Six and a half years after the storm took on New Orleans, it is still fighting back. People are still out of their homes, houses are still in shambles, neighborhoods are still building themselves back. This is not to say there hasn’t been a lot of progress in the years past; thousands of Americans have visited New Orleans volunteering in missions to rebuild and reunite families and communities and as a result hundreds of homes have been rebuilt, but as St. Bernard Cofounder, Max states, “Let this be the beginning”
I saw a fbook post from a long lost college roommate that the powerhouse audit company she works in was going to New Orleans for this mission. For the past 4 years actually their employees have been volunteering their time, money, blood sweat and tears on 11 trips to New Orleans. I was able to get in on the trip as one of her guests for a moving week meeting great people, doing great work and getting very very dirty.
We arrived at the NoLa airport early morning Wednesday, May 30th and waited for our car groups to show up and get to our accommodations. We were staying at Camp Hope, a base camp for volunteers coming to LA for Katrina recovery efforts. For $25/day we received 3 meals and a bunk bed. Laura appropriately commented that it was like the summer camp some of us never got to go to. Myself included, but it did remind me of the accommodations in Munich, albeit much sturdier beds and less freezing cold nights.
While the showers, bathrooms and general layout of the camp was fine, the food left little to be desired. Breakfast ranged from cereal to oatmeal to strange meat and biscuits and gravy to hard boiled eggs to one day the vegetarian option being a burrito from McDonald’s.
Lunch everyday was peanut butter and jelly or lunch meat with carrots and chips. I’m as a big pb&j fan as they come, but by day three I couldn’t stomach a hot sandwich that had been sitting in our van all morning soaking in the Louisiana humidity and just so happened that two of our generous teammates were feeling the same and ordered out a round of pizzas. Oh yes. Thanks again Kristina and Laura!
Dinners might have been better, but we were in the South and jonsin for some local creole fair so we never stuck around. To note, $25/day for room, board, showers and safety was a steal. They are able to charge such a low cost per night bc of things like this so more power to them…just bring your own veggies. We opted to eat out when we could, and did each time, starting with night number one. After we settled intro our beds we hit the town.
We didn’t have to report for work until the next morning so we took off to Bourbon street and got our first grenades.
And then my flip fop broke
So we took a barefoot stroll to Walgreens. I’ve been wearing these $11 flip flops almost everyday since and they’re insanely comfortable.
Onward to the next few stops of bars on the strip we became familiar with quickly meeting Irish, British and even some Americans. Stopped for dinner where I had the best crab cake I’ve ever had (grenade influence questionable) on top of a fried tomato
and the girls had tasty dishes of sausages and poboys.
We then moseyed to Pat O’Brien’s (bc no matter where I go in the world I always end up at an Irish pub), drank some more drinks aptly named after natural disasters (hurricanes, I think they were called) met some realllllllly nice gentleman as I’ve captured here and eventually were scooped up by our driver (read: volunteer who doesn’t drink) and back to the bunk beds after what seemed like the longest trip to Walgreens ever (grenade influence questionable).
The next morning we gathered for breakfast at 7AM (oatmeal and frozen blueberries), made our lunches for the day and to attend orientation of how Camp Hope operates. Then an 11AM orientation of how St. Bernard started and where they’re headed
We gathered into their room and met Max, who spent the majority of his life as an attorney until he and his wife were so moved by their own volunteer stint to NoLa that they cofounded St. Bernard and moved to LA to continue rescue efforts. He was brought to tears at points of his stories especially when talking about one specific home owner, Frank.
Frank! He came in, swept through the room to thank us and then left us like a blur
Max told us his story shortly before he introduced Frank. He was upstairs in his house when the storm hit with his dog and bird. With the water level climbing the stairs to his second floor he took to safety on his roof and waited for help with his pets. He was brought to another roof by a passing boat, having to leave his pets behind. This roof had other survivors from the area and they waited for rescue for 7 days. 7 days. On a roof with random rescues waiting for nothing. When he was finally able to go back to his house he found both his dog and bird alive. Frank is now back in his own home thanks to efforts of the St. Bernard project.
Feeling pepped up and inspired, the hundred or so volunteers, were then split into groups assigned painting, planting, building, cleaning and probably the least desired; mold remediation. So what were we assigned? Mold remediation. At least it was Awesome mold
It was hot, uncomfortable work, but the harder we worked and the more we sweat the more deserved we ended each day. Enter the reason for the lifted spirits: Elmer.
Elmer is the owner of this house who has been back and forth between his sons house down the road and his other sons out of state home while waiting for his house to be suitable to live in again. The water was up to the roof which when finally retreated, resulted in the entire interior covered with black mold.
Our job had three stages; wire brushing, shock wave and sealer. We took what looked like an oversized torture toothbrush and scrubbed every inch of every 2x4 of the house stripped to its studs. Every. Inch.
The first day we worked from 1PM-7PM covering most of the bottom floor and half the top in a deep heat, but nothing what we were expecting. There was a breeze coming through the windows and the humidity wasn’t as terrible as anticipated.
Everyday Elmer had soda and water for us in a cooler and waited for our breaks to tell stories of his time in the army, share jokes and show us pictures. Hello, stud:
Day Two we started early morning, 7AM-1PM finishing up the scrubbing. Throughout the day one of the volunteers was DJing our work with her phone playing various pop songs. Fun. “Tonight” came on and we had a little sing along while we worked. If there is one thing that picks up monotonous, strenuous work among a group of people it’s singing together (as I cheesed out on Tough Mudder recap already and will again I’m sure during my farm stay and part of the reason I am so in love with Irish pubs. hey, drinking can be strenuous…).
We’d mark each done stud with an “x” so we didn’t over brush and then shock waved this chemical onto the studs, first circling the (x) to show that wood was ready to be primed. Attic and all. We spent many hours in dark corners of the attic balancing on rafters trying to scrub, slather and then prime. Everyday we would leave soaked in sweat and dirt and our skin stinging from tiny shards of fiber glass from the installation imbedding in our exposed limbs.
We finished early Friday so we could head over to a coming home ceremony for someone in the charity whose house was finished. Ms. Courtney had been working on her home since the storm hit while relocating to Texas to continue working. She had been paying contractors who seemingly took her money and did little to no work until she was accepted by the SBP and they finished her house in a few months this year. This was a common occurrence where peoples insurance snaked their way out of rebuilding homes and then contractors took advantage of the home owners, often taking money before doing any work and then leaving having done nothing. I can’t imagine the frustration you go through getting jerked around and screwed like that just trying to get your life back to normal.
All the home owners seem like amazing people. They’re warm, grateful, full of life and gratitude for the work SBP is doing.
Her massive pineapple tree that survived the storm
She thanked everyone at the ceremony with some down home red beans and rice.
We had a couple of hours in between this event so we went to a DaqShaq. A frozen daiquiri bar drive thru. Yup, to-go daqs. Yes please. Please note that $1 jello shots via drive-thru were also available. And sans the driver imbibing in them, totally legal. I miss you, Louisiana.
Ok so we hit it twice..maybe three times? And I’m glad bc we went inside once to peruse the flavors even though I got Mud Slide every time
Saturday we were assigned the early shift, 7AM-1PM. I think we were all shocked at how much down time we had ahead of us. The day was spent finishing up the shock wave and doing as much priming as we could. The volunteers helping us were with Americorps and CCC and young and tired and fresh. I felt old hearing a 20 year old say that she doesn’t know if she wants to join the Peace Corp bc you’re in it for two whole years in another country. Two whole years? Don’t you mean only two years? Two whole years feels like a blink of an eye at my jaded age of 28.
We ran into our jaded helpers at the Oyster fest, where this famous trumpet player was performing
a much more delicious encounter
We had been to Drago’s the night before and I regrettably passed on trying the groups order. They are baked with parm cheese and silly amounts of garlic, butter and oil and absolutely delicious.
They’re smiling cuz they’re smarter than I and got wine and oysters at Drago’s at first chance
Never to make the same mistake, while half of our party went to the casino Sunday night, myself Kari and Laura went back yet again.
It must have been Friday we took a trip outside of the downtown area to go to a bar with hundreds of bottles and taps.
I can’t remember the delicious stout I had. I remember a lengthy debate about how many times you go to a grocery store if you go once and then have to go back. For the record, Mike, you’re still alone on your argument. But here’s the super dome pic I owe you!
We didn’t get oysters here, but a couple people got alligator. As I am skint I drank my dinner in that stout and ate a cracker I stole from dinner the night before where Laura got gumbo and it was delicious (both the cracker and the gumbo)
Said gumbo from said diner:
The waitresses at this diner, and really everywhere we went the people of NoLa were overwhelmingly friendly. The service of restaurants stands out to me bc we did a lot of eating. Sunday brunch was spent at Mother’s, a restaurant I am told is famous and now believe bc their bloody mary’s were on point.
I had the crawfish etouffee (stew) omelet and grits. The etouffee was delicious, but the eggs looked and tasted like it was out of a carton. The biscuits, however, were nothing to complain about and I couldn’t if I tried bc my mouth was housing said biscuit as soon as it was on the table.
Illana got fried chicken and waffles covered in maple syrup and the 8 of us were immediately impressed
I also ate here with a song writer from Tennessee at 5AM of which a stellar find (full menu open 24 hr!) turned into talk of future vacations and family plans. Check please! I had a mozzarella, tomato and creole pesto basil sandwich with about 8 other things I wanted to try. Next time.
And there will be a next time. If I do not make it to Eire in Sept I would love to go on the same trip with St. Bernards in November and if that doesn’t work out I just want to go back for the shaq daqs. Also, every bar has a 3 for 1 drink deal. Also, one bar had a kiddie pool with water guns that sparked a brief water gun fight between three of us in the middle of day drinking…NoLa get out of my heart.
Of course there is the music scene I’ve done no justice to, but I am a food girl, not a music girl. And even with that fact I need to return as I didn’t eat a single beignet or go to the famous ice creamery. Shameful, but I ate a lot of seafood and road a mechanical bull, so, not a total fail.
NoLa was a very good mix of ridiculous nights and hardworking days, of which as per usual as this is open to the world wide internets, I like to leave certain stories and details under the rug. This was my friends hotel room in which I crashed for two hours and subsequently missed my (second) flight home after waking up in cold sweat and having to run across town to the W hotel where I left my backpack behind the desk (free storage so I wouldn’t have to lug it around all day). 5AM is not a good time to be running through downtown LA and sweaty mess still wearing clothes from the night before is not a good look, but great look to keep kidnappers away! Also, Erin, this room is what the inside of your brain looks like to me.
This is a lot of what parts of New Orleans looks like years and years after the storm hit, and this is far from the worst we saw I just don’t have the pictures. It was surprising to me how bad some areas still were and how many people are still out of their homes. We tend to forget about disasters after a few months and the complete upheaval they cause to our fellow Americans. It has been years and NoLa still needs our help, our time, our funds to get to where it was. And we all need beignets, so as Max asked, let this be the beginning.