Thursday, January 25, 2007

Day Seventeen

The Transformers helped us to document a rather emotional day. Click below to learn about our experiences.

We woke up to a strange and unusual phenomenon today: sunshine. We seriously have almost forgotten what a clear blue sky looks like, and we were happy to be reminded as we stepped off the bus this morning. We sang songs from the Partridge Family, Sesame Street, Blind Melon, and anyone else that sings about sunshine or the end of the rain. We had real eggs for breakfast this morning, because we already used up all of our dehydrated ones. We also had real cheese, left over from our pizzafest last night. It was utterly luxurious.

Though we had a very happy morning for all of the reasons listed above, we have sad news to report: one of our members has gone home. Julie, who aggravated a pre-existing back injury last week, has decided that her condition is not improving here. Recognizing that she needs help from her hometown doctor, she decided to fly home today. Though we miss her already, we agree that it is best for her to be with her family so that she can recover. We will reconnect with her when we return to California next week.

Today we headed out to a very special job to all of us, but especially to Courtney. Last December, the group helped to clear the home of Courtney’s cousin Gail. This time we went to Gail’s sister Kathy’s house and cleared out what remained of it. Kathy and her husband Bobby had already claimed most of the items that were really meaningful to them but there were still a few things that they had never found. Though they love and cherish their home (especially because it is the house in which Kathy was raised), they have already resigned themselves to demolish it and have placed themselves on a list so that their house will be bulldozed by the government. They keep asking what they need to do to ensure that their property will be taken care of, but they never get any helpful information.

As they continue to be unable to get instructions from local officials, they are also hearing that property owners who do not take immediate action on their homes face seizure of their property. Thus, their virtually untouched house seemed vulnerable to this threat. When they heard that we were coming, they wondered if we could help. Of course, we were eager to do so.

We went out to their house in an area that was almost totally unoccupied. When we arrived at their home, we talked about the importance of our day’s work. Courtney had gotten a list from Kathy and Bobby of things that they still hoped to find in the house. The two items that we definitely hoped to find were needles in a haystack: a small pendant that Bobby had given Kathy early in their relationship and a glass pitcher that had belonged to Kathy’s grandmother.

As we put on our hard hats and filter masks, Shawny, Chris and Justin went into the house to assess how we should tackle the job. We were surprised to see Shawny crying when she came back out. She said later that she was overwhelmed by “the swirl.” The houses that we have undertaken on this trip have almost all been dealt with in one way or another and are mostly cleared of the primary contents that houses usually hold. This one not only contained most of the possessions that had ever been inside it, but all of the contents were also covered with a thick layer of ceiling material and insulation, both of which had dropped down long ago after being soaked in the flood. The space was a bit of a puffy pile, with furniture from all different rooms scattered throughout so that it was difficult to differentiate the living room from the bedrooms or the kitchen. This general state of being was what Shawny meant by “the swirl.”

We each passed through the house rather solemnly and then got to work right away. Vanessa immediately located a necklace that seemed to be the one we were seeking. Soon thereafter, someone found another one almost like it. (Later, we discovered that neither of these was the right one. Unfortunately, we never found it.) Not too long after, the pitcher that we hoped to find emerged from the pile. We found lots of mostly intact photos that Kathy and Bobby never expected us to find. We located many salvageable items including pottery pieces and dishes of various types. We also found an item that was not intact, though we saved it anyway, just in case: Kathy’s wedding dress.

Aaron spent much of the day sifting through the insulation layers in the master bedroom, hoping to find THE necklace that Kathy sought. His efforts, though noble, were not fruitful. Bobby stopped by around lunchtime to see how things were going. He looked at the small pile of intact items that we found and talked about the origins of each. He told us about the neighborhood and how it used to be. He talked about the enormous trees that lined all of the streets and most of the yards, always teeming with squirrels. We could only imagine what he was describing, as none of those trees still stand and no squirrels were anywhere in sight.

Bobby told us about different neighbors, where they are now, and what their plans are. Almost no one expects to return. Bobby’s prediction is that it will take twenty years for New Orleans to return to the city it was before the storm. As we stood with him on his treeless street and contemplated the approaching bulldozers that will soon destroy most of the houses, we feared that he might be right.

We asked Bobby if there was any “silver lining” that he could see in the aftermath of the storm. Though he first was clear that there was no such thing, he later changed his tune and talked about the kindness that different people showed to each other in the days after the hurricane. He had dozens of examples of people performing totally selfless acts as they helped others to recover from the devastation. He even referenced us as an example of the goodwill and human decency that he has seen more clearly than ever before. He also talked about a change in himself, saying that now he is patient, though he never was patient before.

In all that we have seen in our time here this month, we recognize that patience is a distinct necessity. Everyone patiently awaits their payouts from “The Road Home” program or from their insurance companies. Homeowners patiently wait for contractors to get to their houses to do plumbing or electrical work. Bobby and Kathy patiently wait for the bulldozers (scheduled for October 7, 2006) to demolish their house. Sarah waits patiently for the rain to stop so that we can finish painting the trim on her house. (Her patience paid off today. The Knucklebusters returned and began to repaint her trim in a new color: blue.) And many strangers that we have never met patiently wait for a group like us to come along and help them out.

We wish we could do more. . . .

There are still homes untouched in the city of New Orleans. For some us, it was an emotional experience.

This living room was untouched when we saw it this morning, seventeen months after Hurricane Katrina.

These books remain after rising floods waters over a year ago. Notice the book furthest to the right entitled Treacherous Waters; an ironic reminder of what happened as a result of the Hurricanes.

Tommy Bell reaches for the water line left by the flood, which is about eight feet above an area of land that is below sea level.

We returned to Sarah’s house to finish the paint job we started over two weeks ago. Sarah picked a new color for her house’s trim, navy blue. The more we paint, the more we love the way it looks.

The crew was up and ready to go early this morning. It looks like a tight fit but it feels like home!

The mission of the day was to find 2 precious items that the family was hoping to recover. Aaron and Chris took on the search for the pendant the couple was hoping to find. They sifted through the room that it had been lost in piece by piece. To no avail, we are sad to report it was not found.

One of the treasures found in our search was a picture of the home owner’s son Steven and his wife Melissa’s wedding picture. We were happy to sift through the home to find anything else that could be recovered.

Soraya and Linzy snuck off to the school close by only to find it too had remained untouched since the storm. It was an emotional walk as they passed by the vacant classrooms frozen in time.

The hallways felt so empty and lacked the energy that once filled these school halls. It is still unknown when the school will reopen. This is in part due to lack of funding for repairs and the fact that many of the children and their families have not returned. It is good to note that this particular neighborhood was 11 feet deep in water.

Below are pictures of Courtney’s family’s home (master bedroom and living room). If you glance closely at the walls, one can see the water line, which reached over 11 feet of water.

Yessenia washes some of the few items recovered from the storm. Items included: china, pots, a high school diploma, and a hospital wristband from when Courtney’s cousin gave birth to one of her sons.

Rachel reflects upon the salvageable items, while doing all she can to wash off rust and dirt off the various objects.

Rachel, Kate, and Soraya watch street cleaning workers take everything away removed from the home. Silence and reflection overcame everyone, as we witnessed objects and memories being swept away.

Juan, Yessenia, Courtney, and Tim sweep up the last of the debris and place it onto the trash pile.