Saturday, March 31, 2007


March 30/31: Day One/Two, Break 2007

We’re back! This trip marks SMC’s fourth trip to New Orleans since the storms of August 2005. Some of our group members (Chris, Justin, Jed, Elijah, and Shawny) have taken all four trips, meaning that they have spent over two full months in the last fourteen months (over 15% of their lives during that period!) in the hurricane-affected Gulf Coast region. Everyone else has been to New Orleans at least twice, many three times. Everyone on this trip was also here in January. We all feel like we just left New Orleans four days ago, though it has really been almost exactly two months. Bryan, Kate, and Matt agreed to head up a short video showing some of today’s events. Click below to watch what they produced.

We had a long day of traveling to get ourselves to New Orleans for our alternative spring break this year. Sixteen members of the group who spent Jan Term in New Orleans are here right now. We are fortunate to be joined by the Verrips brothers’ dad, Jack, and their younger brother Josh. On Sunday, another Jan Termer will join us, and on Monday, our final Jan Term traveler will arrive. Thus, we are a group of twenty.

The sixteen who are here right now left SMC at 8:30 on Friday morning to get to the San Jose airport (flights were cheaper from there than from San Francisco or Oakland). We then flew to Houston, where we loaded into two 12-passenger vans and drove six hours across to New Orleans, arriving at about 2:30 a.m. Flights to New Orleans were too heavily booked to accommodate a group of our size, so we had to find another way in.

We are lucky to have landed housing with Volunteers of America, who run a volunteer housing facility in the beautiful Uptown neighborhood. We have actual beds, all of which appear to be almost brand new. Some of us are sleeping in big rooms with seven people in them, while a few are in three person rooms. Unfortunately, we only got to spend about four hours in those beautiful new beds before we got up to head to our first day of work for this trip.

Happily, we got a call from our friend Alicia at Habitat for Humanity who told us that our assignment for the day was to return to a house where we worked during January. The house will soon be the home of our new friend Natasha Forthner and it is located in the very devastated area called New Orleans East.

As we drove toward Natasha’s house, we realized that it would almost be completed, as she expects to move into the home in April. When we saw a little patch of purple paint off in the distance down the road, we knew that we were getting close. Natasha had told us that she intended to paint her house purple and to find two purple chairs to place on the porch. Though the chairs are not yet on the porch (but they ARE purchased already), the house is almost ready for move-in.

It looks great inside, and we are all amazed that it seems even bigger with its sheetrocked walls than it did when it was just a framed-out structure of 2x4s. We got to see the roof that we raised now covered in shingles, we got to see the doors, windows, trim, and siding that we helped to install painted and finished, and we got a chance to work on some parts of the project that we hadn’t even imagined yet when we were here before.

All of the Verrips men got a particularly tough assignment: re-install doors that had already been framed out, as – quite unfortunately – there was a break-in at Natasha’s house-in-progress and all of the previously installed doors were stolen. Hanging doors is a pain-in-the-neck no matter what the circumstances, but it is really hard to put a new door into a casing that did not come with it originally. Of course, Jack, Chris, Justin, and Josh accomplished the task in record time.

Others were finishing paintjobs that were partially completed while still others worked on various parts of the trim in and around the house. Some folks went down the street and solved some paint problems at another Habitat house down the block. Another group went with our beloved long-term Habitat volunteer staffer Keith to put up a fence. In general, we were visiting almost all of the nine new homes in New Orleans East to do whatever we could to bring those jobs to completion.

It was a great treat for all of us to get to return to the scenes of some of our work two months ago. Still, the Habitat for Humanity work day ends before 3:00. Considering the levels of labor to which we have grown accustomed, working for a mere seven hours seems quite inadequate to us. So when we finished our jobs out in New Orleans East, we headed down to the Ninth Ward to do some more work for our friend Rosie, whose house was our first gutting job ever back in January 2006. We hope to visit the Ninth Ward every day, whether we work at Habitat on that particular day or not.

Today, we decided to pull down a very old and dilapidated shed behind the double lot that Rosie owns. It was full of lots of the kinds of things that one might store in a back shed, including tons of bottles, jars, and jugs, a small amount of furniture, a lot of low-tech appliances that hadn’t functioned for quite a few years, and a few oversized storage closets that were pretty big and sturdy. Another important item that the shed contained was a HUGE nest of HUGE spiders (allegedly harmless ones), the sight of which could send our most macho group members squealing and high-stepping across the yard running for their lives.

Once we had emptied one side of the shed of its contents (with Jack Verrips leading the charge), we decided that it was rickety enough for us to pull it down by hand. Though some of the structure was still sturdier than it seemed (requiring serious blows from the sledgehammer to disassemble it), we were right that we could tear the thing apart with our bare hands.

Every one of us joined into the system that included demolition, gathering of debris, and then an elaborate “bucket brigade” that stretched the length of the lot to deliver the contents of the destroyed building to the front curb. We were all sweating, some of us were bleeding (we’re all fine, though), and we could feel the collective energy flow through our group so that we functioned in almost total synchronicity. The whole experience was so exhilarating that we barely noticed the gathering thunderclouds that eventually dropped a downpour onto us just as we were about to finish clearing the entire yard.

We all scrambled onto the porch, watched the rain pour down, and smelled that unmistakable smell that comes off of hot pavement when it is hit with rain for the first time in weeks. We exclaimed over our great strength and unity and over our virtually tool-free triumph over the large outbuilding in Rosie’s yard. Rosie joined us and told us stories about the neighborhood, including the vision of a passing stranger (who looked like a “prophet,” according to Rosie) of a buried treasure beneath the very shed that we had just brought to the ground.

Once the rain abated, we realized that we were really tired. Too tired, in fact, to go to the crawfish festival that we had planned to attend this evening. Instead, we went to our place in Uptown, showered, and drove back to our January neighborhood: Algiers Point on the West Bank. There, we had dinner at The Dry Dock, our friendly neighborhood pub that served as our sanctuary on the rainiest days of January.

We worked for nine and a half hours today, having only had four hours of sleep last night. Strangely, we are ecstatic. In fact, we expect to work ten, eleven, or twelve hour days for the rest of the week, especially because we just realized that if we push ourselves to the absolute limit, we will manage to reach a collective 10,000 hours of direct hurricane relief labor over the course of all four of SMC’s trips.

Our only sadness is that we miss our other NOLA veterans. Whether you went in January 2006, January 2007, or break 2006, we have definitely talked about you and/or thought about you quite a bit since we arrived. We really, really, really, wish you were here. . .

We stretched our sixteen person contingent across two 12-passenger vans as we drove across to New Orleans from Houston, Texas. Here Bryan and Brianna make the most of the ride.

We were thrilled to return to the nearly-completed house that started one week before our arrival in New Orleans in January. The purple house in this shot is the one for which we raised the roof two months ago.

Emily and Matt help mix and pour concrete to support a chainlink fence at one of the nine Habitat for Humanity houses nearing completion in New Orleans East.

Emily sets the post for the new fence.

Soraya is joined by two neighborhood kids who wanted to help build the fence.

Kate and Janeva focus their attention on the front windows at Natasha's house, which will need to be resealed and repainted. They removed and replaced the old caulking to improve the quality of the paint job on the trim.

Natasha, the new homeowner of this Habitat for Humanity house, assists in the painting of the doors today.

Jack Verrips, the father of our infamous fellow travelers Chris and Justin, has volunteered his expertise for the during our our break week. He is smart enough to stay in a hotel instead of in our group living situation.

Rosie tells us stories on her porch as we wait out the end of the rain today.

Rosie's back shed was full of old glassware including jugs, jars, and these cool old green glass Coke bottles with "New Orleans" on the bottom.