Saturday, March 31, 2007

Report on New Orleans

The Line.

Everywhere the Line.

The Line caught my eye the first day we were on the streets of New Orleans. I saw it on the side of a house, wondering what it was. Then I saw it again on another house. Then another. At exactly the same level.

I gasped audibly when it hit me just what the Line indicated. It was the high water mark of floods following Hurricane Katrina. And, 18 months after the storm, it was still plainly visible.

The Line.

On any vertical surface that hadn’t been repaired, the Line marked the peak of the floods that saturated and devastated the city. Where I first noticed The Line, it was easily 12 feet above street level. On most houses, it was midway up the windows of their first floor rooms, since the first floors were usually up a half flight of stairs. In other parts of the city it was even higher.

What did these waters do? It was impossible to imagine. We could only see the results, 18 months later. And we attempted to respond in some small way to help the people and the structures.
Our team of 14 people left West Lafayette at midnight, Friday, March 9 and drove a three-car caravan straight to New Orleans, arriving late afternoon of Saturday. We stayed at a house owned by Woodland Presbyterian Church in one of the few unflooded areas of the city. Woodland makes this house available to work teams, free of charge. And the house had been full for 30 consecutive weeks before we got there and was booked through the end of October 2007 by the time we left.

People want to help.

On Sunday, we joined our host church, Canal Street Presbyterian Church for worship. CSPC is a small church on one of the grand streets through the heart of the city. It was, itself, badly damaged by flood waters of Katrina, as the waters reached 2 feet into their sanctuary, which was already well above street level. While the church struggled to rebuild its own facility (they reopened for worship on Palm Sunday, 2006) and care for it’s own members, they realized they had a larger calling to the entire city. Thus, they set up a network to link individuals in need with volunteers, as well as public and private resources to rebuild their homes and lives. We showed up as a part of that link.

I was in awe of the work and the hours these people put in to make sure volunteers and resources got to the right people. In a city full of bewildering bureaucracy, process confusion and political fiefdoms, the caring, loving, tireless people in this little church managed to get something done. Against long odds. And with a sense of grace and compassion. To anyone in the city…church members or not…Christians or not…if they asked for help, they sought to help. And, as we discovered, this same process was happening in churches throughout the city.

Reality truly set in for us on Monday morning, when CPSC took us on a “Destruction Tour.” We spent three hours driving through and stopping in multiple neighborhoods damaged by the flood waters. It was one of the most sobering and jaw-dropping experiences of my entire life. Mile after mile of boarded up houses, now-empty lots, piles of rubble, neighborhoods destroyed. We went to two of the spots where the levees broke, allowing water to flood the city, then serving to keep the flood waters in the city for weeks. In each spot where we stopped, we had spontaneous conversations with citizens from that area. Each had a story. Each had suffered terrific pain. Each had hope of reestablishing themselves. Each wondered if they really could. Each thanked us for trying to help, even a little.

Words and photos can’t convey what we saw. But it truly changed us.

On Monday afternoon, quietly and seriously, we got oriented and organized for our work during the week. Our team of 14 was very fortunate to have three people with real construction skills. One was a general contractor and carpenter, one was a professional plumber and another was both an architect and an ultimate “handyman.” We joked that the rest of us were simply “sincere but incompetent.”

And it seemed to work.

The folks at CPSC hooked us up with four different households. And the week took shape from there.

One dear lady was trying to rebuild her house. Life was hard, though. She was 80 years old, had lost her husband recently, had two knees in severe pain and was living in a small room with her son. She just wanted her house back in shape. The process, though, seemed overwhelming to her. Many contractors, frankly, had taken advantage of this elderly woman who had some insurance funds to work with. She needed some support and some action. Our general contractor inspected the house, which had been gutted down to the studs and discovered some damage to the foundation, caused by the flood waters. So, we mixed concrete, poured it in, shovel by shovel, to the washed-out areas, as well as mixing mortar to tuck-point other masonry damage. We bought and spread about 40 cubic yards of soil to cover up the foundation and make the yard smooth again. Later in the week, we completely reinsulated the house. She was ready for the next team to put of drywall. At last, she saw some movement on getting her house back.

Another woman in her 60s had planned well yet had been ripped off badly by some contractors and her former employer. She lived in a FEMA trailer next to her home which was close to being rebuilt. Again, however, unreliable contractors had left this fine woman in the lurch. In particular, she had all the new siding on the site for her house, but no way to get the siding installed. Enter our architect/handyman and two other guys. In 2.5 days, they had the house sided, despite having no specific tools for siding and no ladders. They innovated, on the fly, worked safely and had one ecstatic lady, beaming about progress on her home. We bought her flowers and a new welcome mat…a little touch to add some dignity to a tough situation.

A third lady, also quite elderly, had moved into a second-room floor of her house which was high enough to avoid damage from the flood waters (we found this to be a common process). But putting this small apartment together was itself overwhelming. Complicating this was a horrendous job of painting that a contractor had done on the interior. By using a spray painter with no masking, they left paint all over woodwork, blinds and window glass. Disgusting. No way to live. A full affront to her dignity. Five members of our team repainted the place for her and helped her move in. It meant the world to her. More flowers, more hugs.

A fourth household was near a levee break and had water in their home for six weeks. The porch was badly damaged and was unsafe and unusable. They had no hot water. Contractors promised to appear, but didn’t. The homeowner didn’t know what to do. CSPC asked us if we could figure it out. So, our plumber figured out how to install the water heater in this very old house, under different plumbing codes than we have here in Indiana. Our General Contractor jumped at the chance to rebuild the porch. Four of us worked with him to hammer, nail and saw up lumber to put on stair rails, porch rails and fascia boards. Again, we had to get creative with the tools we had, but it worked. The owners were so grateful. I’ve never been hugged that much.

We tied up all this work late on Friday afternoon, cleaned up the guest house and headed back home late morning Saturday. I left with many mixed feelings.

On one hand, it was encouraging to have helped four households take a step towards normalcy. It was good to have played a role in CSPC’s efforts to be a point of light in a city that has suffered much. Our team functioned with a sense of service and humility, respecting the dignity of each person with whom we had contact.

At the same time, the enormity of the damage and the depth of the hurt was overwhelming. Our efforts, though sincere, felt like a drop in the ocean. I also felt anger on several occasions at the rip-offs of vulnerable people by unscrupulous contractors. I felt anger over the structural insanity of local, state and federal government agencies. The crime in the city is frightening. I felt dismayed by the lack of a coherent plan to rebuild the region. I felt sad that virtually all the folks we met and talked with had resigned themselves to simply fending for themselves as best as they could.

I’ve been enormously blessed in my life. From a supportive family to the discovery of the personal role Christ has in my life to the transforming nature of how Christ has caused me to look at the world, I’ve been very blessed. So how does this inform my response to something of the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina? I’m mulling that and likely will be for some time. The trip was one step. I suspect there may be more.

There is a long, long path ahead for this great city. And no individual will ever erase The Line. Scrubbing it off, one house at a time, one life at a time, may be the best we can do.