It was clear from the moment I stepped off the plane that Louis Armstrong International Airport was built with a much larger crowd in mind. Lonely footsteps echoed down the empty terminal corridor, and the one open food stand had attracted a line of just two customers. The bathrooms were unusually clean, and the attendant at the baggage counter was leaning back in an airport cart, scratching his chest, and talking softly on his cell phone.
New Orleans in January was a ghost town. By some estimates, it had welcomed back only one-fifth of its pre-Katrina population. I was there to help lure back some of the rest: by volunteering with the Heritage Conservation Network for a week on the restoration of a hurricane-damaged home in the 9th Ward. I was the last to arrive of seven volunteers from New York, Ontario, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Colorado. We were all strangers to each other, unsure of what the week ahead would bring, but altogether excited to be there, to help, and to learn.
Our first day of work was an introduction to the 9th Ward, a neighborhood on some of the city's least attractive real estate. Over the last century, this former cypress swamp had grown into an extensive community, and pre-Katrina, it was home to approximately 20,000 residents, 98 percent of whom were African American.
Even now, nearly five months later, it looked like it had been leveled only yesterday. The entire neighborhood was still without electricity and running water, and it was illegal for anyone to stay there overnight. You’d wonder why anyone would want to. Houses had collapsed in on themselves’ some appeared to have floated away entirely. Cars lay on top of cars on top of mountains of appliances, furniture, and all the little pieces of a well established home. The smell of mold was overwhelming. Everything was still, and the only apparent activity was taking place on the sides of damaged houses, where rescue workers, search teams, volunteers, and concerned neighbors left records of their visits and the things they came across. “Dead dog under porch.” “Elaine Dorothy and Keith Okay.” “Total Loss.”
Our project for the week was the home of Stacy, a former elementary-school principal and a longtime resident of Holy Cross, the southernmost part of the 9th Ward. Her house sat on the natural levee of the riverbank, and had been sturdily built back in 1893 on a foundation raised three feet off the ground, which made it more clearly salvageable than its neighbors.
Stacy had invited us to work without a building permit because the city wasn’t issuing any in the 9th Ward. According to city officials, the neighborhood had not yet proven itself viable, and permits would only be granted when someone in charge deemed the efforts worthwhile. This was one of the most frustrating aspects of the rebuilding effort: For a neighborhood to prove itself viable, it must have residents, and residents must have homes and the ability to make their homes livable. Without electricity, running water, permits, or financial and planning commitments from the government, this was absolutely daunting.
The lack of resources and a clearly communicated plan also made volunteer management a huge challenge. Our project leaders, who had extensive experience in construction, had arrived in New Orleans just two days ahead of us. They had no contacts or resources in the area, and no pre-existing plan for the project. They, too, were volunteers, and every day brought a new obstacle. Materials were difficult to find, generators were needed to use power tools, and the budget was meager. The only thing our leaders had plenty of were semi-skilled volunteers like me who longed for something useful to do.
We began each morning on Stacy’s front porch, where she briefed us on her attempts to collect flood insurance money and her latest restoration ideas. After assessing our progress from the previous day, we donned safety goggles, gloves, and masks and got to work on deconstruction, a more restorative form of demolition. The house was a swirl of dust and noise as we tore off peeling wallpaper, hammered through moldy drywall, and pulled out wet insulation.
When the walls were done, we set to work on the floors. Warped bathroom and kitchen tiles had to be pried off and the rotting wood underneath replaced, which meant first removing toilets, sinks, and bathtubs, which we carried out to the yard for a cleaning or to the street for dumping. Over the course of the week, the dump pile grew too high to see over and stretched the length of the house.
Then there were the nails. Taking a house apart shows you how it was built i.e., with a lot of nails, all of which had to be removed before any new construction could take place. After a full day of this, with a short break for lunch and a walk to the portable toilets located near a larger construction stage three blocks away it was impossible not to feel exhausted, filthy, and totally satisfied.
Most days we headed back to the hostel, where the lucky and quick got the only 15 minutes of hot water the plumbing had to offer. On occasion, we put good breeding aside and headed into town in our work clothes for a drink and a hot meal. The city seemed to welcome us, showered or not, with open arms, and everywhere we went we listened to people talk (and sing) about how much they loved New Orleans’ for its music, food, culture, and sense of community.
I would grow to love it, too. It was my first visit to New Orleans, and thanks to Stacy and her neighbors, and my fellow volunteers, many of whom had visited strong>New Orleans in the past, I got to experience the city with a richness not afforded to a typical tourist. We ate crawfish on the banks of the Mississippi River, listened to blues legends sing in tiny clubs to overflowing crowds, walked down Bourbon Street in the early hours of the morning, when the locals were busy getting ready for the still slumbering tourists, and everywhere we went we felt appreciated for the work that we were doing. We spent many nights discussing local news and politics, music, and our jobs and families back home, and despite being very different people with diverse backgrounds, we shared a respect and openmindedness that allowed us to have great fun together.
On the third day of work, we accompanied Stacy to a meeting of the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, where we heard stories of looting and continued frustration with the city’s permitting and inspection process. Plans were made to contact the police chief, to rally for electricity, and to encourage neighbors to hold onto their homes and property for as long as possible. There is a great and real fear that this neighborhood will be sold to the highest bidder because the costs and bureaucracy associated with rebuilding will be far too great for its predominately low-to-middle-income residents. To many, it feels as though the city has already decided upon a plan for the 9th Ward: demolition by neglect.
The last two days we spent working on Stacy’s house, the skies over the 9th Ward were full of government helicopters. Our national leaders were being given an aerial tour of the devastation. From our vantage point on the ground, surrounded by ruined homes and lost histories, covered in drywall dust and insulation, these helicopters felt like the enemy overseer. They contained the mysterious architects of New Orleans’s future, the ones making vital decisions from a position of untouched safety. As an outsider, I felt overwhelmed. What good was the work I was doing? Was I helping wax the floors of a sinking ship?
But as the helicopters hovered overhead, Stacy hung up a sign that had been distributed at the neighborhood meeting: “We’re coming home.” That was all the affirmation I needed.
The following organizations offer opportunities to participate in Gulf Coast restoration projects.