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We're back. Already. Wow. Fifteen of us. Six veterans of Jan Term (Shawny, Alli, Jed, Elijah, Justin, and Chris), nine very strong newcomers (freshmen Kate Coulouras and Rebecca Wright; sophomores Lyndsay Ryberg, Aaron Arnold, Johnny Stratton; and seniors Ashley Hawkins, Janeva Tollison, Valerie Velasquez, and Caitlyn Holt). As of Sunday night, we had all finally arrived. Twelve of us flew across from Oakland to Houston (tickets to New Orleans were too expensive to make those flights feasible) and then drove a fifteen passenger van from Houston into New Orleans. That group arrived at 6:30 in the morning, went right to sleep in our almost-posh living quarters (more on these later), awoke for a 10:00 Palm Sunday service at the church next door (for those who could drag their heads off their pillows), then got going out into the city at noon. The other three participants included the legends from Jan Term, the Verrips brothers, who drove across from California once again, this time with a very brave extra passenger named Caitlyn Holt. Thirty-four hours after leaving Moraga, the three exhausted souls in the truck met the other twelve at our Sunday work site out in St. Bernard Parish. Whew!
We are glad to be "back." Even those who are here doing this work for the first time feel like they are returning to continue a commitment made by the group that first represented Saint Mary's College here in January of 2006. Because the logistics of this trip only fell into place about two weeks before break, the newcomers had much less prep time than the group who came in January. Thus, the "vets" are serving an important dual purpose: as they participate in direct relief work, they are also training their new peers into the insights and strategies that were developed over the course of the Jan Term experience. Even the vets who could not come along this time participated by meeting with the newcomers, corresponding with them, offering support and advice, and cheering them on from wherever they may be over break. Already, this newly-constituted group is recreating the synergistic working relationship that helped the Jan Term group to accomplish so much while they were here.
Our first day on the job started late, but it didn't stop us from being VERY productive. We met our host for the day at 2:30 or so in the afternoon, having run a number of errands that were necessary for us to get to work (like borrowing shovels, brooms, and trashcans from the Catholic Charities headquarters). Happily, our host was our good friend Lisa Trigo, who has been one of the most important links that our entire group has with New Orleans. Lisa introduced us to Rosie, the owner of the very first house that we cleared in the Upper Ninth Ward. Lisa also introduced us to Connie and Jerry LeRouge, the owners of the very last house that we cleared during our Jan Term adventure. Today, the plan was for us to return to Rosie's house and take the next steps toward a return to normalcy for her and her roommate Janice on North Claiborne.
Surprisingly, we got the news just before we arrived that we would not be working on Rosie's house after all. Rosie has decided to sell all three of the houses that she owns in the Upper Ninth and restart her life elsewhere. This news is bittersweet for Rosie and for us, as she will save herself an enormous amount of trouble by avoiding the difficulties of reconstruction; still, she will leave behind the Ninth Ward, as well as the three houses that have been in her family since they were built. We hope to see Rosie for dinner one night this week, so we will talk to her more about this issue then.
Instead of going to Rosie's, we joined Lisa and her cousin Jennifer in clearing the house of Lisa's Aunt Tee (pronounced TAY). Her house is out in Arabi in Saint Bernard Parish. It appears that the water was at least past the ceiling at one point; it is unclear whether it ever went all the way over the roof. No matter where the water was, everything in the house was ruined. Parts of the house itself were ruined, including the garage, which we avoided altogether. Another room, a back room that was dropped down a bit, was also too unstable to clear. Thus, we went full-force at the rest of the house, even though parts of it (mostly carpet) were still soaked.
We did a quick tutorial for the newcomers on proper mask fit and placement, and we discussed each of the other pieces of safety equipment: gloves, hard hats, and protective glasses. Everyone suited up, and Lisa was convinced that we wouldn't get very far before we lost the daylight. Still, any progress helps a lot, so we were willing to risk not finishing the job.
The house had a living room, three bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a big kitchen. All of the rooms were full of storm-soaked furniture. We got going with shovels and rakes and scraped unidentifiable piles of debris into our single wheelbarrow. We salvaged any item in the house that could be used to drag piles out to the curb.
The two back bedrooms were an unbelievable stew of ceiling material, insulation, and normal bedroom contents, all floating atop soggy, stinky, wall-to-wall carpeting. When we had scraped all of the debris off the carpet, we all dreaded the next steps that we would have to take: slicing the carpet into strips, rolling those strips up as they squirted seven-month-old stagnant water all over us, then somehow wrestling the incredibly heavy load to the curb. Many of us decided to take a water break before taking on this job.
Miraculously, when we came back from our somewhat extended break, the first carpet was already out of the room. Johnny and Aaron, both newcomers and also roommates at SMC, had tackled and conquered it with no help from the rest of us. From there, we realized that -- once again -- we were inconquerable. We rallied, and finished the job before dark. At about 5:00 or so, the road trippers (Justin, Chris, and Caitlyn) arrived, and we used some of the equipment that they had on the truck to do the last few tasks. We were tired, happy, and VERY dirty.
We returned to our termporary lodging to learn that scheduling fifteen people into one shower is a very difficult job. It took us almost five hours to cycle everyone through! Still, we each have our comfortable cot, we are cool and comfortable because of the ceiling fans in our room, and we are well-fed because Sarah, of Catholic Charities, makes sure of it. Thanks, Sarah!
We need to sleep well, because work starts every morning at 8:00 a.m. Tomorrow we are meeting at the Catholic Charities headquarters to help tackle their list of needy homeowners who could use our assistance. We are very excited!
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