Friday, April 02, 2010

Larry's International Service Day Reflection

First a suggestion - Douglas Brinkley’s excellent book, The Great Deluge, Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, should be mandatory for everyone providing disaster relief services. It would also be interesting reading for anyone interested in the true story of relief efforts after the hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast in August of 2005. More about this later.

MARCH 27, 2010
Larry L. Orsini

I had International Service Day, March 27, 2010, marked on my calendar for a long time, but I decided to take a different approach as to what I would do to participate. In lieu of planning a service day, which is usual for me, this time I decided to kind of let the spirit of volunteerism take over.

Originally uploaded by FinanceProfessor.

In preparation for the day my wife, Bonnie, and I visited some of the areas that were most effected. In New Orleans’ lower ninth ward many houses still remain much as they were after the hurricane, but there has been amazing progress and many of the houses have been repaired. In the northeast section of the city, commonly referred to as New Orleans East (NOE) major sections have yet to be repaired and the word on the street is that many residents of these areas have left permanently. A woman living in an apartment near us owns a house in NOE. She is single and perhaps in her 50s. Using grant moneys she has had her home repaired and is trying to decide whether or not to move back. A major factor is that all of the people she used to know are gone and also with so many houses sitting apparently abandoned she questions its safety.

The situation with our neighbor seems to be fairly typical. An additional factor is that the city has decided to tear down entire neighborhoods and some who have repaired their houses may have to move again. I met a contractor who had contracted to tear down and remove 7000 houses and this was just one of many contractors.

We also visited the musician’s village and the housing area that is being constructed under the program promoted by Brad Pitt. One thing we have learned in relief work is that each person is important and the focus must be on helping people one person at a time. However, as worthy of praise and deserving of every complement that these two projects have received, they are tiny when viewed in the context of what remains to be done in the areas that surround them.

We then visited the Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian areas of Mississippi. These areas present an entirely different perspective on what has been accomplished. On the one hand the repairs are almost beyond belief, with an amazing new bridge going over St. Louis Bay and many new houses replacing those that were destroyed. On the other hand there are many areas where only concrete pads remain where houses stood prior to the storm. It should be remembered that this area suffered the eye of the hurricane and houses were not just damaged or flooded as they were in New Orleans. In Mississippi the hurricane took out virtually everything in its path, including the former St. Louis Bay Bridge.

I have a special note for all of those BonaRespond students, faculty and community volunteers who gave of themselves with such distinction by returning over and over again to help with relief efforts. Bonnie and I visited the spot where Randy’s Rangers had the camp for volunteers. For those unfamiliar with this, BonaResponds volunteers not only helped to gut and repair homes they also helped to construct a camp for future volunteers. They built a laundry, a tool building, laid piping for drainage and generally made it better for volunteers coming after them.

To all of the BonaResponders I have good and bad news. The bad news is that the camp is all gone and to see just bare ground and a few piles of debris where we once worked, laughed, froze and built was a sad emotional experience for Bonnie and me.

However, the great good news is that the camp is gone and is no longer needed. Yes there will be volunteers coming to this area for years, but the urgency of temporary housing for them has now passed.

And so with all of the above I was sure that some opportunity would just come along for me to volunteer for International Service Day. But the week before March 27th was suddenly here and I still didn’t know what I was going to do. I called Habitat for Humanity and was told that with all of the students on spring break they had all of the volunteers they needed.

It was at this point that divine intervention, serendipity, call it what you will stepped in. We are staying on Royal Street in the French Quarter of New Orleans and each day for the last week we noticed a young woman working by herself repairing some windows and doors on a building across the street. She had an old beat-up white van and wore a tee-shirt that said “Antoinette’s General Contracting and Repairs.”

Her story is an interesting one. She started working for Habitat for Humanity as a volunteer and then as an employee. While doing so she remodeled her apartment and her landlord upon seeing the quality of her work hired her to do repairs and remodeling. She lost her job when her employer moved and faced with no way to support herself she decided to start doing repairs and remodeling on her own. Antoinette turned out to be one of the most courageous persons that I ever met.

I offered to help her for a day if she could use me. She agreed to accept my offer, but not for few days as she had a job that would take a day or two before she could get back to working on the doors and windows, the job that I thought I would work on. I asked if I could help with the other job as I really wanted to work on the Saturday of International Service day. She stated emphatically that “nobody in their right mind” would want to work on the other job. Obviously this left an opening for me!

I told her about BonaResponds and how we always told those in charge to give us the jobs that nobody else would do. So, reluctantly she agreed to pick me up to go to work on Saturday morning.

We went to a “shotgun” house in the Faubourg Marigny area of New Orleans. For those that do not know of this type of house, it is a long, narrow, one story structure with a door at the front and back. It is called “shotgun” because it is said that one can shoot a gun through the front door and out the back without hitting anything in the house. This area of the Faubourg Marigny had not flooded in hurricane Katrina, but Antoinette had agreed to clean out under the house and then remove all of the insulation from the attic, so that it could be replaced with better insulation. She had already crawled under the house, cleaned out all of the debris and had started in the attic. Being more than fearful of snakes I was glad that I did not have to get under the house. I asked if she was afraid under there and she replied that it was the spiders that really scared her.

We put on contamination suits, masks and goggles and climbed up into the attic through a small hole in the bathroom ceiling.

And now back to Brinkley’s book. The author describes in vivid detail what the people in New Orleans endured for days while those in positions of authority acted with unbelievable incompetence. People died because those that should have known what to do passed the buck for days. I had heard all of these stories before, but when I was in that attic on Saturday I too finally “got it.”

The attic in this house, like thousands of other New Orleans homes of identical design, was sixteen to twenty feet across and probably fifty feet long. The peak is about four feet high, so it is impossible to stand up. There is no floor so one has to balance on the two inch wide floor joists. A step between the floor joists results in falling through the ceiling into the room below.

Saturday was a beautiful sunny day with the temperature at about 75 degrees.

Antoinette confessed to being somewhat claustrophobic. She said that she had to constantly focus on the fact that the walls were not actually closing in on her. She would pull up the old insulation and stepping on the floor joists she would bring it part way down the attic. I would then take it and stuff it down the hole into the bathroom below. At one point I filled up the bathroom and the hole was plugged so that I could not see it anymore. Antoinette was at the far end of the attic with the flashlight and I was in total darkness. It was at this point that I thought of those who had been trapped in their attics during the hurricane. Many could not break through their roofs to escape and those that did spent days there. Imagine being trapped in the attic not knowing if anyone will find you. I KNEW that I could get out. Day after day went by and many died because they just gave up hope. I KNEW that this would end in a few hours. The air was stifling and I had difficulty breathing. On the days after Katrina, the temperature was in the nineties. I KNEW that I could breathe as long as I did not panic. In addition, I KNEW that this was a good thing that we were doing and all was right in my world. Even with all of this knowledge, for just an instant I experience just a tiny bit of what the poor forgotten people of New Orleans must have felt. I cleared out the hole to the bathroom and we continued until the job was done.

This was not a typical volunteer day. Antoinette is not without a job, but she does not have health care as it is too expensive. If she gets hurt, it will be on her to pay for it. She needs to work very long hours and at least six days a week to make a living. But I thank God for having met her and having the opportunity to work with her just for this one day. On her business card it says, “You will still like me after the job is done.” I do and I will remember her courage and good humor every time I think of New Orleans.

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