June 24, 2006

In devastated, desolate Big Easy, visitors find hopeful signs of life - Part I

by Laura Thomas, SF Chronicle
This is the first of four parts on staff writer Laura Thomas' week of work on the cleanup in New Orleans. Today: the arrival.

Ten months after Hurricane Katrina hit, volunteers are still coming from all over the country to help New Orleanians clean out their homes and reclaim their neighborhoods.

The City Council has backed off from its April decision to force homeowners to clean up by the flood's Aug. 29 anniversary. On May 25, the council agreed to set aside the deadline for the hard-hit Lower Ninth Ward, and even earlier than that softened its stance by saying that homeowners only need to state their intentions to clean up by getting on a nonprofit organization's house-gutting waiting list by that date.

Based on those signals, several organizations -- from the Southern Baptist Convention to the national urban community organizing group ACORN to the anarchist collective Common Ground -- are continuing to accept volunteers to help out in New Orleans' stricken neighborhoods.

ACORN, or Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, whose national headquarters is in New Orleans, will continue its Home Clean-Out Demonstration Program that began in January even after reaching its goal of cleaning 1,000 homes. As of June 1, 1,400 homes had been completed and 800 were on ACORN's waiting list. "Our goal is to get every house on the list. We will work until the job is done," said Daryl Durham, volunteer coordinator. About 60 to 100 volunteers arrive each week to help out, including large groups of college and high school students, Boy Scouts, local conventioneers and all sorts of individuals. "A couple decided to come here and help gut for their honeymoon," Durham said.

Six months ago, I wrote ("Friulian phoenix,'' Dec. 17) that New Orleans should be restored for its cultural wealth and significance to the United States, comparing it to a region in Italy that was fully restored with historical authenticity and improved economic vigor after an earthquake in 1976. In the course of researching the story, I discovered that in New Orleans government agencies were doing little to focus on neighborhood restoration and that grassroots organizations and citizen volunteers were picking up the slack.

In March, I traveled to New Orleans with a longtime friend, Ginny McPartland, a former newspaper reporter now working in marketing for Kaiser Permanente. We both wanted to see the devastation in New Orleans for ourselves and lend a hand in the rebuilding process. We signed up to volunteer with

Saturday, March 18
We fly from Oakland to Houston, and while waiting for the connecting flight to New Orleans, we strike up conversations with New Orleanians around us.

There's the architect and his wife, a nurse, from Metairie, with soft, barely detectable Southern accents, who fled Katrina for Houston, where he had projects going. Now they go back and forth. He pulls out his laptop and shows us one of those flood maps of the city and points out the five places where levees were breached.

A blond lady wants to know if she can help us with anything. She's gregarious, her accent a bit Southern, a bit something else. She's Cajun from Lafourche Parish and tells us proudly how she spent her summers as a child with an aunt at the Jackson Barracks in the Lower Ninth Ward.

A community college teacher in St. Bernard Parish tells us they reopened the school immediately for their students whose families there and in nearby Plaquemines Parish had lost everything. These two women find they know several people in common, and they start chattering away.

The architect and Ginny discuss flood insurance problems. When he packs up his laptop at boarding time, he seems to be tearful and says, "Well, thanks for coming down to help."

It's past 8 p.m. by the time we get our rental car and head into the city. It's the first visit for Ginny, who gazes into the dark to see if she can see signs of Katrina's wrath. But the first thing we see as we exit onto North Rampart Street is desolation. This street is on the north edge of the French Quarter, and its emptiness probably has more to do with redevelopment and long-standing blight than effects of the floodwaters, but it still is creepy.

At Canal Street, our newly renovated hotel stands on a well-lighted corner. But the people standing aimlessly on a couple of corners look homeless and the view down Canal Street is as seedy as ever. We circle the hotel. The buildings behind it, including Louisiana State University's medical center, are closed, the streets empty. Now the stories of New Orleans being unsafe and lawless begin to worry me. I refused the costly extra comprehensive insurance for the car and now regret it. We park right in front of the hotel and go in. The young man behind the counter cheers us up with his manner and French accent. A mixture of tourists and city residents being housed by FEMA go in and out. We follow the advice of the concierge and park our car in the medical center garage behind the hotel. He says it's free and well lighted, and it is.

In our room for a few minutes, we consider the situation. Ginny said, "Everything is probably all right. We're just tired and have to get used to being here.'' We decide to go out to dinner, and walk resolutely down Canal Street. In normal times, it's a good replica of upper Market Street; now it's enhanced by piles of garbage at the curb from the few businesses that have reopened. Many remain boarded up, although it's hard to know whether that's because of the floodwaters or hard times.

We cross Canal into the dark narrow streets of the French Quarter. I hate to admit that the sight of tourists on Bourbon Street heartens me, but it does. We eat in a tourist trap called the Cajun Cabin. Ginny has some dry jambalaya and I eat a decent etouffee while a rock band plays in defiance of the sign above the stage that reads "Cajun music nightly."

Sunday, March 19
At 10:30 a.m., we are surprised by a call from the front desk making sure we plan to be out by 11. We take it as an indication of the tension between management and the numerous people living in the hotel on FEMA vouchers. We insist we're too tired to leave before 12 and let them know of our mission.

We feel done in by our workweeks, jet lag, adrenaline and uncertainty. We're due at the FEMA camp in Algiers later in the day, but now we just want to sit somewhere and eat. We head for Magazine Street, a district that once housed warehouses and an ordinary working-class neighborhood. It's been rediscovered by a new generation of artsy entrepreneurs and is full of shops, restaurants and street life. A dividing line between some run-down streets and the city's Garden District of 19th century homes, it has all of that ineffable New Orleans charm of buoyant life amid decay.

After lunch, we stop in an antiques cooperative and ask two women there how Katrina has affected them. There was no flooding, only looting, they say. "We were lucky they didn't burn it down," one says. What could looters want from a place full of decorative memorabilia, I ask. She replies flatly: costume jewelry, worth $250,000, and, tragically, it wasn't cataloged.

Both women admit they feel bitter, and the one who had specialized in jewelry says, "When you are a jewelry collector, it's part of you. You can never get over that feeling of being violated." As we find everywhere we go, the residents of the city have gone on with their lives, but at the merest question the shock of what happened rises instantly to the surface.

We go for coffee and feel our energy rising. I attempt banter with the young man behind the counter. He tries to respond, then tells us abruptly that he's not in the mood. He and his fellow baristas have just heard that a friend was shot and killed in a street robbery the night before in the Faubourg Marigny. My mood drops also. I read later in the Times-Picayune that the low crime rate since Katrina had been the one blessing. But this murder and another earlier in the month has people worried again.

We stroll through the Garden District. Both the Lafayette Cemetery and the Commander's Palace restaurant are closed, but the neighborhood is in good shape. We find the home of Bryan Bell, an 85-year-old man my husband and I met as we strolled by on our trip in 2004. His wife, Rubie, opens the door. It is 4 p.m. and nearing the South's traditional Sunday dinnertime, but she takes us through, pointing out the backyard, where a large water oak, the oldest in New Orleans, fell away from the house. "I don't know about you, but I believe in angels," she says.

The Bells have come in for the weekend. They are living in San Antonio near a daughter, as they had been advised by their doctor. At their age, they need reliable medical services and those no longer exist in New Orleans.

We drive across the Greater New Orleans bridge to Algiers, a neighborhood on high ground that was hit by wind, but no water. FEMA has set up a camp for volunteer workers in a city park. We sign in, collect badges, linens and directions to Tent 5.

The camp staff are local employees of a New York company, Deployed Resources, and the cost of housing us comes to $110 a day per person. We're told dinner on Sunday is always prime rib. Not quite what I expected.

The setup includes six large tents with wood floors, covered in heavy plastic; steel cots with quilted mattresses; showers; bathrooms; a laundry; and even a rec room with wide-screen TV and computer hookups. We're told to lock our money and valuables in our car; we don't have to pay for anything at Camp Algiers. The tent looks like a Civil War hospital ward. We see that we will have to stow our things under the cots and put up with snoring neighbors.

A friendly Tennessean, Jim Guffy, shoos us away from a couple of cots he's reserved for the ladies from his Southern Baptist church group. They're here to do chain-saw work, clearing downed trees and brush from backyards and streets. They are all wearing bright yellow or blue T-shirts saying Tennessee Disaster Relief in big letters.

The dinner in the large dining tent was, indeed, prime rib flavored with rosemary, accompanied by broccoli au gratin, baked potatoes and cheesecake for dessert, cooked by a cheerful crew of former chefs from Gulf Coast casinos. I tell my husband later by phone as I relax on my steel cot that the scene was a combination of Club Med, military boot camp and summer camp, and I recite the evening's menu just to make his mouth water.

Monday, March 20
We are up at 7 a.m., later than other groups, who rustle out of bed at 6 and 6:30. After breakfast, we head back over the Mississippi River to the ACORN office in Faubourg Marigny to meet volunteer coordinator Diana Wininger. She says the morning meet-up will be at 9 every day in a shopping center on the Chef Menteur Highway in Gentilly. As we pull up, we see boarded-up chain stores on a large parking lot that's full of motor homes and pickup trucks, apparently a campground for out-of-town contractors and workers. Carloads of college students pull up and everybody crowds around two men named Al and Brian, who are talking on cell phones and dispensing gloves, suits and masks. They ask me which group I belong to. I say I'm part of a group of two, and feel relieved I didn't come all by myself. Al says not to worry, he'll put us with a group.

Al announces that we should all follow him in his truck. Our entourage heads east down the Chef Menteur Highway, over the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal into a vast area recognizable by its long boulevards and shopping centers as a post-1950s development. It's East New Orleans, recently inhabited by a mostly African American middle class. It's an area where Katrina floodwaters reached more than 8 feet in places. It is a ghost town.

We stop on Primrose Drive, a long street of brick, ranch-style homes. They are small by current standards, less than 1,500 square feet. The lawns have gone to Bermuda grass, the bushes are dead, the backyards littered with garden equipment, lawn furniture and toys. The neighborhood is abandoned and sad.

Brian gathers us in front of an already gutted house and says, "I want to thank you first for coming all the way to help us and giving up your time for us. Everyone in New Orleans thanks you."

Ginny and I are assigned to work with a group of students from Cornell University. The house has been started by another crew, so it falls to us to pull out the Sheetrock and insulation from the ceiling and sweep up. Insulation lies around like cotton candy, and we stuff it into bags and cart it to a pile of garbage on the curb. We wear white paper suits, masks and green plastic gloves. The ACORN crews give us a box of bottled water and supply us with rakes, crowbars, shovels, one or two wheelbarrows and plastic garbage bins, and we are on our own. We have to make friends and learn to work together.

Across the street, a white trailer provided by FEMA and occupied by a New Orleans firefighter and his wife sits on a front lawn. He has cleaned and gutted his own house and is preparing to move back in. Many of the other homes are partly gutted, some haven't been started, but their front doors are open, drying out, waiting.

After we finish this house toward noon, we move up the street to another and meet the owner, Isaac Delandro, a police officer who had worked at LSU's health and science center in downtown New Orleans. He has been living in La Place near Baton Rouge since August and was about to be interviewed by an NBC news crew, working on a story about fraudulent claims by Katrina survivors. Delandro is not one of the cheaters, of course. We all introduce ourselves before the interview, and he thanks us as we stand in a circle around him. He says he hopes the Lord "would put his arms around us.'' It is a sweet, awkward, wonderful moment. At 66, Delandro, who was born in New Orleans' Charity Hospital, just wants to come back to his home of more than 20 years. And we are here to help.

We spend the warm afternoon tearing out drywall, pulling nails, ripping up carpet and sweeping and shoveling -- followed by more sweeping and shoveling. Since Ike's son had taken out the furniture already, we didn't encounter any nasty refrigerators or dead rats, just the heat. We stop to drink water and get fresh air and are glad when 3 p.m comes and one of Al and Brian's assistants rolls by to pick up the tools.

Ginny and I decide it's time for a little R and R, so we head back to the French Quarter to celebrate and review our first day. Our outing includes a visit to Walgreen's for flip-flops and small flashlights so we can read at night in our tent, and then to a bar called Jimmy Buffett's for a couple of stiff margaritas.

On our way back to our car, we pass Paul Prudhomme's restaurant K-Paul, where a Cajun band is playing on the street. I two-step my way up to them and they invite both of us to play the washboard along with them for the next tune. Now I feel like I'm really in Louisiana. After that diversion, we go back to Algiers to eat and sleep. Our week of gutting has begun.
There's plenty of work to be done

Opportunities to help New Orleanians with the enormous task of gutting homes should continue through most of this year.

From January to June 1, volunteers were able to stay in a free FEMA-sponsored camp in Algiers that has been closed. Now volunteers for many organizations are being placed free of charge in rooms donated by New Orleans hotels. A two-week notice is required and meals are not provided.

If you are interested in helping out, here are some organizations that have a long-term commitment to aiding the region:

-- Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, or Acorn. www.acorn.org.

-- Common Ground Relief is offering home clean-out as well as medical, legal, child care, toxic remediation and other community services in the Lower Ninth Ward. www.commongroundrelief.org.

-- United Peace Relief, according to its Web site, is a veterans group from Ukiah that joined forces with one in Covington, La., and is running a medical clinic in Pass Christian, Miss., that needs volunteer staff. www.unitedpeacerelief.org.

-- Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New Orleans is organizing Operation Helping Hands, but only wants groups of 10 to 15 people. www.catholiccharities-no.org.

-- Habitat for Humanity is organizing various rebuilding efforts, including homes for displaced musicians. www.habitat-nola.org.

-- The Unitarian Universalist churches are organizing summer volunteers for house gutting and other tasks. They have a sleeping loft in one church. Find information by visiting www.uuworld.org.

-- The Southern Baptist Convention's North American Mission Board is sponsoring Project Noah, a two-year program of helping rebuild New Orleans and is looking for volunteer teams. www.namb.net.

-- Laura Thomas
E-mail Laura Thomas at lthomas@sfchronicle.com.


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