Early in the morning on May 5th a group of volunteers met at Christ Church on Quaker Hill. Seven members of this group were about to begin their trip to New Orleans, Louisiana (often called NOLA). They were not going to attend Jazz Fest, certainly a good reason to fly there. They were going to work rebuilding homes still left devastated by hurricane Katrina. Every year since the hurricane destroyed much of the city on August 29, 2005, Christ Church has sent a team to help rebuild. For five days they brought a house closer to becoming a home.
In my opinion, neither the oil spill nor Katrina were “natural” disasters. The oil spill needs little explanation. Years of falsified safety checks led to an inevitable conclusion, failure. Mankind's major role in making the effects of Hurricane Katrina so much worse than would have naturally occurred does require more explanation. Much of what is the City of New Orleans was at one time swamp. The swamp was pumped out. The land, now dry, compressed, leaving half of New Orleans actually below sea level. Marshlands, which would have buffered New Orleans from the storm, have been depleted because of the navigation channels cut through them. The Mississippi River’s Gulf Outlet Canal (also known as MRGO) is a 76 mile long channel constructed by the United States Army Corps of Engineers to provide a shorter route between the Gulf of Mexico and New Orleans' inner harbor. The MRGO literally channeled Hurricane Katrina's storm surge into the heart of Greater New Orleans, contributing significantly to the subsequent multiple engineering failures experienced by the region's hurricane protection network. The channel has since been closed.
Karen Belfontaine, Susan Berlandi, Maggie Everett, Susan Horton, Terry Iorio, and John Lyons all led by Bob Reilly, did not stay in any fancy-schmancy hotel. They bunked (literally) down at Camp Restore, a Lutheran Church and school that has been converted to dormitory style volunteer housing. Camp Restore provides "three hots and a cot" along with fellowship and, well, it IS a Church after all.
The group worked with the Saint Bernard Project (SBP), an award-winning rebuilding, nonprofit organization. SBP's mission is to remove the physical, mental, and emotional barriers that vulnerable families, senior citizens and disabled residents struggle to overcome as they continue to recover from the devastation and trauma caused by Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill. To this day, between 8,000 and 10,000 homes are considered "blighted properties" in New Orleans.
The subject house for the Quaker Hill group was part of SBP's "Opportunity Housing" program. SBP has thus far purchased 20 abandoned properties from the City of New Orleans. These properties are restored and then sold through the Opportunity Housing Program, creating affordable home ownership opportunities for residents. This has the added benefit of rehabilitating blighted properties and strengthening neighborhoods is a win-win-win situation.
Monday through Friday the group worked transforming bare sheet rock into walls and ceilings ready to accept a top coat of paint. Under the supervision of David Komoroski and Jennifer Rogerson from SBP, gallons of spackle were applied, and pounds were then sanded off, leaving smooth surfaces free of holes and seams. On Friday some of the team was able to apply the first coat of primer. They returned to Camp Restore at the end of each day tired and dirty.
Several neighbors took time to stop by and thank all those working to help improve their neighborhood. Each had a terrible story to tell of their experiences during and after Katrina. These memories won't soon be forgotten. Ms. Ruby Joseph confirmed the water depth reached ten feet at both her home and the subject home.
But all was not work and toil for the group. After a shower, the City beckoned. Five of the seven evenings in Louisiana were spent helping the local food service industry. Dinners were not limited to the French Quarter. Mid-City, Gentilly, and the Business District have wonderful restaurants that provided delicious meals too.
On Wednesday afternoon the group was invited to the "Welcome Home Celebration" for Lama Ngawang, a student of the Dali Lama. Lama was a victim of contractor malfeasance as well as the hurricane. His home was further damaged beyond that caused by Katrina when a contractor improperly attempted to raise the house. SBP came in and fixed the problems caused by the first contractor and literally raised the home two stories above the ground. Lama and his family live on a third floor walk up, only there is no first or second floor. Lama was a truly gracious host and so happy to be home again.
After work on Friday the group visited the "Katrina Museum." The lobby displays Fats Domino's ruined Steinway grand piano. Within the museum are many rescued artifacts, photos, videos, and personal accounts of both hurricanes Katrina and Rita (remember the area was hit twice in one season). Everyone on the team was moved, some to tears. The reasons for traveling 1,500 miles to work for free, reconstructing homes, for complete strangers were made crystal clear.
The next morning held the trip back north. The team returned home to Pawling tired, but fulfilled with a job well done, and ready to return to the Big Easy.
For more information contact: Christ Church on Quaker Hill – http://www.ccoqh.org/ Saint Bernard Project - http://www.stbernardproject.org/Camp Restore - http://www.camprestore.org/