Rebuilding New Orleans
On the eve of Katrina's one-year anniversary, writer Allison Amend volunteers with Habitat for Humanity to help re-house residents of The Big Easy.
It's approximately 110 degrees in the sun, and inside my respirator it must be twice that. My eyes sting behind their protective goggles: from fiberglass remnants? Dust? Mold? Sunscreen? And I am engaged in a mortal battle with a doorframe, which despite remaining under water for almost two months will not relinquish its grip on the stud it clings to. This is New Orleans, August 2006. -by Allison Amend
When I arrive in NOLA, having patted myself on the back all the way, I am unprepared for the extent of the destruction. A sentiment I hear echoed throughout the week I spend there is that no one thought it would be that bad, that extensive, that un-repaired. In the Lower Ninth Ward, cars are trapped underneath houses, curving them like sine waves.
On every front door a large X is spray-painted. The top area displays the date the house was searched post-storm. The left section bears the name of the group that marked the house: National Guard, private crews, foreign teams. The bottom holds the most grisly statistic: the number of dead found in the house. The right is a space for commentsmost often, the number of dead pets or pet sightings, where the pets were removed and whether or not food or water had been left for them.
The many FEMA parks we see stretch on for blocks, stark white trailers parked nearly on top of one another on vacant lots. Though there must be thousands of people living there, the nearby streets are devoid of life.
I stay in St. Bernard Parish at Camp Hope, which houses approximately 200 volunteers. A gutted elementary school, Camp Hope is made up of rudimentary plywood walls and battered tarp doors to keep air conditioning from escaping and provide a modicum of privacy. "Guests" stay on camp cots 14 to a single-sex room.
The school gymnasium has been split in two: one side is a makeshift shower tent with ingenious PVC piping, and the other is the mess hall. Decoration is provided by pallets upon pallets of FEMA water—vast, filtered amounts in aluminum cans. It tastes unfathomably bad. Apparently, the chlorine used to purify the water reacts with the metal to form a foul, though harmless, flavor.
The majority of people residing at Camp Hope are teenagers or young people just out of college. Most are engaged in gutting houses. Word is that the government has decreed that all flood-damaged houses in New Orleans must be stripped down to their studs and concrete floors by August 29th, or face city-instituted bulldozing. Residents complain bitterly from afar (Dallas, Chicago, Atlanta) that they are unable to take time off of their new jobs or gather up the necessary travel funds to come and gut their houses. Nor are they able to hire someone to do it for them; the average house costs $6000 to gut.
But the houses cannot be left standing (or semi-standing). Mold blooms weed-like on walls and ceilings. Snakes, cockroaches, and rats have made closets their permanent residences. Rebuilding cannot begin until all the useless furniture, sheetrock, and muddy carpeting have been removed. Habitat for Humanity and AmeriCorps have teamed together to gut as many houses for the elderly and disabled as possible in the time left before the deadline.
Gutters are organized into teams. When each bus arrives at a home, the team captain (a trained AmeriCorps volunteer) surveys the structure to make sure it's sound. Then he/she enters in full haz-mat gear to ascertain that the gas is turned off and to pull the thermometer from the thermostat. The gutters follow, first removing destroyed furniture and belongings and stripping the walls of drywall, the floors of carpet and the house of doors. By then end of a day, we accumulate a pile of debris approximately 8 feet high, 6 feet wide and 20 feet long. A makeshift ramp of ruined interior doors helped us reach the top of the heap.
Someone sorts through belongings looking for "valuables." There is little to salvage. The occasional vase survives, but most glassware is broken. A salvager comes to examine the pile of useless electronics. He snips the electrical cords, saying he's going to extract the copper to sell. The going rate is $4 a pound.
The eeriest phenomenon is the lack of doors on houses; without interior walls you can see right through them to their overgrown backyards.
As a contrast, most of my time is spent at the Musicians' Village, a Habitat for Humanity site. Eighty houses are to be built on a plot of land that formerly held an elementary school (the land had been vacant before the storm). A project helped by Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., the Musicians' Village will house displaced New Orleans musicians. About 20 houses are in various stages of completion from almost-done to merely foundations. The houses in Musicians' Village are painted in Easter-egg bright pastels with contrasting trim.
Houses in the Musicians Village are set about 6 feet off the ground. Each has three bedrooms, one bath, and a small kitchen, dining and eating area. The master bedroom will just fit one queen-sized bed with no room for a dresser. There are several designs owners can choose from. The house we work on is a Dutch Hip. Others have smaller gables or none at all. The designs alternate to create visual variation.
Siding is by far the easiest activity we are assigned. Measure, cut, use the level, pound in three nails. The overlapping piece hides any mistakes with the hammer.
Hanging exterior doors is harder than it looks. The supply crew comes by and drops off one door per house at 1 pm. We have to hang them all by quitting time (2:30) so they won't be stolen. When we attempt to plumb them, the trim splits. The next day, we find out that we shouldn't have secured them by the trim, as the trim is being replaced. We compensate for our inexperience by using extra nails. I'm not sure that helps.
Roofing requires great nerves, if not skill. Hanging in the rafters, I finish hoisting and hammering in the jacks, then help conclude the plywood roof. We tar paper it, then lay tiles in crooked alternating lines. At one point, it becomes so hot the shingles begin to melt into each other. Gravity exerts a strong force on the roof. Many of us become light-headed and set our hammers down on the slope, where they hover for a moment, cartoon-like, before careening over the edge. "Heads!" someone yells, embarrassed.
It had never occurred to me before to spend a vacation doing service work, but it was one of the most rewarding trips of my life. Despite the abject filth, the tired muscles and the sweating from the eyeballs, I plan to return this fall. As frustrating as the experience can feel (waiting around for someone to teach you how to attach siding or share the only working drill, spending a week on one roof, or one wall or one window frame) I gained an appreciation for how hard the residents want their homes and lives back, and the extent of the work that still needs to be done to rebuild New Orleans. And I am now an excellent roofer!