Saturday, January 27, 2007

Day Nineteen

The Fab Five faced this rainy day with the video camera in hand. Click below to see their take.

Aaaaarrrrgggghhh! More rain. We CANNOT handle any more rain! When we got up, it was just cloudy; without any thought of rain, we started trying to figure out how to distribute ourselves across the jobs we need to finish. Then drops began to fall. Suddenly, Sarah’s paint job was off the list. So were Rosie’s security bars and walker-accessible steps.

No matter what, we had already decided to start the day by stopping at Natasha’s Habitat for Humanity house. Our first order of business there was to deliver Alicia’s beloved speed square back to her, as we accidentally brought it home with us the last time we worked for her. (The level of frantic searching it took to find this one little item almost threw off our whole day; Matt rescued us by finding it in the trailer.) Our second (and most important) goal was to deliver the gazing globe that we bought for Natasha’s back yard. Natasha works all week, so she is seldom at the site on weekdays. She comes almost every Saturday, though, so we hoped we would run into her today.

When we arrived, Natasha was nowhere to be found, but Alicia was happy to see us, hoping we were working for her today. We told her that we couldn’t stay, but that we wanted to deliver what we owed her. She was quite surprised that we drove that far out of our way to give back an item that is relatively inexpensive but that holds great sentimental value to her. We also brought out the gazing globe and asked her to deliver it to Natasha for us. She agreed.

We then headed out to our job for the day: working on a permaculture garden at a funky former industrial site that is now an arts collective called ArtEgg. We worked with Professor Charles Reith of Tulane University, who is developing the exterior of this former egg-processing plant as a model of sustainable agriculture that will help to reduce the effects of urban pollution. The general principle is to channel water off of nearby paved areas and filter it through “bioswales” (contoured drainage channels with vegetation that helps to draw the pollutants out of the runoff). The bioswale cuts a curving channel through the property and raised boxes line the channel to grow trees, vegetables, and other plants. The entire lot serves as its own miniature ecosystem so that it not only sustains itself with little maintenance, but it also provides the “pollution-scrubbing” services of the bioswale.

All of this is very laudable and fascinating, of course, but pounding rain made the whole place a bit less hospitable for us than it might have been. As we were arriving, a steady rain began to fall. We had heard that we were working on a “green roof” at ArtEgg, but we assumed that the pouring rain meant that we would have to find some other job. Though people were, in fact, working on the roof when we arrived, our job was in and around the bioswale at ground level. Even though we weren’t on the roof, we were still quite vulnerable to the rain. We got SOAKED. Through. All the way.

Some of us were dredging the bioswale, some of us were turning and moving the compost pile, some of us laid a new brick path, some of us planted trees, some of us collected scattered litter, some of us transplanted cattails and all of us got really wet. Most of us didn’t have great raingear, meaning that we were wearing jeans that got super-soaked and very heavy. Something about bending over meant that the seats of our pants also get really wet, and suddenly it looked like we were all wearing diapers. And it felt like we were wearing diapers, too. Diapers full of ice.

Even the people who had legitimate raingear tested it all the way to the limit. Most of our rainjackets soaked through, but for some reason we all just kept working away. Admittedly, we made lots of wise cracks about what we were doing and why we were doing it, but in the end, we actually at least partially believed in the whole undertaking.
Charles, too, clearly believes, and he hopes to convince the city of New Orleans to develop large swaths of land using similar sustainable practices. He will likely succeed, which makes us happy to have made a small contribution to this experiment.

We broke for lunch at noon and went onto a loading dock to get out of the downpour. Once we escaped the rain for even one minute, we knew that we couldn’t go back. We declared ourselves noble and virtuous for lasting a full three hours in that much precipitation and we set ourselves free. The People of the Ice Diapers were liberated.

We were slow to claim our freedom, though, as we were too wet to get onto the bus. We had to set up a metering system to send people out in pairs. Shawny, Jed, and Leo were on the other end, having cut a strip of turf to cover the floor of the bus. Jed ran shoes and top layers into the luggage bins while Shawny and Leo cut long strips of plastic off a roll. Each person wrapped in plastic, then sat on the floor to keep the bus as clean and dry as possible.

We got home to a flooded field, where the water was clearly coming up from beneath the saturated ground. Even our covered dining area had standing water throughout. We rationed hot water to get showers for every chilly one of us and then promptly ran out of propane again. Grrr.

We recognized that we could not produce our own meal under these conditions, so we decided to go down the street to the Dry Dock CafĂ© right outside the ferry stop. We intended to cook up lots of our lingering pantry staples (we still have LOTS of tofu for some odd reason!) to use up some of our leftover food. Instead, Courtney’s cousins joined us and brought us incredible fresh peel-and-eat shrimp, and then we went to the restaurant and had great catfish, burgers, red beans and rice, and even some ice cream. To top off the night, one of the patrons in the place picked up the tab! He at first wanted to remain anonymous, but then decided that he wanted to thank us personally for coming to New Orleans at all. Like Charles Reith this morning, this benefactor told us that New Orleans feels like every level of government has let them down. He said that only because of people like us is New Orleans on its feet again. He wanted to show his gratitude. We were reluctant, but we accepted his offer to buy our dinner. The whole place broke into a huge celebration over us and over the future of New Orleans. After our cold and rainy morning, this evening was an appropriate reward. Thanks to our Dry Dock neighbors, thanks to Courtney’s cousins for their visit, and thanks again to all of you for following along. We feel you by our sides. . . .

One of our jobs at the Art of the Egg was to transplant trees from one end of the garden to the other. Shane and Janeva work on digging a hole for “Phil” the first tree they moved.

Emily, Linzy, Tim, and a gardener turn over the compost pile creating a stench that permeated the entire vicinity. Luckily the rain helped wash away the unpleasant smell.

Hope, one of the gardeners, had us get creative with the space by placing stepping stones along the bio swale in order to highlight it but not impede its sustainability.

The NOLA group stands on the deck as we receive instructions for the day’s work.

Megan used clippers to cut dead cattails and iris plants from the bioswail in the permaculture.

Kellie shows the rest of our group how to garden under rainy conditions.

Some of our group members found time to hang out in the back portion of the garden.

Some say that the future of energy is in alternative fuel resources. This bus that is “powered by vegetable oil” is an example of one of those vehicles.

Elijah displays his brutish strength by carrying barrels to take them to their proper place.

Recycle reduce reuse! Art of the Egg demonstrates the importance of recycling by building borders out of bottles.

Jokingly, we lit a book of matches to keep warm . . . surprisingly, it gave us a moment of refreshing and much needed heat.

Okay now it is wayyyyyyyyyyyyy too cold out there! Shawny rallies up team after a hard work in the rain. Can you tell we are cold?

Duck, duck . . . Goose. We drove back from Art of the Egg soak up and dirty but we suffered together and remained happy.

Upon our return home we found the kitchen tent completely flooded by the continual rain. This didn’t deter Courtney and others from making doughnuts to cheer up the group by placing a piece of plywood over the swampy grass.

Because of the rain, we had to cut our workday short. We returned to camp to work on our projects in the dry haven of the warehouse.

Day Eighteen

Mannschaft took care of videography for us today. Click below to get their perspective on Day 18.

More sunshine today! We were thrilled. Pancakes were a fine start to this sunny day and we gathered up our things and headed off to an unusual appointment this morning. We started our day at the administrative headquarters for Algiers Charter Schools, at the invitation of our new friend John Schwab, the Chief Operating Officer. We joined John and were fascinated to learn the processes by which a valiant few educators managed to reopen the schools in Algiers after the storm. (We were also pretty hyped up over the fact that they provided a spread of sweet rolls, fruit and JUICE for us -- all things that we haven’t seen since we left California.)

Algiers is on the “West Bank,” which feels strangely illogical because from virtually anywhere we have been in New Orleans, we have to drive east to get to the West Bank. Whatever. Anyway, Algiers and our more specific home base, Algiers Point, are neighborhoods across the river from the French Quarter. This area did not flood due to levee breaks, though there was still a lot of storm damage due to torn-off roofs, fallen trees, etc. Still, once the dust (and water) had settled after the storm, Algiers was a reasonable place to begin to reopen schools.

Of course, every part of the city was in chaos and people were dispersed across the country, including the teachers that might have staffed the newly-reopened schools. Although the situation was obviously terrible, it also presented an extraordinary opportunity to the Algiers School District, as they got to start a new era with a completely clean slate. As the time came to hire new faculty, 600 teachers applied for the 150 positions. Though they had brief twinges of guilt about it, the administration truly got to hire the cream of the educational crop.

From there, they began a series of creative and innovative programs that have changed the entire landscape of education in this area. The surest sign of their success is that at one of their high schools, O. Perry Walker, they expect a 100% graduation rate this year, though in prior eras they were lucky to achieve 50%.

Having heard about their marvelous new ideas, we wanted to see one of their schools for ourselves. John took us to Edna Karr High School, where we found the happiest high school of all time. The students were engaged, bubbly, and obviously plugged into all that was happening in their classrooms and in the hallways. The faculty were proud to be a part of such an amazing renaissance. The administrators were friendly and welcoming, and clearly were not suffering from burnout. (One even did some informal interviewing of some of our students, offering at least two of them future jobs if they are interested in pursuing them.) Groups of their students joined groups of our students at tables in the library and they talked and talked and talked.

They offered us lunch in their cafeteria, which was a strangely enticing invitation. None of us really craved high school lunchroom food, but we loved the idea of sharing a meal with these impressive students. We had to turn down their offer, though, as we were meeting some Catholic Charities staffers in the Ninth Ward to learn how to do mold abatement on our friend Rosie’s house.

We headed away from the high school completely jazzed and buzzing about all that we had seen and heard. More than anything, we were excited about feeling a real sense of promise and hope for the future of the students of Algiers. Frankly, despite the work we have done throughout our time here, we are having trouble seeing serious signs of hope really living and growing in front of us. Today, we saw some. Real ones. Lucky us.

We headed on over to Rosie’s and learned how to use two special compounds to scrub and spray the interior framing of the house to fight off whatever mold still remains there. Sixteen of us shared that job while others painted, either at Sarah’s Happy House around the corner or on Mr. Pitts’ porch next door to Rosie’s house. The mold abatement job took less than an hour once we got started, so once it was done, that group turned its attention back to the house that we have visited every day this week after already-long workdays to finish gutting it for Catholic Charities.

On the way home from the Catholic Charities house, we called the house’s owner and talked to her for the first time. Her name is Delores Thomas and she is currently living in Baton Rouge as she tries to figure out what needs to happen next in her very-messed-up New Orleans home. We told her that we had finished gutting her house and she told us that she was overjoyed. We told her about some of the items we had salvaged, including the chandelier and wall sconces that some of our readers have asked about. We also found many dishes and other small items that were intact; she offered to send her grandson over tomorrow to pick up all that we collected. She kept thanking us profusely and said that she just didn’t know how to properly acknowledge what we have done for her. She wished us God’s blessings and we assured her that we already feel blessed by being privileged to participate in the rebuilding of the great city of New Orleans.

We also feel blessed that you are reading this page right now, that you may have watched our video already, that perhaps you posted a message of support to us, and that you might check in over the next few days as our journey comes to a close. Thanks for being here with us.

Though Bryan has a fear of heights, he took one for the team and meticulously painted the trim at Sarah’s house. Hopefully we can complete her house on our next trip to the Upper Ninth.

Don and Rosie’s neighbor, Red, relaxes as he chats in his front yard. He has become a friendly face to many as we work throughout the day.

After arriving at North Claiborne, we ate a quick, but delicious lunch provided by the Transformers.

On this particular lot in the upper ninth ward, we saw three FEMA trailers lined up next to each other.

Vanessa and Kate paint the trim on Sarah Mercadell’s home on Bartholomew Street.

Lindsay, Feke, Bree, Shane, Bryan, and Vanessa pause for a quick photo before getting to work on the navy blue trim.

A beautiful sunset adds to the beautiful colors of Sarah’s house. Bree paints the gutter a dark blue so that it will match the rest of the trim.

Mardi Gras parade on I-10 through downtown New Orleans.

Habitat for Humanity’s “Musician Village” just down the road from Sara’s house.

Sunset at the Louisiana Street house.

In today’s NOLA adventure the team got the opportunity to visit Edna Karr High School and converse with students and staff. The main topics ranged from school, saints football, and life style.

Campus Security demonstrates the importance of maintaining a safe and happy atmosphere for students.

“You can do it if you but your mind to it! Or should I say just do it” – Mr. Pitts
Fellow Oneder, Juan enjoyed the hot sun painting the front porch of Mr. Pitts. At the end of the day, Juan left the porch with many fun stories.

Shawny and the rest of the group gets to work cleaning the studs in Rosie’s house to prepare for sheet-rocking in the coming days.