In a previous post I discussed my reaction to Hurricane Katrina and my desire to assist with the relief effort in some tangible way. After spending a couple of days in New Orleans, I traveled to a Habitat for Humanity worksite on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain.
My accommodations for the build were in a sheriff’s barracks on the outskirts of Slidell. I was the first to arrive and was greeted by a deputy who gave me the ten-cent tour: gang showers, lounge, bunk rooms. His advice was to grab a top bunk away from the door.
Since I had no recent experience with dormitory living, I did as he suggested, throwing my pack on a distant, upper cot. I got directions to the nearest supermarket and headed out to buy some cereal bars for breakfast. Lunch would be provided at the worksite, but we’d be on our own for the rest of our meals.
Slidell is a middle class community, much like my hometown. It was jarring to travel through one subdivision after another and see trailers and RVs parked in the driveways next to the basketball hoops and minivans. I pulled over to take a photo of one garage that had the water line marked approximately 7 feet high. The homeowner came over and we talked about the storm, the challenges of trailer life for his family of four, and his uncertain future. His family was fortunate and had the financial resources to rebuild, but there was too much work and not enough contractors, so everyone was waiting. And waiting.
By the time I got back to the barracks, a rowdy church group of 16 had arrived from Vermont. The women began arranging makeup bags and blowdryers in the bathroom while the men hauled coolers and grocery bags from their bus. I gravitated towards the other independents: an administrator from Auburn University, an innkeeper from Washington’s San Juan Islands, a Mary Kay rep from New Mexico and Paul, a retired carpenter from Minnesota. They all had experience with other Habitat builds, many of them in Central and South America.
We carpooled together to the worksite where we were joined by several other groups of volunteers. Paul insisted I stay with him as the coordinators assigned people to tasks. “If you have no skills, they’ll stick you with the painters,” he warned. “You can be my helper.” I had no idea what the job duties of a carpenter’s assistant would be, but the unknown was preferential to scooting along on my knees painting baseboard for five days.
It turns out a fairly large amount of my time was spent fetching. There were a limited number of tools available to the volunteers, so each morning I sprinted to the shed and acquired the items we’d need to assist with the framing and window and door installations: the good level, the less rusty pry bar, a hammer with an intact grip, and the Bono-like safety glasses. Paul would then give me a list of the lumber we needed, and happily I’d bring him lengths of two by four, sheets of plywood, shims. He was a very patient teacher, explaining new tasks and by the end of the week I was hanging drywall, installing lock sets and displaying professional proficiency with the sawzall.
Each evening we’d head to the Camellia Cafe and have one or two Abitas and po’ boys. We exchanged stories about our home lives. Paul’s Norwegian and he shared enough information about lutefisk (whitefish soaked in lye) to ensure we’d never try it. Our meals were eaten quickly, finished before our heads hit the plates.
The week flew by. My hands were calloused. I’d lost a few pounds and gained a farmer’s tan. We said our goodbyes to each other and to the homeowners who worked alongside us in compliance with Habitat’s requirements (The organization’s motto is “A Hand Up Not A Hand Out”.). It was very strange, after a week of showering and sleeping with strangers, to find myself alone in the rental car, heading back to the airport. A lifetime had seemingly passed since my stint with the zydeco band on Bourbon Street, when I was desperate to help but afraid I’d fail.
We didn’t complete any homes during my stay so nothing had visibly changed. But I knew that there’d be another group arriving the next day. And next week. Eventually the Gulf Coast would be rebuilt. And whatever small amount of aid I’d provided, I was handed back tenfold by the experience. Had I helped? I’ll never know. But I do know how much Louisiana helped me.