Notes from the Field January 2010
Day 1: January 10th, 2010
Greetings from Louisiana, where it's colder than it should be. It is supposed to be 25 degrees tonight, but they promise things will warm up soon and get into the fifties. The group of volunteers arrived a little early in New Orleans. We had an easy 20 minute drive in our four rented mini-vans to our lodgings at Camp Hope, which just opened last week. This is a small old school that has been converted into a base camp for volunteers from out of town who are helping with the rebuilding efforts, and the building has not been in use since Hurrican Katrina wreaked havoc in 2005. During our orientation to the operation tonight, one of the staff pointed out a cement block with a black line high up in one corner where they had not repainted. That's where the flood waters settled, about 18ft high in the cafeteria, after the levees broke.
Because of the unexpected low temperatures - in the 20s, pipes froze here and burse last week in the facility, and only today were they able to get 20 of the 28 shower stalls operational again. Up north we know how to avoid and deal with this kind of thing, but it's quite unusual in the Gulf Coase region. There is still a lot of fixing up to do in this place, but we are grateful to have a shelter with good bunks, running water, and two hot meals a day...especially when we remember that so many folks are still displaced - many living in temporary housing or FEMA trailers as their homes get rebuilt. Twenty-four Bucknellians are here staying in two class rooms on the second floor. There are groups from two other colleges and a church at the same site.
Tomorrow morning we will meet with the St. Bernard Project and get assigned to our work sites. Everyone is healthy and excited to start working. We'll send another note tomorrow evening to let you know how the day goes.
Day 2: January 11th, 2010
This is Danielle Renzi writing to give you an update of our first day working with the St. Bernard Project. We got up nice and early to have breakfast before 7:30 and set off to get oriented with the project. The gracious volunteers at St. Bernard's split us up into three groups to work on three different houses. Two of the houses were working on finishing projects: painting, putting up dry wall and putting up trim (not necessarily in that order). The third group was sent to do mold remediation. I was part of the mold remediation team.
Armed with our GPS, tool kit and first aid kit, we were off to the house where we'd be working. We drove for about 20 minutes, ariving in the Lower 9th Ward to find a surprisingly fully-furnished house and a homeowner that was clearly still living there. Since he was still living there we could not gut and remove the mold in his house. He regretfully informed us that we would not be able to work on his house today, and to come back in a month. The Americorps volunteer that was working with use sent us back in the direction we had come from and we were assigned to a new house. After an hour of traveling through some of the worse devastation of Katrina, we were finally able to begin working.
When working with mold, we were required to wear respirators to keep the mold from damaging our respiratory systems. They gave us an introduction on how to apply the latest technology in mold remediation; scrubbing wood with metal wire brushes. By the end of the day we scrubbed the entire house, activating all the mold so that tomorrow we can apply a solution that will kill the present mold and waterproof the house to prevent future damage. The owner of the home we were working on is currently living with his mother across the street, so he came by frequently throughout the day. He helped us take down the insulation and brought us water bottles. It was incredibly touching to have him working so closely with use, and it made the experience much more valuable knowing how much he appreciates what we're doing. He's already excited to have us back tomorrow, and to motivate us, has promised us homemade gumbo for lunch!
After working on the house, each of the four vans participated in a self-guided audio tour, via a CD. It started in the French Quarter (the main touristy spot) and then took us through where the levees had breached and where the damage had been the worst. The French Quarter was filled with the classic New Orleans spirit: outdoor cafes, colorful buildings, open markets, balconies, and of course, music everywhere. As we started getting outside the French Quarter (and upon lower ground) the devastation of Hurricane Katrina was astounding. Even 4 1/2 years later, there is still much to be done. Entire neighborhoods are still destroyed, roofs are caved in, many houses have little more than their studs left. We also drove past the Make it Right project for which Brad Pitt is famous for contributing. They designed some modern solar-paneled, colorful homes right in the heart of the most devastating destruction. The project was uplifting and reminded us that the spirit of New Orleans still lives on, even in these destitute areas.
A lot of people question why people are returning to a city that averages 18 ft. below sea level (almost two stories). Today I began to understand why. It is obvious that family is the foremost priority to the people here. To leave New Orleans is to leave one's family, and that is just simply not done. In St. Bernard, before the storm, the average income was $36,000, but close to 80% of the population owned their own home. They spend the majority of their money on making a home for their family, and to providing for their loved ones. As people begin to return to their homes, the neighborhoods are getting back to their funky, New Orleans flair, but there is still a very, very long road ahead.
Day 3: January 12th, 2010
This is Jen Langione filling you in on work day #2 with the St. Bernard Project. After learning the ropes yesterday and getting a sense of what work needs to be done at each site, today was very productive. The members of each group are now much more familiar with how to use the construction tools and how to work in teams to complete the tasks at hand.
My group is nearing completion of a house in St. Bernard Parish. At the end of the day, we noted the tremendous progress our team has made just in the past two days. Today we sanded walls, painted doors, cut wood to make baseboards, painted windowsills, and did lots of caulking. We worked in teams of two and watched the individual projects come together at the end of the day. Christian, our enthusiastic AmeriCorps leader, put together an extensive checklist of tasks that need to be completed; we proudly crossed off at least 10 tasks today! We are now awaiting the delivery of cabinets and doorknobs and hopefully we can install them by the end of the week. As we near the end of the rebuilding process, we are feeling hopeful--we anticipate that the Holmes family will finally move from the FEMA trailer on their lawn into their new home in about a week and a half! We were fortunate enough to meet the Holmes yesterday; they are very friendly and are so grateful for the work that has been done on their house. We learned today that once a house has been completely rebuilt, a homecoming celebration is held at the house along with all the members of St. Bernard Parish. Although our group will no longer be in New Orleans to welcome the Holmes, we wish them the best in their new home and new lives!
Tonight, a speaker from New Orleans Food and Farm Network will be visiting Camp Hope and giving a lecture. We are looking forward to hearing what they have to say and taking advantage of the Q&A session at the end.
Thank you for reading!
Day 5: January 14th, 2010
We have been very saddened by the news of the tragedy in Haiti, and our thoughts go to the people and the nation who have only begun to face the devastation of this natural disaster. Here, more than four years after the havoc created by Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the levees, we continue to hear horror stories and know that it will take courage, strength, and lots of aid, material and monetary, individual, communal, and international, to help those affected by the earthquake. Below is a summary from one of the Bucknell volunteers about what we've been doing.
Hi ya'll! I'm Lucy, a Sophomore at Bucknell and a member of the Katrina Recovery Team! Everyone still seems to be really enjoying themselves! The two finishing teams are continuing to paint, caulk, and put finishing touches on their houses, while the mold team is continuing the most important step in the rebuilding process, mold remediation. We got the opportunity to go out for lunch one day and had some real souther food! Then, last night we went over to the Garden District to have dinner at Jordan White's house (she's a Junior at Bucknell). Her parents prepared a beautiful New Orleans meal for us! We had crawfish etouffe, jambalaya, chicken enchilada casserole, beans, corn, and salad! It was incredible, as was their house, which was built in 1905, and was really warm and welcoming.
After we ate we were fortunate to hear from Dr. Fred Lopez, an infectious disease doctor who worked at Charity Hospital before and during the storm. Charity Hospital was the downtown hospital that served the majority of the city's poor and uninsured. He gave a day by day account of what the staff and patients experienced during the storm, when the levees broke, and when they waited days for rescue. Evacuating psychiatric patients, critically sick and mentally ill patients when the hospital had no electricity, no running water, and only two working phones was an incredible story. His presentation was so interesting, and we learned a lot about what it was like for the courageous staff who had an unbelievably daunting task, and for the brave patients who managed to endure the crisis. Tonight, of to Rock 'n Bowl, a local bowling alley and bar where we will hear Zydeco music! We have already done so much, yet we have so much more ahead of us! It has been a wonderful trip so far!
Day 7: January 16th, 2010
This is Andrew. Today has been fun and exciting, but yesterday was also fun. Yesterday my group began working on a new home after successfully de-molding our first house. Yes, our team is that awesome. Unfortunately, our new home also needed de-molding, and was twice as big. The fun part of the day was ripping out two 80lb ventilation systems and duct work from the attic. The work did not end for me after leaving the worksite, as Sowande and I were on dish duty. Washing dishes for 150 people is hard work! We had one other helper, but I think I single-handedly washed every single cup. Anyways, the big event last night was going to Rock 'n Bowl. The place had 18 bowling lanes, big screen TVs, a live Zydeco band and a big dancefloor. We bowled and chatted with Bucknell alumni. The music was great and it eventually lured everyone onto the dance floor. In my opinion, one of the group leaders, Brian Gockley, wins the award for the most enthusiastic dancing - but everyone had fun. This morning I had a tough time waking up because we didn't get back until 11:30 pm, which is way past the 10:00pm bedtime at Camp Hope (Breakfast starts at 6:30am).
Ok, so that brings us up to today; one group worked to finish dry walling a gutted home, then taping and 'mudding' the seams and nail holes while another group spent their 5th day in the same house completing finish work, like installing door frames, doing touch up painting, and putting in base board. In my group of 12, we continued mold remediation at our second home this week. We completely finished wirebrushing and wiping the 2x4's down with demolding agent. Since we finished a little early, our group decided to reward ourselves with begniets and cafe au lait at the world famous Cafe du Monde in the French Quarter. It was tasty! Tonight everyone is getting ready for a few hours of free time in the French Quarter. My plans include an oyster establishment and hopefully a blues or jazz venue, but we will see. Anyway, it was nice to write for you!
Day 8: January 17th, 2010
The opportunity to support the families affected by Hurricane Katrina has been a great experience. My group has worked on two different homes. The first was for the Holmes family - the mother, her brother, and the two sons. Their home was already near completion, but we helped to install baseboards, door frames, doors, window sills, we painted, caulked, and other tasks that made the house almost ready for them to move in. Each morning started with some stretching and discussion about funt topics, like our favorite foods, hobbies, or what we would bring to the apolcalypse. As we worked throughout the days, we learned more about the mother - who works every night from 5pm until 6am at a factory job to help support her family - and their adorable dog, who was ready to have puppies any day. The Holmes family was evacuated to the Astro Dome in Houston following Katrina and Mrs. Holmes' husband died in that city soon after they arrived. After two years in Texas, it has been a slow process moving back, but soon the family will be able to move from the RV trailer in their small front yard to their newly-renovated home.
On Friday night, we had free time to finally explore the city!! After working so hard all week, it was great to relax and spend time in the French Quarter. We split up for dinner, and I went to the House of Blues for dinner and to listen to a little music. And no trip to New Orleans is complete without witnessing the uniqueness of Bourbon Street. The night ended as a group at Cafe Du Monde for beignets (a delicious donut-like pastry with powdered sugar) and coffee before heading back to Camp Hope.
Saturday was another great day. We drove about an hour into Mississippi to an area that was heavily impacted by the storm. Bay Saint Louis was filled with about 20 feet of water! No building or homes were spared, so as we drove through every home looked new. We worked with the local Habitat for Humanity affliliate during the day in order to help complete their recently expanded office space. We almost finished installing sheet rock for two entire rooms! After, we drove to the home of Chris LaGarde, where we listened to the Saints win the playoff games - because everyone now supports them...even just a little. The Saints pride is huge here. Everywhere you go, the locals are supporting the Who Dat nation - its on t-shirts, signs, the radio, you name it. At Chris', we had a great dinner of shrimp and fried oysters that we used to make po-boys. Each day has been incredible, and its hard to believe that there are only 2 left!
Day 9 - January 18th, 2010
On Sunday, the 7th day or our trip in New Orleans with the Katrina Recovery Team, we had some free time to wander around the city on our own. But, before we could start wandering around the city we had a river cruise on the Mississippi with a Bucknell alumni Jim Reese, class of '69. I was very glad that we had an opportunity to meet one of the Bucknell alumni. For me, it is always a thrill to meet Bucknell alumni because I have the opportunity to see what one can do with education from Bucknell.
Before we went on our river cruise, Jim Reese gave a talk about the way Hurricane Katrina impacted the city of New Orleans, where the levees broke and how it impacted his workplace - the New Orleans Port Authority. One of the consequences of the hurricane was the difficult challenge of locating the former employees and getting them to their former workplace. He said that many of the workers relocated out of state and some of them lived in FEMA trailers so it was very difficult for them to come back to their workplaces. One of the things that struck me was the humanity that was demonstrated during the disaster. The Port Authority management decided to issue pay checks on bi-weekly basis to their employees in order to make sure that they have money to get through their daily needs even though they were not working at the port. The effects of Katrina are still felt today. One of the things that I remember from the talk is that it will take 10 years for the city of New Orleans to come back to its pre-Katrina levels.
After the talk we went on a short cruise of the Mississippi River on a Port Authority boat. The river cruise was very educational and lots of fun. We were actually able to cruise on the Mississippi instead of just seeing it from the banks. Jim Reese was talking about the port operations and also the effects of the hurrican. By going on the cruise I was able to better understand the immensity of the storm and the amount of water that must have rushed through the area. Even through the Mississippi rose substantially, it did not flood because of well build levees and flood control. The 80% of New Orleans that was under water was due to the failure of canal levees and flooding from Lake Ponchartrain into the basin of the city, which is located below sea level.