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January 24, 2006, 2045 hours. Everyday that passes I go through two emotions: Frustration and Hope. When I drive through the disheveled neighborhoods that were flooded by Lake Ponchartrain’s overflow I wonder how they’ll ever come back to life. How many years will it take to bring them back to the normalcy of the life that I often take for granted? If I get frustrated at home when my electricity goes out I make an urgent call to Xcel and get someone to head out within 24 hours and everything is back to normal. In New Orleans there’s no calling the electric company. Furthermore if they did allow you access to electricity, you first have to get a plumber out to clear your lines of any water damage and then get an electrician out to rewire the place. Remember Priscilla, from day two? She’s been waiting for nearly two months to get an electrician out. When she finally did get him out here, he told her she needed a plumber first. Plumbers are not readily available around these parts and Priscilla had to get on a waiting list at the local church to gamble between the timing of a paid plumber to show up and the possibility of a volunteer plumber showing up earlier. Though she’s worked tirelessly for the last 4 months, installing drywall, painting, and cleaning she still won’t be able to light her stove to cook a meal, turn on a lamp to read a book, or simply sit on her porch with a cup of warm tea and read a book as evening descends. Due to the internet crashing just as I finished a long-winded blog last night about my 3rd day in New Orleans, I was unable to share what it was we were getting to help out with down here.
Yesterday we spent the day “guttingâ€? a house located just southeast of Lake Ponchartrain. Block after block has been flooded in this area and rebuilding won’t begin until months after “deconstructionâ€? has been completed. Every house has significant mold issues and many have been shifted off their foundations and deemed unsafe for reentry to tear apart, much less put back together. My crew all had shots ranging from Hepatitis A to flu to tetanus to keep us safe from the spores and airborne bacteria that plague the area. Every wall we’ve torn down has revealed boards painted with mold and, in some cases, covered in termites. We wear respirators and hazmat-type overalls when working inside the house to decrease the risk of infection. (If you’ve ever seen the movie Back to the Future when Alex Keaton and Jim from Taxi put on those plutonium-safe suits before they’re whisked back to the 50’s you get an idea of what I’m talking about.) We take a lot of breaks to re-hydrate as the suits combined with the humidity and the labor turn us in to walking “sweatâ€? suits. While I was working yesterday, with each wall of sheet rock I peeled from the frame, I couldn’t help but feel like I was doing nothing to help the situation down here. Every two-by-four had been soaked for months and had been rotted in many spots. I wondered why they didn’t just tear these places down and start from scratch. Then, as I was ripping a vanity from one of the bathrooms I came across a picture of a little girl, maybe 11 to 12 years old, that had somehow survived the storm. I paused and the thought came to mind that maybe this bathroom was where she got ready for school every morning since she was a toddler. And maybe that her parents had only this home to invest in when she was younger and likely still carried the burden of the mortgage, despite the fact that it was uninhabitable for the past many months and would continue to be this way for quite a few more months. Her picture remained close by all day and every time I glanced at it I was reminded why I came down here: to deliver hope. We completed our second day of cleaning out everything but the frame of this tragic reminder of the devastation Katrina has brought to the lives of so many here and I’m recharged and encouraged to get through this mission without doubting its purpose. After the mold and the debris and everything thrown out (including the kitchen sink) in a heap of loss on a street of nothing left to gain there stood in front of me a shell of promise. My family lost our apartment, and everything in it, to a fire back in May of 2005. Take it from a guy who knows, when you’re on your front porch, staring at a pile of your broken past you have two choices: Give up and wallow in the sorrow of your misfortune or clear away the debris and use every day that follows to restore that shell with desire and inspiration. When Priscilla was told, week after week, that an electrician was going to show up and when he stood her up, time after time, she refused to give up. When he finally came and told her she had to move on to someone else before he could be useful, she forged ahead to the next task of finding a plumber. Her resilience is a common thread throughout the streets of New Orleans that bind these desolate neighborhoods and give the rest of us the strength and motivation to finish the quest we set out on, no matter how long it takes. I talked to a father from Phoenix today that brought his 20-something daughter down here to assist in the rebuilding efforts. They were helping us at the house and at one point he and I stopped for some water and took in the wreckage that surrounded us on all sides. In a moment of frustration I stressed to him my concern about our work here and how I thought it might be in vain. That it would take years to recover and a week of my life was not going to have any impact and maybe we should seek out another home that has less damage and is in a more livable area. He leaned back against a truck that had been flooded and lay useless on the front lawn, took a sip of his bottled water and stated, “We’ll be here for only this week. Next week another group will come and work here and they’ll return home. Then the following week another group will visit and do their part. And it will continue that way until one day the owner will move back in and start over. It’ll take all of these groups to do it, but it will get done.â€? I nodded in silent agreement. As I put my mask back over my face and headed back in to continue working on the house, the sun had finally broke through the fog that had been hovering over New Orleans since our arrival 4 days ago. It’s light pierced the water-stained windows and began drying the frame we had uncovered in the last two days. Despite my frustrations, hope had arrived again and pushed me through another day in the Big Easy. Previous: Day One, Day Two.