Saturday, November 20, 2010


Yesterday we went on an epic bamboo flooring mission, with our goal being to finish Elmore's living room floor before leaving for the week.  Angie measured and cut the irregular boards at each end, making exact measurements.  Alanna hammered in the boards, squatting down and getting up again, leading to sore legs today.  Summer held the heavy floor stapler in place just so, while Barb hit the stapler hard with the, appropriately named, 'Whack-a-mole'.  Our system was extremely efficient.  Whenever one of us was waiting for another to complete a job, we found something to do, never standing still until we took a very necessary lunch break. 

Our group was motivated because we could see our progress.  After meeting Elmore, we wanted to make him a beautiful floor.  Halfway through the day, Elmore stopped by, and we insisted that he come in and see his floor.  Again, Elmore stated that he knows the floor is fine.  He doesn't need to see it to know that it ok.  He did come in though, stating that he can't wait until his wife can see this floor.  His wife has been living in Atlanta because she had to stay there to work.  Meanwhile, Elmore lives in a tiny back apartment so that he can be available to the people working on his house, and so he can watch  his grandchildren. 

Elmore also stopped by at the end of the day, when, sadly, we hadn't quite finished the floor.  He was so appreciative, loving what we had done for him.  He doesn't feel sorry for himself, despite what he has been through.  He invited us to come to his home next year for some gumbo, and we're sure we will!  YUM!

Working non-stop

The floor when we were done for the day, almost completed

The Whack-a-mole

Looking back on our week, we have realized, more than ever, the importance of going home.  Today, as we are packing up our stuff to head to our homes, we realize that we are lucky to have a home, often taking for granted how important having a home really is.  We take with us the Spirit of New Orleans, having learned a lot about this city this week, and we plan to keep coming back until everyone has been given the opportunity to come home.

- Sumalabarbgie

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Yesterday after meeting Elmore for the first time
Elmore stopped by again today.  When he realized we were from Rochester, he told us that he studied at Colgate Seminary!  Small world!  Elmore told us about how he grew up in the Upper Ninth Ward when racial segregation was prevalent.  Every story that Elmore told reminded us that he has been through so much.  Regardless, when we offered to show him the tile mosaic we were in the process of creating in his home, he said that he is sure that it is fine.  'But this is YOUR home Elmore' we said, and we were about to permanently cement the tiles onto the floor.  Elmore did not seem concerned.  Like Toni said yesterday, all Elmore wants is to come home.
Our mosaic

This afternoon those of us who were here last year took the others on a tour of New Orleans.  Despite leaving work a bit early for this tour, we knew that taking this tour could be more important than finishing our bamboo flooring.  By going on this tour, and seeing the damage that is still so prevalent in New Orleans five years later, we are able to bring this information home.  So many people  in Rochester don't understand that the damage from Katrina is not at all cleaned up. 

First, we went to the Lower Ninth Ward to see the Bayou Bienvenue.  This area of wetlands is so important to New Orleans' economy, yet it is being drastically reduced.  We then went to the levee that broke, now re-built, a powerful image.  Driving around the Lower Ninth Ward below the levee, there continued to be few houses.  Every house in that neighborhood, with the exception of one, had either been completely re-built or was gone, just a concrete platform sitting there in what was once a crowded urban neighborhood.  Houses in the Lower Ninth Ward could not be fixed up.  The water there came at such a speed that the houses there were simply gone after Katrina.  We then drove towards the house some of us worked in last year, just to see it.  We had heard that that area in St Bernard Parish had been significantly changed, and it had, but the damage is still drastic.  Houses near where we worked last year that used to be concrete slabs are now grass, as if the families have given up on re-building.

The levee

After the tour we stopped at the drive-thru for some local cuisine.  (Same place we went last year, Susan!)  :)  YUM!

- Sumalabarbgie :)

And Grace Will Lead Me Home

We finally met our homeowner!  Elmore is a Vietnam vet and a retired police officer.  Generations of his family were born in his beautiful home.  When he knew Katrina was coming, Elmore and his family fled, more concerned about their safety than about their home.  Still, though, we could tell that Elmore loves his house, stating 'She is still standing!'  His nephew, living around the corner, told Elmore about how the Earth rumbled as a 70 foot wave of water came into the Upper Ninth Ward.  After a few months of staying in Atlanta, Elmore's daughter went back to see the damage, because Elmore felt that he could not handle it.  The bottom floor of the house was completely drowned.  The walls had to be torn apart, and the house had to be re-built from the inside out.  Although the water did not come upstairs, it completely moved the upstairs floor.  When we asked Elmore what it was like to see his house being re-built, he said 'It is like re-building my heart.' 

When Elmore described the aftermath, he talked about a lot of things that hadn't occurred to us:  His neighborhood was a ghost town, no people, no birds, no dogs barking.  He compared it to Hiroshima, saying that even then people were walking around there.  The water in his house was toxic.  He has health problems, inflicted in Vietnam,  and told us about how people could get Gangrene from touching the water.  Dead animals would float into the homes, and you never knew what you were going to find.  Elmore was away from his home for 3 years, and was not sure he would be able to re-build.  Now, he and his wife are living in his re-furbished basement as hey wait for his house to be re-built. 

We also had a unique opportunity yesterday.  After work, we got to go to a home dedication!  Jack and Toni had their house re-built by Project Homecoming, after two different contractors stopped work on their home halfway through because of running out of money.  Jack has lung cancer, and is not expected to live long.  The family had been living in a tiny FEMA trailer for 5 years.  The family invited us into their beautiful home for a ceremony.  Everyone teared up as we sang 'Amazing Grace'.  The family had prepared food, and were proud to show us their home.  The whole family was there, including the children and grandchildren.  It was a powerful, beautiful ceremony.  Toni talked about how all she wanted during that time was to come home.  She was not concerned about minute details of the work on her home, or even when they had to move back in for a number of weeks with no hot water.  All she wanted was to come home.  Now, 5 years later, they have. 

After the ceremony, Toni gave Barb a hug.  Barb commented that she had not even worked on her home.  Toni said that it does not matter, that every person in that house is a piece of the puzzle who is working to re-build New Orleans.  Elmore, too, was very thankful.  Both of these people have been through so much, and both very much appreciate the work that we have been doing, despite our lack of expertise.   Having Elmore show his appreciation motivated us to work harder to finish his floors. 

A woman whose house was re-built by Project Homecoming made us dinner last night. Boiled shrimp!  YUM!

- Sumalabarbgie

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Third Church bears witness to the hope of coming home

Team arriving for work at Minnie and John's house on Clouet.
Our Third Church team working on Clouet includes Nancy Watson, Nancy Bertnik, Nancy Adams (yes, that's a lot of Nancys), Bill Chase, Ginger Potter, Sue Spaulding, and George Gotcsik. We got to meet home owners Minnie and John on Tuesday, and they have already become "our" people and their home "our" house. Minnie and John returned on Wednesday bearing authentic New Orleans po-boys.
(left-right) Ginger, Nancy, Nancy, Kate, Minnie, Sue, Bill, John, and George enjoy the po-boys lunch; the first meal served in their refinished dining room. John said it was the "best blessing" they could have for the table space.

Ginger paints window trim.
The crew has been installing baseboards, painting the trim, caulking the finished trim-work and painting the doors. The family hopes to be back in the space for Christmas, and the volunteers are working steadily to make that possible.

George and Bill install floorboards: "measure twice cut once..."

All the work teams at Olive Tree gathered today on State Street Drive for a home dedication--standing in the stead of all the teams who have worked on the home. More on this later, but for now a picture of the homecoming.
Toni receives handmade quilts--made with love by Presbyterian congregations--from a long-term volunteer who worked on her house for half a year.
Nancy Watson

We finally learned how to post photos!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010


Today we realized our week is going to consist mostly of flooring, but we’re hoping we’ll see some significant progress. We worked together to frantically finish grouting a floor before taking a late lunch, and we learned to install bamboo flooring. We learned that, even though the bathroom we are using in our house does not have a door, we are lucky to have access to one. Other teams have Port-a-potties, or nothing at all.

This afternoon, we learned what 'TFW' means, which we often see on the vacant houses: 'Toxic Flood Waters'. This is written on almost any still vacant house, indicating that it was filled with water for an extended period of time. Water receded around the houses, but the houses stayed filled, filling them with mold and damage, rendering them uninhabitable.

We've had the opportunity to hear many Katrina stories since writing yesterday:

- Our bartender last night grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, a completely desolated area of the city. He said that he thinks that the city would not re-build if a disaster like Katrina happened again any time soon. It would just be too much. He did say though, that he could never imagine leaving.

- We’ve heard a lot of stories about the crime that occurred in New Orleans soon after the flood, and still continues today. Our bartender told us about how he was shot at for trying to get food from a nearby store. Imagine, calling 911 did nothing. The city was shut down, and local law enforcement was worrying about their own families. We’ve heard of many instances where construction equipment and copper wiring has been stolen from the houses we are working on, often because there are still no neighbors around to keep watch. You’d think a disaster like this would make people bond and help each other, but it shows the desperation that still exists in this city.

- Our crew leader, Henry, was a sophomore at Tulane when Katrina happened. He was away for the weekend, and was not given much information as to how extreme the damage was in New Orleans. When he finally saw what had happened, he felt that he couldn’t handle it and had to go right to bed. He had to very quickly decide what school he would transfer to for the semester. He is now working for extremely low pay because he cares so much about this cause.

- Our roommate Leigh is a fire fighter in Texas. She was available to assist the refugees of Katrina who had fled to Texas. These people had been without a shower for a number of days. They were without refrigeration for their medications, and without a doctor to call to get refills. They ended up building showers, connected to a fire hydrant!

- This afternoon, we drove around a mostly vacant neighborhood taking photos to bring back to NY. A resident seemed concerned that we were taking photos, so we explained why. We told him that our friends in NY often think that New Orleans is completely cleaned up by now, 5 years later. The resident looked at us, shocked, stating “It isn’t cleaned up at all!”

Muffalettas for lunch tomorrow! Can't wait!

- Sumalabarbgie

Monday, November 15, 2010

First Workday for TPC Katrina Trip 7

North Rampart house.
 New Orleans looks good from the airport, and the Superdome was a busy place when I arrived from Rochester. The French Quarter looks good; the trolley cars are running all the way past the Audbon Park. Some neighborhoods even look pretty good, as if the recovery is almost complete. But as we drove to the site today--in a poorer area of the city--the picture changes. Houses are still vacant and unrepaired. The markings from the rescue workers made in the aftermath of the storm are still visible. Streets need repaving.

We are here working with Project Homecoming, which is still busy trying to help lower income, elderly, and disabled folks get back into their homes. We are staying at the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Village called "Olive Tree" in the Gentilly area. One crew: Kara and Andy Torres, Tom Ashcroft, Margaret Schwaneflugel, Bob Merz, and Martha Langford; are working on a house on 

North Rampart, very close to the Industrial Canal and in the Lower Ninth Ward. This house was donated to Project Homecoming, and is being rehabbed for sale as low income housing--something that is critically lacking in New Orleans right now.

Margaret and Tom

We met a neighbor today, Kirk, who was thankful and brought us snacks. He is glad we are here, helping one house at a time, one family at a time. His parents live a few houses from the one in which we are working, and every home that is repaired improves the neighborhood for everyone. The day was busy, demolition and framing work, but there is joy in every hammer stroke. It is good to be here; rebuilding homes with a foundation of faith.

Martha Langford