Wednesday, August 29, 2007

AUGUST 29TH - When The Levees Broke

Today marks the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. For me, it's the day this journey began. My city drowned. My family evacuated. My grandmother died (two weeks later). It shook me up, forced me to re-evaluate my existence. Made me to get up off my comfortable ass and LIVE... make sure my life MEANT something.... to me, and to my community. My life took a sharp unexpected turn that resulted in moving back home, something I never thought I'd do. And now I'm here!

A few weeks ago, a journalist-photographer team from the St. Petersburg Times took an interest in my story - the story of a New Orleans native returning post-Katrina after years of living away. To mark the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I'd like to share it with you:

Click here to read "The Pull Of New Orleans"

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Falling In Love

I miss my little house. I want to fix her (my house is a “her”).

Because my daughter’s daycare is closed for vacation this week and next, I haven’t been able to work on the house much. I wouldn’t use the word “sad” to describe the way that I felt, but I definitely yearned to be there. I organized some friends to come over and help me with the mudding yesterday (this will be discussed later). I’m pretty sure my heart sang. I think this is how people who really love their jobs must feel. To my memory (albeit dull and often unreliable), I’ve NEVER felt this way about anything that wasn’t a personal relationship.

I’ve never felt this way… (play sappy love song here) It’s like a cute little love story, actually… except instead of a person, it’s an inanimate building. Is that so wrong? Our relationship was strictly business when I began working in March. My goal was simple – to make the house live-able so that I could rent it out (or possibly live there). I was just going to replace what was missing and leave it at that. I wanted to do my part to revitalize the neighborhood. Plus, this experience was going to be a springboard to shoot me in the next life-direction. But the more time I spent with her, the more I grew attached… the more I started to care. I mean, I’ve seen her naked! I know all the intimate details of her frame – I know where her missing boards are, I know what color the old wallpaper was, I know which rooms held the most moisture. I KNOW this house. I know her beauty.

Beyond that, others have joined me in rebuilding. They have supported this relationship. I look at rooms and I see the stories all over again. I remember when Jaye and I crawled under the kitchen cabinets to unfasten the sink; when Peris ripped out the kitchen ceiling. I look at the windows and see my mom diligently repairing the sash mechanism. I laugh about the time and care we took in removing the drywall four feet from the floor… the precise measurements, use of the chalk line, the delicate removal of the wallpaper (cuz I wanted to save it… still do). Paulette helped with that. And then a few weeks later, I discovered that it all needed to come out and volunteers from the St. Bernard Project came over and gutted the house in a day. I wonder what happened to the little puppy who came to visit us that day. Or that touched man who called himself “The Preacher.” I look into the backyard and see Maida, Anietra’s tiny cousin, busting up that concrete like a professional. In the shed, Ann is shoveling debris into the wheelbarrow. There is HISTORY there; I have bonded with this house.

These emotional memories intermingle with thoughts of my life goals. As I dream and brainstorm about the way I want to live, somehow this house shows up as the backdrop before which my life plays out. I’ve already decided that the bedroom should be a pale olive green; my daughter and I will share it, in line with my ideas about attachment parenting. The office will be tangerine orange. I see my daughter’s half of it decked out with all her educational supplies (I’d like to homeschool her). I fantasize that I will buy the lot next door and create a garden for the homeschool group (there will be a group in my fantasy) . Or, even grander, STARTING an alternative school… to be housed in one of the properties on my block. The parents could pool their resources to buy the building right across the street and renovate it! Maybe. But I definitely WILL install a tankless water heater to save water (and money). I see myself locking up the earth-friendliest means of transportation besides walking, my bike ( a new one… an invincible one), in the back shed. And I’ll fix the attic fan and take advantage of the shotgun design to allow air to be drawn through the house; no air-conditioning (we’ll see how long that lasts). I will reduce my carbon footprint just by living simply… in this house. I’ve been thinking about fancy tile patterns for the kitchen and bathroom floors, though reality – lack of money and skill – often suppresses these plans. I’m gonna strip that paint off the front room window (I’m told it’s “Edwardian”) panes and the transoms above my doors. And frame the tongue-and-groove wood ceilings with crown molding. And install concrete countertops in the kitchen; they are durable, can be poured into any shape you want and they’re less expensive than stone.

I’ve crossed the line. I love this house. I want to live in it. More than that, I have been entertaining ideas of one-woman neighborhood revitalization… wondering if I could buy a piece of land and convert it into a community garden; or buy another house, fix it up and resell it at an affordable cost to an owner-occupant. These are likely pipe dreams, as I have no source of income right now. But tis good to dream… at least it keeps me aware of what I want out of life. I daydream of how wonderful this neighborhood could be and my fabulous plans for making that happen. I’ve already got my eyes on the empty lot at the corner for the garden. Lots are way cheaper than houses. We’ll see what happens… I’ll keep y’all posted.


As I mentioned earlier in the blog, I DID get a chance to steal away and work on my beloved house. Four wonderful people came through to help with mudding yesterday. My good ole uncle Eli, family friend Kwame aka K. Gates, and newly acquired friends Rhonda and Adia, her young daughter. We accomplished SO MUCH. I’ll share that with you via these lovely pics.

Good ole Uncle Eli! When you need him, he's there.

Kwame getting his shiny blue shoes dirty.

Adia, Rhonda's daughter, covering the drywall screws. Super Girl!

And here is what we accomplished:

The front room of the house.

What will be the bedroom. Nice job!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Back From THE ROAD

Whoo! Sorry it’s been so long. It just dawned on me that I could’ve written at least a brief update and posted it immediately(I think my readers appreciate those more anyway), instead of taking all this time to write a full entry. After being gone so long, I guess it's taken me awhile to get back to my regular routine. And it’s difficult to write when my daughter is awake PERIOD, and obviously I can’t write when I’m working. But, anyway, I’m back in New Orleans now after 5 weeks of travel. Getting away was refreshing, to say the least, and now I’m energized and refocusing on my beloved little house. Well, that implies that nothing’s been done since I’ve been away. Quite the opposite is true. I must take this opportunity to give a standing ovation to my mom, who not only kept my daughter for 3 of the 5 weeks but worked as my counterpart while I was gone.

In my absence, mold remediation was done on the house, courtesy of Inspector 12. As you may recall from a previous post, I took that company’s advice and removed all the drywall in the house so that they could thoroughly obliterate any mold that might even be THINKING of growing in my house. Originally, they quoted me a little under $2K to do the job. It wasn’t in my budget, but I decided that it was worth the extra expense to be assured that no one who lived in that house would have respiratory problems because of something I neglected to do. So I was prepared to take the hit. A few weeks into my trip, I received this email: “I have decided to remediate your home as a donation because of your tireless effort to restore your property. I am truly impressed to see what you have accomplished…” Thank you, Ivan from Inspector 12!! Unfortunately, it failed the post-inspection.

According to Louisiana law, the remediator and the inspector cannot be the same person/company. So I was going to hire Bill Feaheny, an environmental consultant and professional air quality tester, to do the post-inspection. Upon completing the initial visual inspection, however, he concluded that the remediation company didn’t follow proper protocol for mold removal. He wouldn’t do the air test because none of the holes in the house had been plugged. Additionally, he'd never heard of Inspector 12. Well, I didn’t have time to search for another remediation company, then schedule another inspection. I had a group of volunteers coming the following weekend to help install drywall! So he gave me some suggestions about how to move forward. I am still grateful to Inspector 12 for doing the job. The house was cleanER and the air was clearER after they did the work.

Weekend Warriors
SO, when I first moved down here, my friend Anietra in New York said that she’d come and help out sometime this year. “Great!” I thought. “I can use the help!” In late May, she emailed with plans of assembling a group of friends to volunteer at my house. In a matter of days, she’d gotten ten commitments! I was floored. TEN people flying down to New Orleans OF THEIR OWN VOLITION to help me rebuild my house. I shouldn’t have been surprised; this was classic Anietra style. Anything this woman does, she does to the nth degree.

So now I had ten volunteers coming to stay at my mom’s not-quite-ready house… and I’d just found out I’d be traveling for the next five weeks, up until two days before they were supposed to arrive! Needless to say, it was difficult preparing from afar for a group of this size, but it all worked out and the weekend went surprisingly quite smoothly. My mom was absolutely fabulous; she ordered the drywall and other supplies while I was away, she agreed to cook red beans and rice, and gumbo for the volunteers AND keep my daughter while I worked with them over that weekend. My uncle took care of the drywall delivery (thanks Eli!). I borrowed air mattresses from my cousin, my aunt’s neighbor, and my mom’s friend. And the St. Bernard Project loaned me drills and a bunch of other necessary tools. Man, it's good to have a big family! I got the rest of the supplies from Common Ground. Since my Wednesday flight back to New Orleans ended up being CANCELLED (grrr…), I flew back that Friday (the same day as the volunteers!). But I was still able to make all the necessary last-minute runs before they arrived. I wanted to make them at least semi-comfortable in that house.

I’d prepped Anietra before they came down – there’s no air-conditioning in my mom’s house; there’s very little furniture; some of the floors are unfinished; there’s only one working bathroom; the entire first floor of the house has been gutted and is un-usable; the house hasn’t been lived in since August 2005. They knew it would be FAR from luxury living and they were cool with that. I’d suggested to Anietra that we work short days (9am-2pm) because of the heat and humidity. There is no electricity in my house (translation – no fans… don’t even THINK about air-conditioning) and it was the end of July, one of the hottest months of the year. They all insisted on working ALL day. I patronizingly entertained that notion, thinking, “Wait til they get down here.”

Well, when they got down here, they hit the ground running. The day their plane touched down; they wanted to go check out my house and maybe get some work done! We spent the evening moving drywall from the driveway into the house, racing against the approaching storm. We made it, thank goodness. The following day was Saturday; we got a brief drywall demo from some skilled volunteers from St. Bernard Project.

Richard assists while Dave and Mike demo drywall installation.

The rest of us pay close attention.

Since I’d only put up drywall once or twice, I thought it would be better for a more experienced person to supervise. [Good thing because a few issues arose that I wouldn’t have been able to handle alone. The biggest issue was the un-evenness of the vertical barge boards and that fact that many were missing in the front room of the house. So we learned how to use shims to level the drywall, and how to reinforce existing beams with two-by-fours and drill the drywall to that. So handy!] And we actually did work all day Saturday AND Sunday… until the sun went down and we couldn’t see anymore. But it didn't feel like slavery at all!!(That was a joke... anyway..) By the end of the weekend, most of the house's interior had drywall.

They came, they saw, they installed.

A wall in the second room. DONE. After they were done, most of the walls looked just like this. PERFECT!

Our mascot insisted that I include him.

It's amazing what 10 volunteers can do in a weekend, isn't it? Sike! This ain't my house, y'all!

As much as we worked, you wouldn’t think there was time to do anything else. But the group also wanted to get out and see New Orleans. They had a ball… live music at The Spotted Cat on Frenchmen Street, dancing on Bourbon Street, beignets (apparently, "nothing but a zeppoli" according to some people) at CafĂ© Du Monde, and drinking in the streets (can’t do that anywhere else in the country!)

And not only did they install drywall, the volunteers also removed the nails from the floor of the kitchen, removed the old tile from the back hall floor, busted up the concrete in the backyard (that I might have grass one day) and moved the debris to the curb.

Anietra and Mike showing those nails who's boss.

Bret attacking that stubborn tile... while I work hard in the backyard. (lol)

Maida is about 5'3", y'all... WOW. That's all I have to say.

Carsta got jealous and wanted to take a turn too.

And Ky keeps it tidy.

Ten dedicated, energetic people can accomplish A LOT. I SO appreciate what they did. To top it off, one of the volunteers, Bret, actually changed his flight so that he could stay an extra day! So we spent the rest of Monday and Tuesday morning putting up MORE drywall!!

Bret and I put up drywall on two walls in the kitchen after the others went back to NY.

It felt AMAZING to look around the house and see walls, not boards of wood. I could finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. I could imagine what the house might look like once I’m done. One day, I’ll actually be done!! Needless to say, that weekend experience has given me fuel to continue forward.

Since the volunteers left three weeks ago, I have installed drywall in most of the kitchen (except the sections of wall where there’s plumbing).

Putting up drywall by myself. See that nice sheen on my legs? I didn't get oiled up for the photo shoot, y'all. That's sweat!!!

Another wall in the kitchen that I put up alone.

I’ve also knocked down the bathroom closet, the beams that supported the lowered ceiling in the bathroom and most of the closet in the back hall. Yes, I am making aesthetic changes to the house. Yes, I am getting more attached to it. I can’t just let the house remain with those ugly additions. Why would one level vaulted (or half-vaulted) ceilings? After I removed the closet and those beams, the bathroom just opened up. It thanked me. It did. The walls will be covered in “greenboard”, a water-resistant form of drywall, and cement board (around the bathtub enclosure).

Before-and-After of the bathroom ceiling. Isn't it better now?

All that's left of my closets. Hope I can reuse some of the wood for something else!

Also To-Do, the drywall in the other rooms needs mudding. Mudding is the process of filling holes and covering seams using joint compound and joint compound tape. It’ll be a long, tedious process because I have to spread it over each screw hole in the drywall (and since the volunteers got a little trigger happy with the cordless drills, there are A LOT of ‘em) and, of course, the shorter your drywall sheets are, the more seams you’ll have. I opted for the 8’ long sheets, instead of 12’ sheets, which are heavier and more difficult to carry. So, I have a task ahead of me. I think I’m going to organize a Mudding Party and see who in New Orleans can come by next weekend or the weekend after to help me knock this out. I’ll keep y’all posted!!