Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Katrina Relief 2006: Part 2:

Weekend at Bernie's

The Rev lived next door to a St. Gabe’s parishioner, where volunteers were working the day before. He asked if there was any way people could help clean out his shed and the St. Gabe’s crew put us on the case. Our 2nd day of work began by cleaning up the shed and all of its contents which were in a huge pile in The Rev’s backyard. Our group was joined by Fr. Edward, a positively lovely Nigerian priest, who now works at a school in San Francisco. In true “It’s a small world” form, we knew a bunch of the same people.

The Rev's Shed

Alison, Andrew’s brother’s girlfriend, arrived on the scene that morning to take photos. She’s a professional photographer and we were really lucky to have Alison and her mad skills accompany us on our adventure. Check out Alison's incredible stuff at And her New Orleans pics HERE.

While we were shoveling shed parts, Alison and her photographic eye wandered the neighborhood. It was a bit like a ghost town. There were few, if any, people inhabiting the homes there. The only person to be found was a guy stealing copper piping from a house across the street from the Rev’s. I have no idea what the copper pipe thief’s situation is. Chances are he could be really desperate. But dude, stealing someone’s pipes? That’s horrible karma.

After lunch at headquarters (St. Gabe’s), we worked on gutting D’Alise’s house. When we arrived, nail removal was the main job. There were approximately a bagillion nails that needed to be removed. Also in attendance for nail removal was Mark, Jen and Greg, a very friendly trio whose family is from New Orleans. Then we had Britney the high school girl who was in town from Chicago visiting her sister and wanted to help out. Britney and her thick Southside Chicago accent were a welcome addition. She worked like crazy and was friendly as heck. Then there were the two families from Texas. We like to call them the Sweeper Family cause boy did that gang like to sweep! Each would grab a broom and voila- sweeper madness! They’re also known for suggesting to Andrew that he take down a concrete wall by kicking it. He was on the lookout for a sledgehammer and each of the three male sweepers suggested at different times that he just kick it. That amazing suggestion was followed by the sweeper trying to kick it and then saying, “Ow! My foot!” Silly Sweeper Family, you’re not the Concrete Wall Kicking Family! Get back to sweeping!

Angie and Fr. Ed in a sea of fiberglass and dust

That night we went to dinner with Charlie and his friends Lisa and Chad at a place in the French Quarter called Olivier’s. Lisa and Chad told us about their experience when Katrina hit, and our waiter chimed in with his story. He and his cat sought shelter for days on the top floor of the restaurant. He said his cat seemed annoyed but he told him, “Look out the window, cat. You’ve got it good.”

The next day we were joined by Nick and Maya, a nice down-to-earth duo of fitness trainers from Milwaukee. We were sent to help Bernie, a St. Gabe’s parishioner, clean out her parents’ garage. Bernie’s parents were living in Houston and hadn’t been back since the storm. We arrived on the scene, happy to help out. Andrew smashed the fence lock with a sledgehammer so we could get to the garage. He gingerly opened the garage door, and burst out laughing. I glanced in and joined him with a round of my own nervous laughter. We were faced with a wall of stuff. The entire garage was filled, from floor to ceiling, with stuff. Water-logged stuff. Armed with our trusty masks and work gloves, we all began grabbing and chucking an array of items out of the garage and into the garbage cans. Lamps and tools and lawn ornaments, oh my. We eventually cleared a path to the main door and after various attempts to break the lock on the garage door, Nick managed to saw a few wires that allowed us to open the door. And by open, I mean four people drag a huge garage door off of its hinges and break it. Our cleaning frenzy really pissed off the hundred of roaches that had found their home in that dank garage. They kept relocating to new sections, only to be uncovered again and again.

Just when we were all pretty sure that Ava was the nicest woman on the planet, we met Bernie. She showed up to help out, greeting us with the brightest, most sincere smile I’ve ever seen. She quickly put on her work gloves and respirator mask and got to work, with a spring in her step. Bernie’s stories, insight, and sense of humor were inspiring and amazing. Bernie’s entire family, including her parents, four sisters and two brothers, were displaced because of Katrina. Bernie had the opportunity to leave the city but her place of employment told her that if she didn’t show up to work at 8am the next day she would lose her job. She rented an apartment in New Orleans, where she is still living. Bernie’s husband is a nurse and working in Florida, because he can’t find a job in New Orleans. He was interviewing for a nursing job that was four hours away, and will probably take it if he’s given an offer. Bernie’s house was also ruined from the flood. The house is now gutted, and she and her husband are trying to figure out what to do with it. Right now, if they sold it, they would only get $20,000.

Bernie clears things out of her parents' garage

It was heartbreaking to trash a stranger’s belongings. I’m sure every item had a story behind it- the bag full of dress patterns, the suitcase full of albums and dancing shoes, and the old beat up guitar. We came across a bag full of papers that was in good shape. It turned out to be poems that Bernie’s sister wrote when she was a little girl. Bernie’s face lit up as she read some of the poems aloud.

Bernie and her sister are afraid for her parents to see their house. A neighbor’s elderly parent went back to look at her house, and died of a heart attack. Bernie said she keeps trying to explain the situation to her mother, but that her mom doesn’t understand how bad the situation is. Bernie’s mom asked if she was able to save her plant. It breaks my heart every time I think about that. Her entire house has been gutted, and she’s hoping that her plant made it through okay. One of Bernie’s mom’s other requests came right after the storm hit. She had hidden savings bonds in the freezer and wanted Bernie to see if they were still there. Bernie, her husband, and some friends showed up to the house with waist high rubber boots and masks. Bernie gagged her way through horrific smells and discovered that the fridge was lying long ways on top of the stove. Knowing that finding the bonds was going to be nearly impossible, she decided to open the freezer and just to make sure they weren’t in there. She found what looked like sludge with no real recognizable items in it, except for a slew of maggots. She scooped through it quickly and knew that the bonds were a lost cause.

Bernie’s husband was concerned about his wedding ring, which he left in a box in their house. Bernie told him not to worry about it- they could get a new ring. But he was determined. His friend, who is a scuba diver, put on his scuba gear, and dove into the waist deep water full of rats and literal crap. After some searching, he found the little box with the wedding ring in the corner of the living room. He also managed to find Bernie’s class ring. Damn…there’s a good friend for ya.

The crew in front of Bernie's parents' house

After the real life Weekend at Bernie’s, we continued to work on clearing out D’Alise’s house. Angie found her new career as a professional floor remover. She was a machine, ripping that stuff out in seconds. Angie made that ridiculously exhausting job look simple. On our last day of work, Jocelyn gave us a tour of the city. We drove through the ninth ward, which, in some parts, looks like a barren wasteland. Often, the only thing remaining were a few concrete stairs that led to nothing. The majority of people who have returned to the city are white, wealthy and older. How will this affect the decision regarding rebuilding in the ninth ward? Will their community remain?

Relaxing in the tub after ripping out flooring

One of the more hopeful parts of the tour was when we drove past Habitat for Humanity’s Musicians Village. There are blocks of new homes built in a traditional New Orleans style, with bright colors and welcoming front porches.

Habitat for Humanity's Musicians' Village

Our gang rang in the New Year in the French Quarter. Upon arrival at the Double Tree Hotel we were met with the news that even though we confirmed our reservation earlier in the day, they overbooked and we didn’t have a room. We enjoyed a round of drinks at the hotel bar while the manager sought out a room for us. Then we headed out to dinner. Our outdoor seating made for a great atmosphere, but the service was less than stellar. The chatty waitress wore thin, but the real kicker was the enormous fly Katy found in her Bloody Mary, only to be followed by the positively raw chicken on her salad. Maybe it was the New Orleans attitude rubbing off on us, but we all kept our sense of humor and had a great time. After about 4 minutes taking in the truly ridiculous goings-on on Bourbon street, we headed over to Jackson Square, where we enjoyed the sights and sounds of the giant bowl of gumbo drop at midnight, followed by some excellent fireworks.

It was a memorable and gratifying trip, to say the least. I strongly encourage everyone to experience post-Katrina New Orleans for themselves, whether it be volunteering your time to help people rebuild, donating some cash to one of the many worthy causes down there, or supporting the economy by enjoying the fantastic music, food, drinks and personality the city offers. I recommend all of the above.

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