Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Black Mold

Today is Wednesday, and HHR has been in New Orleans for four days. HHR members are divided into four groups, and I'm part of the "labor" crew, which is comprised of nine individuals. I came to New Orleans last year as part of HHR. My experience this year is much different than that of last year for the following reasons.

Last year, all HHR members participated in a FEMA Trailer Survey. This year, as noted above, the group has been divided into three groups. In addition to the "labor" crew I'm part of, some individuals are working for either the Public Defenders's office, the City Attorney's office, or the American Red Cross. I chose to work on labor projects because I enjoy physical labor and was impressed with individuals I saw gutting homes and businesses last year. Further, helping individuals restructure their lives by helping them rebuild their homes and businesses has an immediate effect, which I value.

Although the group arrived to NOLA on Saturday, Monday was the first day of work. We were told to arrive at a church in the Holy Cross neighborhood located in the Lower Ninth Ward at 9:00 a.m. We arrived promply and waited in front of the church. We were given a quick tour of the area by an individual who is part of the Holy Cross Community Organization. After the tour, we arrived back at the church where we we given our assignments for the day. Our group further divided into three groups, each with a different assignment.

Team two consisted of me, Jacquie, Manisha, Sarah, Dan, Amy and a few students from Duke Law School. Our assignment was to sand and paint the exterior of a home. Although the coordinator delivered sanders so we could begin, there was a problem: once the Duke Law students obtained sanders, there weren't enough for HHR members. While we waited for our coordinator to deliver additional sanders, Sarah and I decided to walk down the street to find out if another group (not connected with SHN) needed assistance. We thought another group could use our assistance because before we drove to the home we were expected to work on, we saw many individuals removing furniture, clothes, etc. from a large brick building. This is where my main story begins.

As it turns out, the group did need help. Although we originally expected to assist the homeowner to sand and paint his home, we wanted to provide assistance immediately where it was needed. There were 5-6 Duke students already at the homeowner's home, and we determined that he had enough assistance in the interim (plus, we didn't have sanders). We soon found out that the name of the group down the street was "Operation Nehemia" ( Once we entered the building, a volunteer told us that the building was formerly a nursing home. Like the other volunteers already at work, we begin to gather clothes, remove lighting fixtures and other electronic equipment and place them into wheelbarrels. Once the items were placed in wheelbarrels, we rolled them outside, next a large dumpster. Dan and I begin to lift the wheelbarrels over the top of the dumpsters and hand them to individuals who stood inside them. Afterward, we reentered the building and refilled wheelbarrels. This process continued for an hour.

Signs of what this building used to be were everywhere. Valentines' Day cards were on walls, as well as photos of daughters, sons, husbands and grandchildren. There was the occasional dusty, idle wheelchair in the corner of a room. What suprised me the most was that I what I saw didn't suprise me. My only explanation is that I've been desensitized somewhat by what I saw last year (when practically all the Katrina-related damage I saw DID shock me). This time, I feel that I'm in familiar territory. After working in the building for an hour, we decided to seek out the coordinator of our original project since we still need sanders. He gave us money to purchase sanders, which we did. Afterwards, our group decided to divide into two smaller groups. Some individuals decided to work on the aforementioned homeowner's exterior, while others decided to help another homeowner sand and repaint his fence. I joined the latter group.

While sanding the homeowner's fence, I couldn't help think that my and Dan's skills would be much better utilized at the nursing home. Of course, helping a homeowner fix his home is important, but I knew that the other project required individuals who would lift heavy objects. Although Dan and I spent the rest of the day sanding the fence, I thought that maybe we'd assist at the nursing home the following day.

The following day arrived and Dan and I decided to assist with the other project. Unlike the day before when furniture, clothes, and appliance were being removed, on Tuesday walls needed to be torn down or gutted. With sledgehammer in hand, Dan and I began to break down walls to their wooden interiors. Before doing this, however, we first helped unload rubble from walls that had been broken down before we arrived that morning. Afterward, Dan, I, and a college student named Steve broke down the walls from two rooms. There was black mold everywhere you looked---both outside and inside the walls. Fortunately, we had masks on to block dusk. While breaking down the walls, I remembered the images of individuals gutting homes last year, and I felt good knowing that I was doing the same now. At one point, Dan and I took a break and walked to areas where neither furniture nor clothing had been removed yet. It was eerie to see teddy bears, clothes, bags, and photographs as they were left before the storm (or close to how they were left).

Today, Dan and I continued to work in the nursing home. Most walls have been gutted, and we spend the day removing much of the sheetrock and rubble from the floors. We used shovels to pick up most of these materials, loaded them into wheelbarrels, and rolled them into an open dumpster. Seeing a project from beginning from to almost the end has been incredibly fullfiling. I found out today that the nursing home will ultimately be rebuilt. As much as the fullfilled my time in New Orleans this year, I hope the rebuilt nursing home fullfills the lives of future tenants.

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