8:00 a.m. arrived VERY early this morning. That was the hour that we were expected to be at work, but we couldn't quite make it happen. We all woke up by 7:00, with the breakfast crew getting up just a little bit earlier to organize cereal, muffins, orange juice, and pop-tarts for everyone to eat really quickly. The second wave awakened was the lunch crew, who ate breakfast, then made mountains of sandwiches to take with us to work. On this trip, we actually have a refrigerator at the place where we stay, meaning that we can have a much larger range of food than the January group could have. We still eat some of the same stuff that we ate on the last trip, just because it's easy and we like it. But on top of all of that, we have piles of snacks and other treats that the great folks at Catholic Charities provide. Lucky us!
After breakfast, we headed out to meet our guide, Neal, at Saint Raymond's Catholic Church somewhere north of where we stay. We got a brief orientation session from John, who coordinates things at the staging area. Our most interesting piece of information was that yesterday we picked up the wrong set of equipment to start our job; we had accidentally claimed the castaways from their garbage pile. No wonder we had so much trouble with those shovels! For today, though, we left the staging area well-equipped, and Neal drove with us to our first house from the Catholic Charities list, which consists of homeowners who are elderly or disabled, and who most likely did not have insurance that would cover the storm damage that they experienced. Our house for today belonged to a man named Mr. Hawkins, who had lived in it for 30 or more years. When we arrived, we found that a lot of work had already been done, but there was still quite a bit to do. The furniture was all out of the house, and the walls had been removed. The ceilings were still there, though, and so were the floors, the windows, and other fixtures like toilets, sinks, and the bathtub. We tore it all out. Thus, we spent the day either holding our arms above our heads, or stooping to scrape at the floor. Ouch.
Some of the ceilings were plaster and lath, some of sheetrock. We got on ladders, secured our hard hats and glasses, and started banging on the ceiling with hammers. Huge chunks and smaller pieces tumbled down, and crews below would gather up the debris as it collected so that there was plenty of room to produce some more. The plaster ceilings involve thin wood slats, chicken-wire-like stuff, and lots of hardened, rocklike plaster. The plaster and the chicken wire are thoroughly intertwined, making the removal of this material quite a difficult undertaking. The number of tools involved in removing a five foot section was mind-boggling. The floors were equally stubborn, as they were covered at some point in linoleum, along with its accompanying glue. Whoever placed the linoleum clearly didn't trust the glue, so they added little nails to be sure that the floor was secure. Thus, the kind of scraping and banging that sometimes frees old linoleum from the subfloor was complicated by the presence of the nails. As usual, we all learned a lot about methods of construction, and most of us decided that we will NEVER have a linoleum floor in our lives. The old windows and doors also needed to be removed, so Justin did mini-tutorials for anyone who wanted to learn how to dismantle a window without just smashing it out of the wall. The windows in Mr. Hawkins' house all contained long lead counterweights, so there was an extra surprise once a certain portion of the window was removed; if the counterweight was already detached, self-defense moves were necessary to protect ourselves from the tumbling weights.
Neal thought that the work at the house would take us one and a half to two days. Once we got started, we assumed that he was right, because the work was so slow-going at first. Again, though, the team started to self-organize, test and teach each other new theories on how to make things happen more efficiently, and share new ideas throughout the house in different work zones. Suddenly, daunting tasks (like removing a BATHTUB!) became manageable problems to solve together. As it turns out, we are a very strong group of problem-solvers. We finished the house in a day, and even sprayed the internal framing (the newly-exposed 2x4s) with the necessary bleach solution to disinfect it and get the house ready for reconstruction. Neal had already marveled over our level of preparedness, as we had our own tools, masks, systems, and even our own toilet (our beloved bucket toilet and its teepee outhouse). When he saw how quickly we had done the job, he commented on how different we are from the other volunteer groups that he has encountered. He told our friend Joan Diaz that we are one of the best groups he has ever seen. Not bad for our first day out with Catholic Charities!
As we were driving through town to find our way to St. Raymond's and then to Mr. Hawkins' house, we got a good look at how much things have changed since we were here in January. Happily, the change is noticeable and it is (mostly) positive. First, we recognized that many more people are back, as evidenced by the apparent increase in traffic. Also, there are more trailers in front of houses (not all hooked up to water and electricity yet), meaning that people are preparing to really bring their homes back to life. Street lights are now functioning in the Ninth Ward, and the enormous barge that served as a primary indicator of the magnitude of the storm has now been removed from the dry ground on which it came to rest. The houses around the Industrial Canal have been bulldozed (only about two blocks' worth), and the debris piles that used to stretch for blocks are practically gone from the enormous neutral grounds (medians on large boulevards).
The city's relationship with FEMA has changed too – in our view, NOT for the better. Many of the subcontractors who were hired to clear debris have been dropped from FEMA contracts, even though there are lots and lots of houses still full of the storm-damaged goods that they have contained since August 29, 2005. Thus, even though the enormous piles throughout the city have diminished, the smaller piles that rest in front of individual houses obviously sit there for longer and longer periods of time. New anti-FEMA shirts have emerged, not all of which are reprintable here.
Another big difference in the city is the emergence of thousands and thousands of signs advocating candidates for positions at every level of city government. The mayoral race is obviously the big one, and each member of the huge pool of candidates is actually assigned a candidate number. This practice makes for fun car talk: "Hey, look! It's #68! That's a good number! Let's vote for him!" Some of the candidates have very strange titles, like "Criminal Sheriff" or, similarly, "Criminal Clerk." It seems that most New Orleanians believe that every political title could begin with that particular word. One of our favorite candidates of all is named Quentin Brown. He has handwritten campaign signs all over the area in which we are staying that say simply: "Quentin Brown: No B.S." Imagine our excitement, then, when – as we were clearing Mr. Hawkins' house – Quentin Brown himself drove up to introduce himself! That is our only brush with political fame so far. No sign of current mayor Ray Nagin, though he has lots of REALLY big and beautiful billboards carrying the enormous slogan "OUR Mayor, Let's Re-elect him."
Politics aside, we had a great day. It only got greater when we returned to find that there was a birthday party going on in the center where we are staying, which, when we are not around, serves as a drop-in community center for local mariners. There were twelve Filipino seamen there, all of whom are crew members on a cruise ship. Their party was hosted by our host here at the center, a man we know as "Deacon Ernie." They were in the kitchen/social area, and they were having a blast singing karaoke songs to each other. When a few of us decided to sing with them, they were ecstatic. A few people walked to a local grocery and brought home the treat of ice cream with fun toppings. Ernie loved the whole thing, and thanked us for joining in. We were tired enough to shut down our side of the center around 11:00, but the mariners were howling and wailing until almost midnight. Little giggles would go up through our dorm as we overheard some of the songs, but overall, it was just a plain old festive night.
Tomorrow we get a new Catholic Charities house; we'll see what it has in store for us.