St. James Episcopal Church in Richmond Virginia sent a great group of 9 volunteers to work with lowernine.org for a week in February. Following is Alan’s account of the trip.
St. James’s/New Orleans Mission Write-Up
February 28, 2013
Dressed in a robe and seated on the side porch of a small house on New Orleans’ Tupelo Street, a soft-spoken woman recalls the day relatives in Atlanta wanted her to visit the new Georgia Aquarium. After a few minutes inside, she had to turn back. “I just couldn’t deal with all that water,” she says, fighting back tears. “It brought back too many memories.”
The woman’s house on Tupelo Street hunkers down in the heart of the city’s Lower Ninth Ward. Flooding from Hurricane Katrina rendered 100 percent of houses in this two-mile patch of lowlands uninhabitable, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In the blocks nearest the levees, floodwaters reached as high as 25 feet.
By August 2010, only a fifth of the ward’s 20,000 residents had returned, though the figure is now closer to a third. Scores of houses stand empty. Overgrown with weeds, vacant lots where houses once stood are ideal for stray dogs and cats, raccoons and snakes. But they are not good playgrounds for the few small children trying to have a normal life here.
Trapped between the Industrial Canal, the Mississippi River and Lake Borgne, the largely working-class Lower Ninth was the hardest-hit section of the city. Residents, with good reason, feel misused by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, which was supposed to maintain the levees that burst; by FEMA; by city officials; and by contractors. The contractors “take half your money,” a resident says, “do half the job, and then disappear.”
With few other options, residents needing repairs to their houses, business and churches are turning to volunteers, like our group, from St. James’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Va.
We’re working through a non-profit agency called Lowernine.org, which, as of December 1, 2012, had helped some 30 residents rehab their homes. There are eight of us—the Rev. Carmen Germino, Suzanne Hall, Russell Lawson Charles Nance, Zachary Reid, Bob Siegfried, Andrew Smith, and me, Alan Crawford. We are staying at Lowenine’s El Dorado Street headquarters, which could use a few repairs of its own.
For those of us who did not live in communes in the 1960s—I don’t think any of us had that good fortune—this is our big chance. We sleep in two tiny rooms lined with bunk beds, grab yours while you can. Male or female, it doesn’t matter. Just make sure you don’t throw your stuff on a staff member’s bunk because they stay here too. Some, we hear, live in the trailers parked across the street. We make do, food-wise, with what’s in the fridge but has no one else’s name on it. Late in the week, one of the two toilets is clogged, but Russell—what a man!—picks up a plunger from Wal-Mart and fixes it himself.
This is not to complain. We have it far better than many—maybe most—Lower Ninth inhabitants. The dinners we make are remarkably good (this is New Orleans, after all), and the homeowners we work with during the day are grateful for our help.
Zach, Bob and Andrew are building a ramp for an elderly lady who otherwise could not leave her house, while Suzanne, Russell and Carmen help lay tile in the kitchen and porch of a young New Orleanian who has come back home after studying and working in Washington, D.C. The mosaic backsplash Suzanne designs might not qualify for display at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, where she works, but it is a thing of beauty nonetheless.
During our stay, some members of the team from St. James’s also return to All Souls Episcopal Church in the Lower Ninth, where they have worked in past visits. This time they do tile work in a playroom and utility room and organize efforts of volunteers from United Airlines.
Realizing very quickly that I am no Bob Vila, team leaders Andy and Russell have banished me to a back wall. I scrape and caulk so it can be repainted and give it my best shot. Having been hit hard by the rain and the floodwaters, a good deal of the boards on this wall will have to be replaced. We’ll be leaving soon, so other volunteers will have that to do. Midweek, Russell and I are off to a house a couple of blocks from the levee. New Orleans is famous not only for food but for music, and we’re told that Fat Domino’s great-nephew once lived here, and the Fat Man himself would visit. It’s plausible, since Fats grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward, has lived here much of his life and still does. Though badly damaged in the flood, his house is much grander than most in the area, and residents are properly proud of their most famous resident. (Everyone here will also tell you they are related to Trombone Shorty.)
David Young, the owner of the house Russell and I are working on, has his own interesting story to tell. A former police chief from northern Indiana, Young came to the Lower Ninth to volunteer a few years ago and, like Laura Paul and Eileen Bacca who are on the staff of Lowernine.org, decided to stay. Young looks like a refugee from a biker gang that lived in one of those aforementioned communes decades ago and actually liked it.
Now Young helps rehab people as well as houses: He runs a nonprofit called Capstone that conducts a jailhouse ministry for teenagers. On this day, he directs us as we hoist sheetrock to the ceiling and feel the burn in muscles we didn’t know we had while the sheetrock is screwed into place. A scrawny hipster with a handlebar mustache and fedora turns out to be surprisinglyadept with a screw gun. Who knew? A team from United Airlines helps with the sheetrock. This is hard work, and I am convinced I will leave here looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger before he became just another politician and got old. While we finish up, two volunteers who seem to live at Young’s house practice line dancing in his kitchen.
Back on El Dorado Street, and once on the banks of the Mississippi, we hold our own worship services, accompanied by Russell’s deft guitar work. St. James’s should feel relieved that he and Andy, both accomplished musicians, did not get gigs on Bourbon Street and decide to stay.
Lowernine.org headquarters might be the only alcohol-free spot in all of New Orleans, so we keep the communion wine (Sutter Home Sweet Red in a six-pack of screw-top bottles from a convenience store) in the trunk of one of our rental cars. Holy Eucharist in a gentle rain on the riverfront might seem a little uncomfortable at first, but the memory will linger.
So, too, will that of the people we have met in the Lower Ninth and those we have gotten to know better from St. James’s. There’s much work to be done before this neighborhood gets back on its feet, if it ever does. On my last morning here, I have gone door-to-door to find out what projects the residents still need done, and almost everyone who answers the door in the two or three blocks I manage to cover will invite you in and show you boards that are rotting, paint that is peeling, fences that are falling down, and windows that are broken. Even the few who say they really don’t need our help thank us for asking.
The woman on Tupelo Street was having a closet added to the back of her house but has never been able to complete it. The storm put a stop to the work, and she still cannot talk about it without tearing up. “We didn’t lose anyone in our family, and that is a blessing,” she says. “But you never forget walking through water and gasoline and everything else up to your shoulders and seeing dead animals float by. I had rashes on my skin I couldn’t get rid of for weeks.”
“They keep breaking into my mother’s house,” one young woman tells us, and a sign on an abandoned house near the levee attests to a community torn apart by neglect and unmet needs. “House is stripped,” it says. “Nothing left to steal.”
What the people of New Orleans have not been robbed of is their determination to prevail which seems by all evidence to be rooted in their faith. There are a remarkable number of churches in the Lower Ninth, and at a raucous locals’ nightspot in the Treme, trombonist and singer Glen David Andrews moves seamlessly between wonderfully raunchy songs with unprintable lyrics to gospel songs like “Bye and Bye” and “I’ll Fly Away.” The gospel songs somehow win out in the end.
“Sing it, brother,” someone calls from the bar. “Take us to church!”