Frank Cunningham
On my fifth day at the project, I was asked to work with the carpenters who were refitting and expanding tool bins on 18-foot flatbed trailers. The number of volunteers was rapidly increasing, necessitating an increase in our capacity to get wrecking and dismantling tools into the field. From 50 weekly volunteers in mid-January to 1,700 in early March, the labor pool was bringing the St. Bernard Parish Recovery Project closer to its goals. This six-month, volunteer-driven attempt to make the parish habitable again after the hurricane-force winds of Katrina and Rita and the flooding released by breached levees, aimed to gut 5,000 homes by June 1. In this context, I met Henri Martinez and Michael Hayes. One came to symbolize for me the resignation of age, the other the energy of youthboth in the pursuit of hope.

The parish (county) abuts the east side of New Orleans and spreads out southeast through palms and finger spits of land, bayous, levees and swamps. Close in to New Orleans, large tracks of the parish had been drained, filled, levied and developed into extensive neighborhoodsstreet grids and cul-de-sacs of mostly one-story middle-income homes. Beyond them are the oil refineries. Beyond that it’s shrimp, crab and oyster country.

Volunteers in Tent City

Base camp for the recovery project is set up snug in the shadow of the Chalmette oil refinery. Here the volunteers gather weekly in a tent city contracted by FEMAmanaged by a group called, of all things, Premier Party Rentalsto take the initial steps to help people reclaim their lives. During this particular week, the camp was full of college kids on spring break and clusters of 60-somethings with the time and experience to help out. The kids were mostly from faith-based groupsCampus Crusade for Christ, Samaritan’s Purse, Real Life, Catholic and other denominational colleges in the East, Midwest and South. Three-fourths had been recruited by Habitat for Humanity.

They are participating in a plan that is simple to describe, yet difficult to execute: Have armies of volunteers go into the neighborhoods flooded by 14 feet to 24 feet of water and gut the homes. First shovel out the three or four inches of mud that have coated the floors since last September; seal and remove the appliances (many of the refrigerators haven’t been emptied of food since the houses were abandoned) and any solvents; then start stripping the insidesfloor coverings, trim, drywall, insulation, wiring and whatever else there is. Clean it up as well as possible and leave the studded shell for the owners to start over with.

Dirty Work

It’s dirty work, strenuous work. The houses smell and are coated with a variety of molds. Vermincockroaches, rats, mice, nutrias, lizards and snakes are common. So are dead pets. Before working in a house, everyone goes through an orientation about safety, protective clothing and health hazards provided by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the U.S. Department of Labor.

Ten-person gutting teams put in seven-hour days, supported by logistics teams that supply transportation into the neighborhoods, as well as tools, food, water and emergency services. I’m an older guy who drew the logistics straw, distributing and picking up tools for a dozen teams. After all, a strapping 20-year old can shovel a lot more mud and pull out a lot more drywall in a day than this recent retiree. But I can coach him that a crowbar is a much more effective tool for removing a door and its housing than a long-handled axe.

Young Coordinator

The project is run by a young man named Michael Hayes, the Habitat for Humanity General Projects Coordinator in New Orleans. His name was dropped everywhere. Michael Hayes will take care of it. Call Michael Hayes if you have a problem. Michael Hayes needs to authorize that. One of my tentmates, Earl from Fairbanks, had been in touch with Hayes off and on for weeks, arranging to bring in a group of Alaskan volunteers. A retired businessman, well into his 70’s, Earl spoke of Hayes in glowing termswell organized, highly motivated, articulate and self-assured. Then he met him in his St. Charles Avenue office and was aghast. He’s everything I expected. Except he’s a college kid, said Earl incredulously.

More accurately, Hayes is a student in a master of fine arts writing program at Spaulding College in Louisville, Ky. I work at my own pace so the writing program allows me the time to do things like this, he explains matter-of-factly. Recruiting volunteers and getting them into the field is only one of the things thrown at me here. The day we talked he had 1,300 volunteers in the field.

Detritus Abounds

The neighborhoods he is helping reclaim have been captured well enough in the media photos and video footage. But that is a view from within the boundaries of a viewfinder. In person, the blinders come off as block after block, street after street, neighborhood after neighborhood pass and meld one community into another. Construction detritus is everywhereshingles, sheet metal, drywall, insulation, wood, bricksthe list goes on. Cars are planted in disarray in odd spots and at weird angles where receding waters parked them. Here and there is a FEMA trailer housing a courageous soul making a stand in a war zone after the battles have moved on.

What the waters spared in St. Bernard’s Parish the winds shredded. Farther to the southeast, where housing developments give way to thin villages strung out along bayous, the destruction is nearly complete. Henri Martinez is a cinder block of a man, about 5 feet 7 inches or so, around 250 pounds. Bump into him and you bounce. His hands are worn and beaten from five decades of shrimping and boat-building, his sun-darkened face deeply lined from years of days on the open water. He moves purposefully, knowing how to pace himself and conserve his battered body. He speaks with the cadence and distinctive dialect of his own finger of the delta, a place called Delacroix. It was home for all of his 63 years before Katrina put him and his wife on a docked cruise ship and then into a FEMA trailer on a lot in Chalmette that belongs to one of his children.

Shrimp Boat

After some of us spent a day helping him refit and expand tool bins on the trailers, he invited us to see the shrimp boat he and his lifelong friend Rock had built. We drove to Delacroix in the late afternoon. On the way he offered us nearly a house-by-building view of what had been, pointing repeatedly to spots where family, cousins, in-laws and lifelong friends once had homes and jobs. Two homes remained out of all the houses, shops, churches and commercial buildings in this community of 1,000 strung out close by Terra Boeuf bayou. One stood cabled and turnbuckled to 14-foot concrete stilts set deep in the ground. The other stood stark amid debris and foliage made ghostly by the salt water surge. Henri called it the angel spot. Inexplicably the house had withstood Katrina, and then Rita, as it had withstood Betsy four decades ago.

Shortly he directed me to stop at a cement pad that had once held his home. There this hardened man, husband and father of three, grandfather to a gaggle and great grandfather of one, cried softly. It’s a hard pill to swallow was all he could say. I could offer scant succor. I thought I could handle it, having lost a home and survived a super typhoon in the Western Pacific; and I had reported on human duress following the evacuation of Vietnamese refugees in 1975. Ashamedly I ached to leave, afraid to tussle with the meaning of such loss at this stage of our lives.

Will the people return? I asked. No. Not this time. The destruction was too thorough. No lives were lost. Everyone evacuated in time. But Henri, his community now scattered around the country, mourned the loss of a way of life that centered on taking a living from the sea and neighbors helping neighbors whenever needed, a community shaped by networks of extended families.

His shrimp boat had survived in a safe harbor, now a white and blue-trimmed anomaly amid the flotsam. A few crab pots hung over the side. He pulled them, smiling at the handful of crabs in each, remembering how good they were when boiled with vegetables, shrimp, spices and sausage for community gatherings. What about shrimping? Can you go back out? No infrastructure, he replied. No ready fuel, no icehouses for storage, no brokers for buying, no truckers for transporting. His work was now limited to being the carpenter in a tent city, awaiting an uncertain future. He spoke lovingly of his nearby family, while noting how draining the grandkids can be. They’re on the upside of life. I’m on the downside, he said somewhat forlornly.

Little Standing

Rubble is everywhere, deep in the woods and swamps, the bayous littered with half-sunken boats, cars and sections of homes. Almost nothing stands of the homes and buildings built on 10-foot to 18-foot concrete stilts and often cabled to the ground. The winds lifted them up and carried them away, dropping them in rampaging storm surges, which in turn shredded them. After the eye passed, the backwinds scattered the pieces into the woods and swamps. There they may lie forever, with few people, if any, willing to risk cleaning areas rife with alligators and cottonmouths. Through the villages, the home stilts remain upright, lonely obelisks memorializing what once was.

No Easy Solution

There is no easy way back from Katrina’s destruction. My time there was instructive of a human and geographic problem of colossal proportions. It is a problem complicated by the interrelationships among storm-ravaged lowlands, a rapidly receding delta, a mighty river channeled to propel its land-making capacity off the continental shelf, the possible demise of a city of great tradition and culture, opportunistic politics and the inevitable corruption induced by the influx of vast sums of money. There is no reasonable answer as to whether or not these neighborhoods should even be reoccupied. Perhaps in five or 10 years I will return to see for myself. There are even climatologists and hydrologists who predict that New Orleans will not exist in 50 to 100 years.

Meanwhile, I reflect on the irreplaceable experience of good people trying to helpenergetic, high-minded college kids, an unusual breed of pros who make disaster relief their careers and volunteers there for the duration. Then there are the handfuls of guys like myself who normally make their way in the white-collar worldstockbroker, software engineer, instructional technologies specialist, speechwriter, book publisher, auto parts manufacturer and military non-comwho shared life in a tent for a week under the direction of a deeply motivated grad student, knowing we offered scant help to people like Henri, people our age who have lost nearly everything. We were able to go home to settled lives, while they were left to struggle, endure and hope.

Frank Cunningham recently retired as president and publisher of Ave Maria Press in Notre Dame, Ind. His current projects include writing and consulting in the field of book publishing.