I am writing to you from the comforts of my own bedroom, and I must say that I'm relieved to not be sleeping on an air mattress any longer. I returned from New Orleans earlier today and spent the afternoon relaxing before disinfecting everything in my duffel bag, including the bag itself. Some of the clothes I brought back were covered in mold, so I had to wash everything regardless of whether or not I used it. Now I am taking some time to reflect on this experience for some needed closure.
The saga continues as new zoning laws just released on Thursday have made some of the completed work of Hands On and other organizations obsolete. Some homeowners are now required to raise their houses in order to meet city code and thus qualify for flood insurance. This is information that should have been released months ago, before people ever returned to rebuild their homes. We are already fighting an uphill battle, and it frustrates me to no end that we're making it harder on these people than it needs to be. I am hoping that this setback inspires more cooperation and communication among homeowners, volunteers, and local, state, and national gonvernment; hoping being the operative word.
I know I've said this at least five times throughout the week, but I really can't even begin to describe the situation on the Gulf Coast. I have had the opportunity to volunteer in many different struggling parts of our country and also in a third world county, and I can honestly say that I have never witnessed need as great as it is in New Orleans right now. I'm not saying this to pat myself on the back, but simply to put this situation in perspective.
I'm going to start by saying that I do not think I have ever had a dirtier day of work in my entire life nor have I ever been so grateful for an outdoor shower. The day started with my assignment to breakfast clean up crew. Ordinarily this is not a difficult task since we really only ever have cereal for breakfast. However, last night a very generous person donated 180 eggs to the church we're staying at, and a crew of four people managed to cook all of them this morning. The best part was that they used two industrial sized iron skillets along with several other frying pans and untensils. I single-handedly cleaned up the entire kitchen, which took nearly an hour. Needless to say, the work crews left without me and somone had to drive me to the site later on. It was a really gross and unexciting way to start my day.
My project for today was to help gut a house in east New Orleans. I didn't get there until after all of the possissions had been removed from the house, but I'm sure it was disgusting becasue the water line looked to be about five feet off the ground. Actually, I'm sure it was disgusting because I saw the pile of debris sitting in the median of the road when we pulled up. I got to work pulling off molding and doors, making several trips to the median to dump waste. Then we all go to work tearing down drywall and pulling nails from the remaining studs. The walls were completely molded over, so when they would crumble and fall, we would get clobbered with green or black slime. Sometimes it was even orange, but only rarely. I would like it to be known that I tore down an entire wall in under 30 seconds, and I have the video to prove it. I'd like to thank Billy Blanks for helping me improve my front and round house kicks and also my sister for not caring that I stole her Tae Bo DVDs.
For some reason, we don't wear Tyvec suits to gut a house, only to mitigate mold, so I was covered by lunch time. I know what you're thinking right now, and yes, eating lunch while covered in mold is a challenging task not meant for weak stomachs. By the end of the day, we had created a garbage pile so huge that it spanned at least 50 feet. I'm not sure exactly how trash removal works in this city right now, but from the looks of things it doesn't actually work at all. Apparently no one has been by this particular house in over a month. They city is littered with trash and debris because there's really nowhere to put all the stuff people are throwing away. Imagine this: 80% of the city is said to be inhabitable (which I can attest to), so if all of those people were to clear their houses of everything they own (since it was all ruined by flood water) along with their walls, we can only wonder where the heck all of that waste will go. The problems here extend far beyond physical destruction. It really will take a quarter of a century to revitalize the area, and we can only hope that disaster doesn't strike again before that.
Two days in a row, what more could you ask for? It's actually technically Thursday since it's about 2:00 in the morning. Today was another amazing day in volunteer land, and I'm afraid my description will not do it justice. But alas, I will try.
I spent the day working at a food bank, which was really more like a giant tent in a church parking lot along with three PODS storage components. To give you an idea of how the operation works, it is run single-handedly by a woman named Deborah who is the most genuine and giving person I have met in a long time. She has battled three types of cancer, stomach problems, and several other serious health problems, yet she wakes up every day at 4:30 to make the two hour drive into New Orleans, five days a week to set up shop. She moved away after the storm to the closest place she could find, and now that her daughter is set in school, she doesn't want to move again. In addition to the grocery distribution, they serve a hot meal every day that is free to anyone who needs it. The operation is so well organized that it is hard to believe how few people are really behind it. At the same time, it was amazing to realize how many organizations came together today to make everything run smoothly. Between Hands On, Americorps, Second Harvest, New England College, and the church, we were able to distribute emergency food supply to over 400 families today. We also served hot meals to many of those people, including a group of contractors from Idaho who said they hadn't been paid for their work in the last month, but were afraid to quit because they might never see that money. There are some sleezy operations down here that are making conditions worse for a lot of people, and it's really sad to hear about.
When we arrived, the pods were filled with food, and my job was to help sort everything into bags that would be given out to families. I spent the entire morning loading beef stew, green beans, and spaghetti o's into paper bags. The bags were then moved outside the tent to tables where other volunteers were distributing them to the line of cars. I spent the afternoon helping load up cars and was floored by what I saw. At one point a Hummer pulled up in line, and I thought to myself, "If these people can afford this car, how could they possibly need emergency food supplies?" When I approached the car with the groceries, I immediately realized the error of my thinking. Everything these people could salvage from their homes was in that Hummer. It was all they had left. They probably used it to escape the storm and have returned to their destroyed home with no where else to go. It was heartbreaking. Later I saw another car pull off to the side of the parking lot and unload a propane stove to cook the canned food we had just given them. Deborah said that this is typical and oftentimes she arrives in the morning to find people staying inside the large tent. Apparently Wal-Mart parking lots are prime locations for camping vehicles for the night. The devastation is so far reaching that I'm only beginning to realize the true effects of such a terrible disaster.
Wow, it has been an intense 24 hours. I landed in New Orleans around 9:00 last night and was greeted by two very enthusiastic volunteers from Hands On. They were impressed that I could pack everything I need for the week, including a pillow sleeping bag and towels, in one large duffel bag and a small backpack. Now that I'm thinking about it, I'm impressed by that. Anyway, I arrived at volunteer headquarters just before 10 and found a group of even more enthusiastic volunteers. We're staying in a common area of a church in the not so fancy part of the Garden District. Imagine a huge room with 80 or so makeshift bunkbeds and people everywhere. It's absolute mahem, and I'm loving it mostly because everyone is around my age.
I woke up this morning at 7:00am for breakfast and to get ready for my fun-filled day of work. I was assigned to the mold crew. If that sounds unapetizing now, just you wait. We headed out to the work site in a couple of vans. I can't even begin to describe what I saw as we were driving. As soon as we got off the highway, there was a giant strip mall with every store abandoned, and the entire parking lot was filled with debris and fallen lights. Once we drove into the more residential areas, I could see the line where the water had come up to on the houses. It was a good 4-6 feet off the ground. There was no one in sight. None of the houses are liveable; every one is covered in mold and severely water damaged. It was a complete ghost town. The house we were working at belonged to the police deputy who is living in a FEMA trailor on his front lawn while his family stays in Baton Rouge.
Before I could even walk into the house, I had to gear up in a Tycor suit, goggles, and a respirator. Let me tell you, I have never looked so good. Ever see the movie outbreak? Kind of like that only not as fancy and definitely sweatier. The house had already been gutted, and all that was left of it were the bare studs. We first had to scrape every bit of wood surface with wire brushes to get the mold off. Spores were flying everywhere, and I quickly developed an appreciation for that protective get up. We took a break for lunch to let all of the dust settle before we went to town on it with three shop vacs and barely enough generator power to run them. By the way, there really isn't such thing as electricity or clean running water in a large portion of the city. After we vacuumed, we had to wipe down every bit of wood surface with a disinfectant to get the last of the mold off. This is a really important process because if you don't do it then the people who live there will end up with all sorts of nasty health problems. To clue you in to the rest of the process, we'll have to let the wood dry out for the next day or so, and then we'll finish by painting it with a chemical sealant. Then the house will be ready for new insulation and drywall. It's basically like starting from scratch.