Rebuilding New Orleans, from the ground up

Last week, I destroyed a man’s home.

I used a hammer and a wheelbarrow, a crowbar and a broom. I did it with 20 of my friends.

Simultaneously, 150 others destroyed homes in the same neighborhood.

Officials from the National Relief Network in New Orleans had instructed us to do this. In order for residents to rebuild after a storm like Hurricane Katrina, their homes needed to be gutted—all the way down to the dusty, wooden boards and the sticky sub-floor beneath linoleum tiles.

On the corner of Trapier Avenue and Fulton Street, Henry’s pre-storm house was like a museum. The murky waters of the storm had stopped just inches short of Henry’s stuffed animal collection from his youth, leaving them dry. The room next door was devoted to tchotchkes that must have accumulated throughout all of his 60 or so years of living in his childhood home.

We removed those objects one by one, wheelbarrow by wheelbarrow. Mold and dirty water that had stood for months after the levees broke had polluted the majority of Henry’s possessions. If anything was remotely salvageable, we placed it in the pile outside the garage for Henry to keep. We put the rest of the Henry’s prized possessions in the trash pile by the curb.

Henry was numb to the process. After a year and a half of seeing his house destroyed and watching his neighbors move away, what emotions could possibly remain?

The house empty, we grabbed hammers and removed the walls, the nails, the insulation. Three days later, all that remained was a shell.

Residents all over the city live the same process. Figure out what’s important; discard what’s not. Tear down the walls. Remove the nails that once held your life together.

In New Orleans, after people fled homes and left their lives behind, what remains is the foundation of the city. The culture. The spirit of helping. The “Southern hospitality” that encourages strangers to smile at each other.

While Henry watched the 20 of us—volunteers from around the country—dismantle his house, he may have seen it as us dismantling his life. Smashing his life to pieces like a sledgehammer on a porcelain bathtub.

But I hope he saw it as I did. Last week, I saw that where the government fails in relief efforts, volunteers fill in the gaps. I saw college students who chose to spend their spring breaks in a strange city, doing manual labor. I saw volunteers and locals breaking a city down to its essence and beginning to make a new start.

Last week, I destroyed a man’s home. But in the process, I helped make it possible for a man and a city to rebuild from the ground up.

Removing items from Henry’s house to place in the garbage pile.

The pile of trash in front of Henry’s house, including house materials like insulation and lumber, as well as Henry’s prized possessions.

The group in front of Henry’s house. Henry is in the black shirt.


3 thoughts on “Rebuilding New Orleans, from the ground up

  1. Hi Lia…

    I found your blog through a mutual friend of mine from the DC area who’s passing through Chicago staffing USY on Wheels — and I’ve been quite impressed with your writing. (Then again — I’m pretty impressed with most of Steven’s friends; he has good taste.)

    I was in New Orleans two weeks ago with 77 USYers from the DC and Baltimore areas. Although our work was with Habitat for Humanity building new homes, we saw the massive number of homes which were either gutted or in serious need of stripping — two years after Katrina and after the neglect of the government and lack of assistance. There is so much left to do, and the need for awareness of what is — or, rather, is not happening in our own country is crucial.

    Thanks for helping Henry and the other residents of New Orleans. Hopefully we can continue to get the word out and empower our own communities to help rebuild this one.

    — S

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