Sunday, March 12, 2006

57 Years of Marriage Sitting On My Front Lawn (Part II)

I'm not quite used to the Bohemian atmosphere. I tripped on a cot in the middle of the night coming back from the loo. Poor student. I hope he or she is okay.

First day of work. A hearty breakfast goes a long way and our hosts/hostesses treat us quite well.

Walking down streets we notice homes boarded up, gutted, ignored. Primarily ignored. Several FEMA trailers line the street when we reach our house for the day. A mini community in this wasteland.

But the community is nice. It's a nice, small suburb - not what you've heard on television. Not all of New Orleans affected was the lower class. The middle/lower middle class was also affected.

One woman in her FEMA trailer, which was smaller than campers I'd been in - to camp, let us use her restroom. I couldn't live in the trailer. And the problems we don't hear about are many.

Trailers offer horribly tight quarters. The trailer I was in housed a family of 4. There was one bed, small kitchen, small bathroom, table with a couple chairs. The little 9-year-old girl was happy we were talking to her. None of her friends had returned and she thought us very nice for talking to her. That made us quite sad. She had no one to play with. And a hell of a place to play.

Another trailer occupant mentioned that nothing closed in her FEMA trailer. It took her months to get the trailer, another couple months to have it hooked up, and now nothing closes. She laughs as if it is the price of doing business, which apparently it is.

Trailer residents feel horribly forgotten. Many who are in the trailers have gutted houses and are waiting for building permits to rebuild. The city is stalling and it is noticed. Theories abound as to what the hold up is. Regardless of whether any of the theories holds water, perception is huge. If residents think these things, the damage control required to change that attitude may cost more than the cost to repair the damaged levees! Many feel that the city is performing a sort of ethnic/class cleansing. That if the city stalls long enough, people will leave allowing the city to sell the land to developers for more economic friendly projects.

Another theory holds that the city hasn't decided what it wants to do yet. They may turn the area into green space or alternate housing. Meanwhile, people wait in ill-equipped trailers ready to return to their homes and rebuild their communities. Willing and able - stalled by government.

No one believes what government is telling them - that there are too many homes to inspect and too few inspectors. Particularly since no one has ever seen an inspector.

We are encouraged to talk to people - not just Bonaventure people, but community members. This morning while sipping my Bohemian coffee, a FEMA worker installing FEMA trailers behind our church hall was eager to talk and I was eager to listen and ask questions. And share my compassion. (An irony I can't escape. I find it funny that I attended a Catholic University, worked in the Catholic Health System, teach at my alma mater and sleep in churches - I'm Wiccan!).

He lived in his home for 30 years. He found out it wasn't salvageable. He cried looking at his house. Now he is not sure what he will do. This leads to an explanation of the notation on the houses in the ravaged areas. An 'X' was spray painted on each house. The number at the top was the date of the search, the notation to the left was the group who searched, to the bottom was the number of dead bodies, to the right, the number of dead pets. If your 'X' was circled or had a square around it, it meant it would be demolished. There was no gutting it and saving it. I can't imagine traveling 'home' wondering where my home stood in this macabre lottery. And knowing I could likely do not a damn thing about it.

Volunteers are in the communities helping people to clean up. What we heard was that if the house wasn't gutted by May, the house would be demolished. People are now frantic to gut their homes - and then sit in their FEMA trailers waiting for permits that may never come. The logic in this completely kicks my ass.

One woman let us take a look at her inground swimming pool that had fish in it from the flood. She had been shocking it with chlorine to no avail. The pool was so polluted, several in my group almost walked on it thinking it was cement. Thank God no one did. I didn't want to have to explain that back at the Hippie Commune (home for the week). This woman had paid people to clean her house. She has been waiting at least a month for an inspector. She did everything that is needed. She gutted the house, hauled all the debris to the curb for pickup, had the house de-molded (sprayed with bleach), and sealed against future mold growths. She is afraid to pump her pool because she is afraid it will crack and fall inside itself since they are below sea level. No one trusts anything since the levee break/breach.

I was amazed by the number of For Sale signs on properties. My initial thought was, property values must be so low, who the hell would buy. Someone told me that it's the opposite. Values have risen because developers are looking for large tracts of land to buy and then sell or subdivide to their economic pleasure.

The debris in trees, on roofs, between houses was amazing. Six months after the fact and there are still sheds propped up between houses. There are still cars on top of sheds or other cars or nestled in backyards and ditches.

People driving around all had new cars that were so clean I envied them. It turns out that car insurance companies are getting money to people quickly and even giving more than bluebook value. Homeowners on the other hand was a huge gripe. One owner talked about getting $400 for his home. The assessor came in and looked at the part of the house not affected by the flooding (flood insurance wasn't part of the policy) and decided that was the damage. This house was assessed from the attic up - the only part that escaped flood waters. And the only part without damage. The roof was intact, the attic walls were intact. Who cares that all the possessions and the living space wasn't inhabitable and was destroyed. Not part of the hurricane. $400. Can you imagine? And most of these people have lived in this neighborhood for 30 or more years. And have no mortgages. And have paid homeowners insurance for 30 years. $400. Kick me again, I'm still moving.

I was flattered by the cat calls of men working on one of the neighboring houses. Normally I am offended by such displays of testosterone, but I was sweaty and full of dirt and God knows what else so I was flattered. I smiled. Anything that makes you smile is appreciated, however rude or crude. Funny how that happens.

My back hurts, my foot hurts, I will ache in the morning, but I wouldn't trade this experience and I've only been here one day. I am thrilled to be here. It's a hell of a Spring Break. I have no energy and want to go to bed. I'm such an old lady.

The story of the day was told by a gentleman who lived in the house next to our gutting project. He has gotten Tulane University students to help him gut his house to sell. He and his wife lived there the 57 years of their marriage. They are in Mississippi now. She wasn't with him. I didn't ask why. He talked to us and expressed his thanks for having us in his community. He, like so many others, is so grateful for our presence. It's a reminder that they are not forgotten. That people are thinking of them outside of the levees. They couldn't hold the water back and they certainly can't hold the compassion back. He said, "57 years of marriage is sitting on my front lawn" as he looked at the debris stacked haphazardly on his curb. Then he shook his head.

And I wanted to hug him and then I wanted to cry.

I write this in our barracks after a long day and have to pause to look around at my fellow gutters who are sitting on their cots. Somehow seeing my compatriots' reactions and interactions brings a sense of normalcy. But I have to remember I'm a professor. That gives me power and clout or a reasonable enough facsimile that I get to charge my cell phone ahead of the students! Big flipping deal. I don't feel like a professor here. I am as big of a person as each of the students. And I can't help but call them my students even though I will likely never teach most of them. We are all on the same page and all hold the same status - volunteer. Perhaps even savior, at least for this week. Those are pretty big shoes.

I'm listening to Coldplay's Fix You on my IPod and I want to cry. This isn't my reality. I have a home with four walls, floors not covered in a 6" layer of muck and ooze, electricity, heat, water. My home isn't the cleanest, but it's a home and it's habitable and I think I will hug my furniture and kiss my floor when I return. Perhaps I'll also sweep!

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