Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Katrina Relief 2006: Part 1

Never underestimate the power of Evite. On a Sunday in September, Kristen and I, needing something to look forward to, discussed New Year’s plans and the possibility of assembling a crew of friends to trek down to New Orleans for some volunteer work and fun in the Big Easy. Our friend Andrew had gone a couple months before and was eager to go back. So…we crafted an Evite and sent it out to a ton of people that night. Within weeks Angie, Katy and Charlie were all on board. Andrew quickly scored us a place to stay and volunteer so we were all set to go.

Even though we were spread out all over the country, we managed a fairly direct road trip from the East Coast where a bunch of us were visiting family for the holidays. Andrew left Long Island at the crack of dawn the day after Christmas and picked me up in New Jersey. From there it was on to get Kristen in Philly, and then our final pick-up in Chevy Chase, Maryland to get Katy. Each stop armed us with a bit more conventional mom-wisdom of the “Don’t work too hard”, “You’re gonna have so much fun!” variety. We were ready. After bellies full of delicious artichoke chicken at Katy’s, we hit the road with more than enough CDs and snacks to get us to my brother Tom’s place in South Carolina, our stop for the night.

Or so we thought. Virginia. Frickin Virginia. It took us 4.5 hours to go 90 miles. Traffic near Richmond? What gives? Is that even a real city? I guess I’ll never find out because I can’t bare to go back there. If it weren’t for occasionally blasting Mark Morrison’s R&B jam, circa 1996, “Return of the Mack”, and taking car dancing to new levels, I don’t know if we would’ve survived. But thanks to that, a Toblerone the size of my leg (courtesy of Andrew’s mom), hilarious texts with Danny, Katy’s “Waffles or Pancakes” game, and our friendly Applebee’s waitresses (who said awesome stuff like “The whole frappin world is out shopping today!”), we made it to South Carolina by 1:30 am.

After watching a wee bit of the Chappelle Show with Tom, we crashed for the night, and then hit the road first thing in the morning. The next day’s driving was much more direct because there was no evil Virginia on the way. With the addition of Carole King’s “So Far Away” to our sing-along repertoire, we arrived in New Orleans ready to take on the world. Kristen, Katy and I all needed to get work boots, and Wallmart was the only place around. I generally boycott Wallmart, but desperate times call for desperate measures. No wonder so many people shop there! It’s so easy to forget about worker’s rights when you realize that a pair of steel toe work boots cost a mere 20 bucks! Health insurance, schmealth insurance- that fleece is 7 dollars!!! Katy, Kristen and I carefully selected work boots and compared styles and fits as if we were purchasing our wedding gowns. Meanwhile, Andrew patiently stood waiting with a “I’d rather be chewing glass” sort of look in his eye. Katy got Steve, Kristen had Kane and I had Bruce. Yes- each style of shoe had a male name. We decided that Steve and Bruce were partners. I think it gave me some satisfaction to know that Wallmart unknowingly sold us gay work boots.

At about 8 o’clock we arrived at St. Gabriel’s, aka St. Gabe’s, which is located in the Gentilly district. There was a group of about 30 former Jesuit Volunteers staying there as well. Katy, Kristen and I are all FJVs too but we didn’t sign up for that trip in time so we were our own renegade group. We walked into the church, where there was a section left of the alter where tables and chairs were set up for volunteer meals.

St. Gabe’s is the kind of church that practices what it preaches and then some. People in their community needed help and the staff and parishioners responded with gusto. They turned the abandoned classrooms into sleeping quarters for volunteers, had a room set up with tools and everything you might possibly need while on a work site, and had another area set up with a ton of food for volunteers. The staff asked the church community what help they needed and are responding to every request, whether it be gutting a house, clearing out a shed, or trying to find housing arrangements for those who haven’t yet returned. Many parishioners are now living more than an hour away but still make the trip to go to the 10:30am mass on Sunday. It’s one of the few places where people can see familiar faces and share trials and triumphs with others who are in a similar situation. St. Gabe’s is an inspiring community in a city where so many are desperately searching for connection.

After dinner, a quick game of Phase 10, and some chatting with old and new friends, I was ready to hit the hay. The hay being a thin mattress on a top bunk of an old stuffy classroom, with about 20 other people snoring, tossing, and turning around me. Thankfully I was exhausted so sleep came relatively quickly.

The next morning we were ready for our first work day. Andrew, Katy, Kristen and I were in the church eating breakfast and packing our lunches when Charlie arrived. Charlie is a friend of Kristen’s from San Francisco and is truly one of a kind. Clearly what our little group was missing was the addition of a hilarious, kind, interesting fabulous gay man who is a sign language interpreter by day, and in his free time walks on fire, does vision quests and reads tarot cards. Another bonus was that Charlie had spent three years in New Orleans so we had insider knowledge of the area.

Our job for the first day was to help clean up the daycare at Grace Episcopal Church in the Mid-city district. Eva greeted us immediately upon our arrival. There are a lot of very nice people in this world but it’s not often that I meet someone as genuinely kind and warm as Eva. She was so truly touched and appreciative that we had come to help out and she never missed an opportunity to thank us. Eva is the interim Director for the daycare, and is understandably eager to get it up and running. The more quickly families can get their children in daycare, the easier it will be for them to find stable employment and get back on their feet again.

Eva gave us a tour of the building and an overview of the progress made since the storm, and what still needs to be done. We met Ronald, the quiet and always helpful repairman. Can’t find the right tool? Ask Ronald. Don’t know where to put the trash? Just ask Ronald.

Most of the day was spent cleaning the very dirty floors to have it ready for the new flooring that was being delivered- that meant sweeping, shop vac-ing and mopping up a storm. There was also a little bit of hauling sheetrock thrown in for good measure. We quickly divvied up the jobs and got right to work. Eva assumed we had been working together for a long time and was shocked to find out it was our first day together. I must admit- it was amazing how well our group worked together and got along. Not one little tiff during the whole week. You’d think that back breaking work and lots of mold and dust would’ve inspired at least a minor disagreement, but we had none of that.

Before: Katy Rockin the Shop Vac

After: Katy, Charlie and Andrew show off the shiny floors

Eva is the kind of gal who sees challenge as opportunity. The two of us went to change the bag in the enormous shop vac and stared at each other for a second, thinking the other might know what to do. “Have you ever done this before?” she asked in her calm, quiet, unassuming way. “Nope. You?” I said. “Never. I guess we’re both going to learn something new today!” she said happily. After fiddling around with it for a minute, we were shop vac-ing our way to victory.

During breaks, Eva shared stories of her experience surviving the storm. Her husband worked for Lowe’s which remained opened during the storm. He continued to work and they wound up staying at the store when the storm hit. Eva and her husband lived right down the street from Grace Episcopal and were staying in a FEMA trailer while rehabbing their house. She said that many of her neighbors were camping out in their gutted houses and that the neighborhood was still without gas.

In the afternoon we cleaned up the huge yard. That involved a whole lotta raking, bagging leaves and cleaning the gigantic very dirty tarp on the sandbox. We ate lunch on the back porch and Eva asked, “What made you all come down here? I can’t imagine why you would choose to do this.” Her question made me think. In a way, it just seemed like something I did without much thought. Some friends and I were looking for a plan for our week off and going to New Orleans was as good an idea as any. But it was more than that. I needed to see firsthand what was going on down there. I wanted to talk to people who experienced that hell and find out what an average gal like me could do to help. I would hope that if my entire city was demolished and all my belongings and friends and community hang-outs were gone, that people would come lend a hand. And I wanted to sit around with friends and eat po boys and drink refreshing drinks.

After a long day of work, that is just what we did- after taking advantage of a nice shower. St. Gabe’s had a row of showers, with trash bag walls, set up for volunteers, complete with hot water that got cold just about 30 seconds sooner than I would’ve liked. But…it was a shower and for that I was grateful.

Andrew’s friend Angie flew in from Nashville in time to join us for dinner at Maspero’s in the French Quarter. What is it about breaded fried shrimp on a roll that tastes so heavenly? And the $2 Abitas were the perfect compliment. During dinner we followed our usual pattern of cracking up at things that were funny and many that weren’t that funny at all. Angie was our instant new best friend, Charlie and Katy taught us some sign language, and we celebrated a truly humbling and gratifying day by raising our glasses and toasting to Eva.

Dinner at Maspero's

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