!

I think I made a resolution to post here at least three times a week. That thought obviously lasted about as long as the typical new year’s resolution. But who knows? Maybe I’ll start doing better by this blog. Truth be told, it has been an ongoing disappointment that the thing won’t write itself…

My Big Fat New Orleans Mission, Postscript

I went to New Orleans with a group of volunteers. We worked on one house that belonged to one family. Others involved in rebuilding the city, however, have serious money behind them and seek to implement Big Ideas about architecture, energy conservation and the nature of community.

We heard a lot about Brad Pitt while were in New Orleans, but I didn’t actually see any of projects bearing his name. Back in Maine, however, I read this article in the November issue of The Atlantic.

The article is intriguing, and it certainly contains ideas that are new to me. Even so, I’m left wondering what all of it actually has to do with the people I met in New Orleans. I can’t escape the feeling that these are the ideas of conquerors and missionaries, not helpers.

New Orleans certainly needs help and its people are generally grateful for the contributions that have been made. I’m not convinced, however, that it’s in anyone’s best interest to take this time of crisis in New Orleans as an opportunity to paper over the place with sensibilities that have more to do with San Francisco and Cambridge than the Crescent City.

My Big Fat New Orleans Mission, Part IV

Every New Orleans resident whose home was flooded or otherwise damaged by Katrina has faced wrenching decisions about whether to leave or stay, what to rebuild, what to abandon, when to do or not do anything and how to pay for whatever decisions are finally made. across-the-streetFrom the vantage of our group’s work site on Pauline Drive in Gentilly Woods, we easily found examples of many of the ways these decisions have played out.

Pauline Drive runs north and south, parallel to and west of the Industrial Canal. The house we worked on is on the canal side of the street and faces west. The house directly across the street, shown here, seems to be completely new, right down to its immaculately manicured lawn. I have no idea who owns the house or even whether there was anything on the lot before Katrina.

The neighborhood shows lots of signs of work in progress, but this house stands alone in its newness and completeness. My friend and fellow volunteer Tom has years of experience as a real estate appraiser. Who, he wanted to know, would build this house in a neighborhood so damaged that its survival may still be uncertain?

It’s a fair question, I think. The only plausible answer I can think of is that the house was built by someone who wanted to stay put in Gentilly Woods and who had first-rate insurance in force when Katrina struck.

The next door lot to the south tells a different story. It has been vacant since 2007 when everything on the lot except the cement slab and driveway was hauled away. Most people would agree that the lot is now an eyesore, slab-street-viewbut I have to wonder what happened here. Is this a case of a displaced owner, financial ruin, family quarrel, title problems or bureaucratic morass? Maybe the cause is just the owner’s despair.

That driveway visible on the left side of the photo is where I parked most days, but I didn’t explore the lot otherwise. I have a natural aversion to most insects and reptiles,  and I was pretty sure something I wouldn’t like was alive and hungry in those bushes. slab-next-door-150The smaller picture shows how the vacant lot and its driveway looked from the back bedroom of the house we were working on.

It appears that no one has done anything on this lot for at least two years. I say that on the basis of information I got from people in the neighborhood. It seems incredible to me, however, that those bushes could get that big in just two years. I have to admit that I don’t fully comprehend the incredible fecundity of New Orleans.boarded-up-nextdoor I remember joking to another member of our group that everything we saw had something else growing on it, even the mold.

The house on the adjoining lot to the north looked like a lot of the homes we saw in Gentilly, uninhabited, unrepaired and boarded up. In this case, the yard has been taken over by kudzu or something similar, although someone has paid enough attention to the property to hold back the bushes.

Across the street from the vacant lot, we saw a variation on the boarded up house theme. boarded-up-prideAlthough this house was also uninhabited, unrepaired and boarded up, there is something about that new bright blue paint on the blinds and window coverings that suggests this owner will be back. Restoring this house seems obviously a work in progress, perhaps even a labor of love.

The little corner of Pauline Drive where we did our work typifies the situation in New Orleans overall. Apart from and in addition to all of the big decisions made and to be made regarding the city’s future, there are the stories of individual properties and individual property owners.

The new house across the street is already inhabited. The house we worked on should have residents in time for Christmas. The vacant lot may remain vacant and overgrown for a long time to come. The boarded up house will probably be repaired and once again made into someone’s home, but it may remain as it is for several more years. The house with the blue paint will certainly be back, sooner rather than later. UCC-signWith the passage of enough years, Gentilly Woods will probably look more or less the way it used to, although by that time so many of the old residents will be gone and so many new residents will have arrived that those who remain from before Katrina may barely recognize the place.

I’m glad I went to New Orleans and proud that I got to play a part, however small, in the city’s recovery. For the six days I spent there I knew each morning, unequivocally, that just by showing up I was doing some good. Life is usually more complicated than that.

So I say again, if our church sends another group to New Orleans next year I will be part of it.

My Big Fat New Orleans Mission, Part III

levee-viewYears ago when I practiced law, a truth of human nature became apparent to me: nothing is simpler than somebody else’s problem. The so-called helping professions, including law, counseling and social work, are all founded upon this principle. As a lawyer, I didn’t agonize much over my clients’ problems. Their situations seemed absurdly simple: Client X should get a divorce; Client Y needed to file bankruptcy; Client Z had to sober up and turn himself in. Sure, these were huge, life-fragmenting steps with frightening implications—but they seemed so obvious. People just needed to quit dithering and get on with it!

I think most of us apply the same kind of reasoning to groups of people as well as to individuals. Moreover, the larger those groups and the farther away they are, the easier it becomes to feel comfortable making blanket pronouncements about how other lives should be led. The temptation is great, therefore, to believe we can take in the nearly 300-year history of New Orleans at a glance and conclude that the place shouldn’t be rebuilt at all. People need to face reality and move to a place where things like Katrina don’t happen, right? It’s just so simple!

Except that it isn’t.

My own thinking has matured since I took the photo at the top of this post. I went to New Orleans, and I saw for myself. The picture shows the back of the house my group worked on as it appears from the flood wall at the top of the embankment that abuts the back yard. You are seeing in this photo, by the way, exactly what you think you are seeing. The wall that flood waters over-topped when Pauline Drive flooded is higher than the roof of the house. So, doesn’t this prove that rebuilding the house is a bad idea? That thought is at least part of the reason I took the picture in the first place.

But the picture doesn’t really prove anything. The seawall and other earthworks that make the Gentilly area habitable date from 1927 and have held back the water for more than 80 years. Most of the houses shown in the photo were built in the 1950’s and have stood where they are for half a century or more.

There have been storms through the years, but nothing like Katrina. This seems to mean more to the residents of Gentilly than to people outside New Orleans. Residents love their homes and for the most part want to stay put.

In the four years since Katrina, many people have had a lot to say about the folly of those in New Orleans. At least one writer, however, has had the perspicacity to note the recurring hazards some of them, in such disparate locations as Seattle, St. Louis, Reno, Torrington, CT, and Lewiston, ID, were choosing not to heed in their own backyards.

The irate resident of St. Louis in the article linked above is quoted as saying, “I am sick…of hearing how every taxpayer in America should pony up a couple grand to subsidize the rebuilding of a cesspool of a city that will just be wiped out again by the next ‘unlucky’ hurricane.” Yikes!

Somehow he does not acknowledge that huge sections of his own city were submerged and destroyed by flooding as recently as 1993. The Mississippi River is still there, Mr. St. Louis. It’s obvious that flood waters will come again. Do you really think it was a good idea to rebuild St. Louis?

The resident of Reno, no less irate than his St. Louis counterpart, is even more amnesiac and seems to have no memory of the 1997 flood in his city. Yet the Truckee River, like the Mississippi, is still there and will flood again, Mr. Reno.

And as for that cesspool remark, well, the FBI has a lot to say about St. Louis. Reno, as everyone knows, has its own well-developed reputation in that department. The God of the Old Testament may have laid waste to the cities of the plain on account of their morals, but it’s probably not up to us to make that decision about New Orleans.

The fundamental fact is that St. Louis and Reno, like the rest of America, do not build for the ages any more than the people of New Orleans. It’s easy to decide that other people should give up their homes and move to a new place, but even easier to believe that our own homes should be rebuilt.

So it is in New Orleans, and so we worked to make our own small contribution to that rebuilding.

~ ~ To be continued ~ ~

My Big Fat New Orleans Mission, Part II

house-markingOn our first full day in New Orleans, we traveled through the Gentilly and Ninth Ward sections of New Orleans. The first thing I noticed was how much of Katrina’s devastation remains. Then I noticed the spray paint markings still prominent on houses that have not been completely repaired.

The photo shows the marking on the house in Gentilly where I ended up working. According to the explanation I got, the story the spray paint tells is this: On September 16, 2005, more than two weeks after Katrina roared through the neighborhood, a disaster relief crew identified as “SCTR” (probably from a National Guard unit) finally reached Pauline Drive, perhaps by boat. Inspection of the property—probably cursory inspection—turned up no dead bodies (the Ø) and no dead pets or livestock (the N/A). It went without saying that the interior of the property was totally destroyed by lingering flood waters. For the inspectors, however, finding no cadavers and no carrion was good news.

The house marking shown is on the front of the house (behind the cypress tree in the photo below). The other significant “marking” in that photo is the line, up about three feet from the ground, where the cypress bark seems to change color. This indicates the level at which flood waters stood. The glass in the front window of the house is permanently clouded up to the same level.

flood-waterlineWe drove to the house for the first time after completing  our orientation at Little Falls UCC Church. The orientation itself was filled with surprises, at least for me. I didn’t know, for example, that the work of rebuilding New Orleans is only about half complete four years after Katrina.

I also didn’t know that most of the work being done now is in the hands of charities, other non-profits, the faith-based organizations like ours, private contractors, and people who simply come to New Orleans to volunteer. Federal and state governments, together with the most opportunistic of the private contractors (Blackwater, Halliburton, etc.), have basically declared victory and gone home. The FEMA trailers are mostly gone now, but recovery from Katrina is expected to set the course of events in New Orleans for the next fifty to one hundred years.

Homeowners seeking assistance in rebuilding have had to make their way through a dizzying maze of programs, eligibility requirements, restrictions of various sorts, and lots and lots of paperwork. Public and private bureaucracies all work to help people get the relief they need, but they must often appear to be doing the opposite.

Our group’s work was mentored and monitored by the UCC Disaster Response Ministry which helps people who meet what are mostly economic criteria. Other relief organizations operate only in limited geographical areas. Some help only certain groups of people. Some take on projects in a limited dollar range. Some handle only certain kinds of repairs.

A homeowner might therefore qualify for several programs and have to decide which is the best fit. On the other hand, that homeowner might not qualify for any program and have to keep searching. This is often the situation for those whose home ownership is based upon informal and undocumented transfers. Cash sales without deeds and inheritances without wills or probate fall into this category. Such transfers can pass unnoticed for years, even decades, so long as real estate tax and utility bills continue to be paid.

The house our group worked on belongs to two sisters whose ownership is fully documented. We were told that they had just bought the place and moved in when Katrina struck. The story was that they hadn’t even made the first mortgage payment. Katrina spoiled everything for them. Except for what they could carry at the time of evacuation, the sisters lost all that they owned. After the storm, their house had to be gutted. All that remained of the interior was bare studding and the naked cement slab upon which the house was built.

sanding-joint-compoundI don’t know the details of how the sisters have held onto ownership through the four years they have had to live somewhere else, but somehow they have managed it. Now they wait while team after team of volunteers, a new group every week, slowly restore their home.

Our group finished sheetrocking the walls and completed most of the taping and joint compound work. By the end of the week, the place was starting to look like a house again, but there is a long way to go. Tim, our project leader from the UCC Disaster Response Ministry, estimated that the owners may be back in the house in time for Christmas. This lengthy timeline reflects both the slow pace of the work, done mostly by volunteers without particular skills in the building trades, and the long wait for inspections by New Orleans’ harried and over-worked code officers.

~ ~ To be continued ~ ~

My Big Fat New Orleans Mission, Part I

I am not the person you would expect to see jetting off as part of a church mission group. I can point to a lifetime’s worth of non-participation in such activities to back up that statement.

But there is something about what Katrina did to New Orleans that has gnawed at me for the last four years. Our church sent a group to New Orleans last fall. I had planned to go with them, but Marge’s surgery kept me in Portland. So when I heard that another mission trip was planned for this year, I signed up immediately.

St. Paul's UCC, New OrleansWe left Portland early on the morning on Sunday, October 4th, and were in New Orleans by mid-day. After we had settled into the bunkhouse at St. Paul’s UCC Church, it was time for our first meal in the Big Easy. Somehow the group decided on a place called Parasol’s.

If you are a middle-class New Englander like me, you have to adjust to a lot of things in New Orleans. Parasol’s was, to be frank, the filthiest restaurant I have ever been in. If I had been traveling alone, the peeling paint, the sagging roof,  and the raucous noise from the bar would have convinced me to turn around without even going inside. By the time any of this began to register, however, we were already through the door and our group had taken over the small “dining room” in the back of the place. The cook was also serving up po’ boys that looked and smelled delicious. I was hungry.

After a long moment, during which I did my best not to focus on the fact that the metal-topped table where I sat was sticky to the touch, I made the decision to order one of those po’ boys, a roast beef with swiss. Served on a cheap paper plate, it turned out to be the most wonderful roast beef sandwich I’ve ever had, and I ate all of it despite my fear that by the middle of the night I would be sick as a result of it. That fear became conviction when I headed into the men’s room and found myself in the foulest, rankest public accommodation I have ever seen. As I recall, the three New Orleans cops who ate at the next table did not go near that men’s room. A woman in our group spoke to the cops and got one of them to show us the half-sleeve of tattoos he had on his right arm. We were not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

my-bunkAfter the cops left and as soon as I could get the group to move, we left Parasol’s and headed back to St. Paul’s. Before long, I was sitting on the edge of my bunk wondering how illness would manifest itself and how bad it was going to be.

Hours passed. I called home and talked to Marge. I organized things for the next morning. I waited and I waited. Finally I got into bed and fell asleep.

One of the other guys in the group was a snorer. My father was a snorer, and Marge has mentioned to me that I snore from time to time. I thought I was pretty much impervious to snoring, but I had never heard anything like this. This snoring sounded like a  piece of heavy equipment in the process of self-destructing. It went on for hours and woke me up again and again. By about 5:30 in the morning, I had had enough and I got up. It was dark, and I didn’t have a flashlight. I was still grumbling to myself when I realized that I had not been sick! In fact no one in the group was sick.

We all felt great, and we ate breakfast.

When everyone in the group was dressed and ready to go, we got into our three rental vehicles (a minivan, an SUV and a sedan) and drove to Little Farms UCC Church for our orientation and instructions for the week.

As for Parasol’s, would I recommend the place to anyone visiting New Orleans? Absolutely. Just remember a few simple things:

  1. Use Purell liberally
  2. Order the roast beef and swiss po’ boy
  3. Don’t touch your table
  4. Stay out of the restroom

~ ~ To be continued ~ ~

Laissez les Bons Temps Rouler

That’s Cajun French for “Let the good times roll.” The Katrina Relief mission volunteers from my church are supposed to fly to New Orleans tomorrow. I had planned to be part of the mission until Marge’s illness intevened. Now, however, I’m wondering if anyone is going anywhere tomorrow as this years K-storm Kyle passes by New England. The wind is screaming, and we may get as much as eight inches of rain in the next 24 hours.

Note to Climate: We don’t need any more rain here. Take this water to the folks who need it.