Two weekends ago, I went back to New Orleans to contribute what I could to the relief effort. I had noticed on my last trip that many of the best restaurants in New Orleans, while open, had visibly open tables. Unheard of. Mom and I decided to run into the French Quarter to eat at K-Paul’s. Neither of us had ever eaten there before, because the huge lines outside were legendary.
We arrived to find a snappy Cajun band playing out front in a parking space in the street. While watching the band, Chef Paul Prudhomme rode by on his George Castanza scooter. Five minutes on the scene and we witnessed Cajun royalty. Sweet. Once inside, we were seated instantly with no reservations. While checking out the menu, we noticed that there was a lot of strange activity in the restaurant. Outside there had been several senior looking New Orleans policemen watching the Cajun band. Inside, several people in suits were wandering around the restaurant just looking around. A woman in a business suit came and stood next to our table. We could see that she was wearing a radio earplug and a bullet proof vest under her blouse. Our waitress returned with our drinks and nonchalantly told us – “all this is for the King of Jordan – yall ready to order”. Almost immeadiately an entourage that must have included the King came in and went to a private room upstairs. A few minutes later the Mayor, Ray “Chocolate City” Nagin rolled in. We hadn’t even started on our gumbo yet.
When we left, what had been a quiet street had been transformed while we were inside. The Cajun band was still playing, but the street was filled with black Suburbans, limousines, and security personnel. It was a bit surreal and a scene that can only happen in New Orleans. My mom and I are standing on the sidewalk watching people Cajun two-step to the music. Secret Service (I assume) agents are everywhere, Jordanian security guys are everywhere, cops are everywhere – and people are dancing on the sidewalk as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Two Jordanian security guys were standing next to me, while next to them are three guys drinking Miller Genuine Draft tall boys tapping their feet. Perfectly legal in New Orleans, which is beautiful. My mom translated a bit of the song that the band was playing, which was one of her favorites. She seemed surprised that I couldn’t keep up with the French. I’m not sure why she thinks that I can understand French sung quickly. Sadly, the camera was in the car, so I don’t have pictures of any of this. My mom is available to back me up on everything.
The next morning found us leaving the house on the wrong side of 6 AM. We met the group that we would be working with at mom’s church and headed in to the Gentilly neighborhood of New Orleans to get to work. Our assignment was to gut the house of an elderly gentleman to begin the process of rebuilidng. The flood water on this street had been just over five feet high as evidenced by the high water marks on the neighborhood buildings.
Water line. The sign includes baffling symbols painted by workers who searched for bodies.
The house that we would be working on was built three feet off the ground. Even though only two feet of water had been in the house, it had stayed for a while. The water had wicked up the drywall, and mold was everywhere.
Mold growing up the walls. The floor in this room was a peach-colored tile.
Everything would need to be taken down to the bare studs. We were told that the going rate for a “gut job” of a mid-sized home these days is about $3800, which is what we’d be saving the homeowner. Some people either have no insurance or their insurance doesn’t cover the water damage caused by the flooding. These people are screwed. Others just want to maximize the little that they are getting from their insurance companies.
To replace the drywall in a house this size costs about $9000. Of course, the house needs to be completely re-wired first. Also, the mold that remains on the studs and the inside of the exterior siding needs to be killed with a bio-cide and encapsulated with a glue-like cover before any re-builidng is started. So it is not likely that this poor guy will be in his house any time soon.
Given the moldy interior of the house, we were all suited up in Tyvek suits with hoods, dust masks, work boots, and leather gloves. As soon as we started busting the walls down with sledgehammers, crowbars, etc., the whole house was filled with dust from the drywall and clouds of mold spores. I certainly know better, but I elected to not wear my dust mask because it caused my glasses to keep fogging up so that I couldn’t see what I was doing. When we broke for lunch, someone told me that I had something on my teeth. All of the exposed parts of my face were covered with dust and mold, and my teeth were black from airborne mold. I brushed my teeth with a baby wipe and moved on; it was too disgusting to think about.
Having lost my hunger for the moment, I took a quick lap around the neighborhood. There were very few people around. Some of the houses had been gutted, but most had not. No one in this area was living inside of their home. A few people had trailers in their front yards that were supplied by FEMA. I was expecting to see many more of these trailers than I did. There were only two or three visible in the immediate area. My understanding is that these trailers come with an expiration date – not give it back when you can move back when you can move into your house. Many people who have been living in the front yard of their destroyed homes may be turned out before they have a place to go. The neighborhood where we were working was not atypical of the area, and it was not the worst area to be hit, by far.
Home in the front yard
By the end of the day, all of the wall coverings, rugs, and other moldy stuff left behind in the house was out at the curb. It was a mighty impressive pile of crap.
The day’s debris.
We arrived the next day to see our trash pile being loaded into trucks by front-end loaders. I was pretty shocked that it was being hauled off so quickly, because I had seen piles of trash all over the neighborhood the day before. An efficient New Orleans? Someone must have made prior arrangements. Or known someone.
Our last day’s work was to include heavy lifting and detail work. We had to haul all of the appliances to the curb, which included the refrigerator. The refrigerator had not been emptied and it smelled like ass when closed. The last thing that we wanted was to have it pop open on us. We sealed the doors closed with a mile of duct tape as a precaution. As soon as we moved it, black water started to run out onto the floor. The smell was really, really bad. No sooner had we gotten all of the appliances to the curb the appliance hauling truck arrived to haul them off.
Hauling off the big stuff
When we were finished, the house had been taken down to the studs, ready for all of the follow-on work. Before we left, one of the volunteers and I took garden sprayers filled with a bleach solution and sprayed the whole place down to kill what mold we could for the time being. I was wearing protective equipment including coveralls, a respirator, and goggles. I still managed to bleach my pants, my shirt, and my lungs. On the upside, I think it may have killed the mold on my teeth.
The finished product
It felt good to have chipped in to do something to help someone. I was very humbled by some of the numbers that I heard later, however.
To date, Catholic Charities (who we were working with) has helped to gut a little more than 100 houses. There are likely to be more than 100,000 houses that need to be gutted before any other work can start to rebuild them. As many as 80% of the damaged houses have yet to be started. The problem is enormous. I have no idea how accurate those numbers are. This is a blog entry, not the Wall Street Journal. They feel right though.
While in this neighborhood, I did find what I believe to be the single greatest bar name of all time. Although my research on this topic is far from exhaustive. I give you, Tony’s Historical Parakeet Restaurant, Bar, and Lounge.
Greatest. Name. Ever.
Here are a few more things that you can do to help out if you are so inclined.
- Go to New Orleans. The people there need to see your smiling face and your wallet.
- Show that you support the re-building of New Orleans by buying and wearing a “Fleur de lis Rebirth Ribbon” from local jewerler Mignon Faget.
- Donate some dollars to Catholic Charities, Archdiocese of New Orleans. Whatever your faith or secular viewpoint, these people are on the ground doing good work. Help them out if you can.
That’s it. I was overdue on getting this post up, and I am out the door this afternoon for another trip to Louisiana. One of my things to do this year is to get to New Orleans as often as I can. It’s Mardi Gras season, so what better time to go.