Our plane landed in New Orleans and I was at the back waiting to deplane, when my cell phone rang. My heart jumped. It was Cheryl, my daughter-in-law’s mother letting me know that our grand daughter Lilli had just been born. BJ was holding her, and mother and baby were doing fine. Babies – the hope of generations to come. It was fitting that she arrived just as I was about to embark on a mission of hope in New Orleans.
Our group of 34, 16 from Albuquerque’s Covenant Presbyterian Church and 18 from West Boulevard Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, North Carolina quickly became a cohesive team. Cooperation was a necessity since we shared two dormitory rooms – one for women and one for men, each tightly packed with metal bunk beds that squeaked every time someone turned over, and forgiveness was crucial with varying degrees of snoring. The height of collaboration was 16 women sharing one sink and two toilet stalls for a week!
During the first night’s orientation,
and again before we left for our first day’s work assignment, Sarah, the project director and Katie, our RHINO field coordinator, set the tone.
“You are probably full of energy and anxious to get started, but you need to pause before charging into the house,” Katie explained. “I will enter the house first to assess it and make sure things still are structurally sound.”
Sheryl, the owner of the first home we worked on, evacuated to Georgia and is still there. She had planned to join us; however, she recently had been in an auto accident which prevented her from traveling.
“Remember, this is someone’s home,” Sarah emphasized. When we were invited to do an initial walk through, the first thing that caught my eye was a row of tiny Christmas stockings nailed to a door jam.
We started by removing all the remaining household items, placing them in different piles – save, for salvageable items; electronics; food items or dirty dishes; yard waste and other. While the family already had been through and taken items they wanted, we unearthed important keepsakes, e.g. the children’s report cards.
“Don’t get carried away taking pictures of the damage. People are very sensitive,” Katie said. “And be careful with your language,” she continued. “For instance, don’t go home and refer to your activities as ‘demolition.’ Again, these are people’s homes and we are making it possible for them to rebuild.”
Yet, we felt it was important to document our activities with photos. From a distance it was easy to understand intellectually the kind of damage the residents of New Orleans experienced. We were not prepared for the reality that accompanies up to 11 feet of flood water.
Katie kept vigilant about our health. She called breaks for rest, bathroom runs to a nearby gas station, reminded us to drink water and announced when it was time to change our paper respirator masks.
By the end of the day we cleaned out the yard, dismantled the swing set, removed all of the moldy wall board, removed cupboards, bathroom and kitchen fixtures. Only the studs, roofing and exterior paneling remained.
The pile of debris stretched the entire length of the property.
We were oblivious to the squeaky springs that night.