Hurricane Katrina Relief: New Orleans Trip Report

By Paul Rivenburg

February 4th – February 12th 2006

We left the parking lot of South Suburban on a very chilly Saturday morning. We drove in three different vans. At our lunch stop in Mount Pleasant, Iowa Ken discovered that his alternator was going out. The Wal-Mart oil change center called a local repair shop owner and he opened up the shop and changed the alternator at a very reasonable price. This was one of many “coincidences” that we saw God’s hand on us. We got past St. Louis and stopped for the night. The cold front that had come through Minnesota extended down and it was in the low 30’s.

The next day we arrived in New Orleans around 5:00 P.M. It’s amazing to see the city in the distance while driving on the cause-way. It looks like a floating city in the ocean. We drove right by the super dome and went 10 blocks and found the “Yellow House” that was to be our home for the week. The house is a duplex with a large shared kitchen in the back. The right side was for the women and the left for the men. Each side had one bathroom with two showers. We had 18 in our group but with other groups that were also staying there was a total of 60 people. Believe it or not, everything went smoothly. Some of our people slept on the floor on air mattresses. Mark and I each had a bunk bed. They were stacked three high. Mark was on the top and had to watch his head as there was a ceiling fan. I was in a middle bunk. There were a total of nine people sleeping in our room.

One of our members, Fella (Felonise), is allergic to mold so she became our house lizard (in her own words). She took care of our laundry; made sure we had our lunches and helped the Café with some computer issues.

The Yellow House is owned by Urban Impact. This is an organization that grew out of Castle Rock Free Church. The church is a half block away. They run a free store and have tons of tools to help with the house gutting projects. People will call Urban Impact and they make out a work order. Prior to Katrina they worked with the people in the neighborhood and had programs for the youth. They also partner with Reconcile Café, which is run by the Archdiocese. The café is located one block down from the church. Reconcile Café is open to the public for lunch at this time. Prior to the storm they were a training ground for juvenile delinquents. The kids would learn all the different jobs of running a restaurant. We ate our breakfast and dinner at the Café. Urban Impact staff made us breakfast each morning and we ate the leftovers from that day’s lunch menu for supper. We ate sandwiches, etc for our lunch at our work sites.

Our church split into 3 groups for the work projects. I worked with Gerine, Janet, Lydia, Curt and my son Mark. We elected Curt to be our foreman. He called in each day at noon and 3:00 to let the office now how we were coming and if we had any issues. The first day and a half we worked on a house in the 3rd ward. We met the homeowner Bonita. The house has been in family for three generations. We took out carpeting and flooring, the stove and refrigerator, and some miscellaneous items that were still in the house. We were going to gut some walls, but we realized that because of the damage to the roof, the siding and the outer walls water that would continue to get in so these things needed to be fixed before the inside was gutted. In some places taking out the walls would have made it worse. We took out some trees that had fallen on the house and in the back yard and pushed the neighbors’ fallen fence back off Bonita’s property. There was quite a bit of debris in the yard we cleaned out as well.

Tuesday afternoon through Friday we spent gutting a duplex in the 7th ward. The place was empty and we never did meet the homeowner. At first it looked to be in pretty good shape. We saw a little bit of damage to some walls and ceilings. As we progressed we found that mold can be a hidden problem. By the time we were done we found a lot of damage, some by water and some by termites. Lydia said it reminded her of a song called “The Carpenter”. When Christ comes into our lives we think he just needs to do some painting and clean up. Instead he tears down walls and exposes what really needs to be fixed.

The house gutting is an important part of the process and it helps the homeowner assess the damage and then they can decide what to do. Gutting is very labor intensive. Since we did this for free we saved each homeowner about $5,000.

Since there were no utilities onsite, we had to find a bathroom. We finally found a Family Dollar store a couple of miles away. Prior to that, the ladies in our group had tried a Chinese Restaurant. No TP, rat droppings on the floor, and a strong odor told them someplace else had to be found.

Wednesday night we went to the French Quarter for dinner. That part of the city is in good shape. Thursday night we had a worship service at the church. The pastor plays a mean sax.

After we finished our project early Friday afternoon we went to the 9th ward. The 7th ward where we had been working had water come into the houses up to 6 inches. The 3rd ward where Bonita’s house is had water come up to the doors, but never came into the house. The damage there was from wind and rain. The 9th ward is where the levy broke. Just as you came up over the bridge the scene turned from beat up homes to devastation. The magnitude of what happened really hit us.

Some personal observations:

When we were gutting the second house we met Albert, the man who owned the house next door. He said it is not the loss of property, but the loss of community, that really is the hard part of this. He’s in his 60’s and now all his friends and neighbors are scattered across the country. Back here in Apple Valley we are used to people coming and going. We have been in our house since ’97 and have seen many homes in our neighborhood turnover two or three times. That is not the case there. These people have deep roots. It’s hard for them to be uprooted and not have the community together.

Many of the places weren’t in the best of shape to begin with and it’s hard to tell where poverty left off and Katrina took over. I’m sure this is part of the problem with getting insurance claims processed.

There is anger and frustration there. I saw a T-shirt that said FEMA is the new four letter word. But there is also hope. People are gutting the houses and rebuilding. We saw a lot of activity there. Keep in mind that there are still 150,000 to 180,000 homes to demolish/rebuild. While the problem is no longer on the news radar here, it is still very real.

It was a week of hard work, lots of laughter with my teammates, a good father/son time with Mark, and a sense of making a tiny dent in a huge problem. We hope to send another work crew out there within the next 12 months.

– Paul

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About waynem

As a Minnesota based photographer and artist I have been greatly influenced by the Upper Midwest. I focus my skills and energies on portraits, landscapes, cityscapes, architectural and fine art work. My best work comes from images first painted in my mind. I mull over a prospective image for weeks or months, seeing it from different angles and perspectives, then finally deciding what to capture. The result is images that deeply touch people's emotions and powerfully evoke memories and dreams. My images are used commercially by companies and organizations ranging from Financial Services firms, mom and pop Ice Cream shops and The Basilica of St Mary to communicate their shared vision and values. Book and magazine publishers have featured my images on their covers. My photographs also grace and enhance the decor of many fine homes.
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