[StBernard] Stuart Leavenworth: To save homes, we gutted 'em
westley at da-parish.com
Sun Mar 26 11:52:42 EST 2006
Stuart Leavenworth: To save homes, we gutted 'em
By Stuart Leavenworth
Published 2:15 am PST Sunday, March 26, 2006
A crowbar is essential for gutting a flood-ravaged home. First you rip off
the front door. Next you break out the windows. Then, as quickly as
possible, you shovel all contents into wheelbarrows and get them out of the
Once your task is done, usually in a day or two, you are left with a
structure that has been stripped down to its roof, studs and exterior
façade. Four impressive piles - one for general debris, one for hazardous
waste, one for electronics and one for salvaged personal possessions - cover
the front lawn. The house will seem tiny by comparison.
Along with my wife, Mickie, and several hundred other volunteers, I recently
spent two weeks gutting houses in St. Bernard Parish, southeast of New
Orleans. Every morning, after awaking in our tent-camp cots, we would don
overalls, steel-toed boots, masks, gloves and hard hats and tear apart some
of the 150,000 homes that Hurricane Katrina submerged in and around New
It was humbling and exhausting work. At times, we wondered why any of us
would spend a vacation exposed to mold, snakes and the contents of kitchens
left abandoned for months.
Yet even in moments of doubt, we would see college students arriving by the
hundreds, spending their spring breaks doing this odd form of relief work.
We saw leaders of Habitat for Humanity, AmeriCorps and other groups toiling
16 hours a day, seven days a week, trying to bring coherence to a
We also met residents of St. Bernard Parish, many of whom were overcome with
emotion upon meeting our motley crews. One of these was Earl "Ricky" Alonzo,
a parish firefighter who rode out the flood on a top floor of a high school.
On our last day of work, my wife and I helped 10 others salvage what was
left of Alonzo's childhood home, where his mother lived before evacuating to
Alonzo heard on the scanner that our team was starting work on his mother's
house, so he drove by. An hour later, his two sisters arrived. They both
"How is your mother doing?" asked a neighbor who stopped to talk.
"Crying," said Alonzo. "She is crying all the time."
St. Bernard Parish, which had 65,000 residents before Katrina, is a
blue-collar suburb of brick homes and oil refineries bordered on several
sides by water, including the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet and the river
itself. When the hurricane swept in, waves of water washed over the entire
parish - all 27,000 homes; every school, church and business.
Although we once lived in Louisiana, Mickie and I had never visited St.
Bernard, and it wasn't our first choice of places to do relief work. Largely
white in a region that is predominantly black, the parish was a strong
supporter of white supremacist David Duke during his runs for governor of
Louisiana. Its main boulevard is still named after a famous segregationist,
Judge Leander Perez.
Yet when the parish sought help in January and sent out a Web alert through
Habitat, my wife and I didn't hesitate. Mickie had worked with the Red Cross
in Mississippi after Katrina, and we both were seeking other volunteer
opportunities in the region. St. Bernard had agreed to house volunteers in a
FEMA-run tent city and feed them three meals a day. New Orleans offered
nothing of the sort.
After flying from Sacramento and renting a car at the airport, we arrived in
Chalmette and the tent city, "Camp Premier," and gawked at our surroundings.
An abandoned aluminum plant and a refinery bordered the dusty camp. Scores
of olive-green tents, linked by wood planks, housed 1,300 volunteers and
camp employees, including a phalanx of Wackenhut guards.
As the days wore on and busloads of college students arrived, the basic
functions of the camp started to deteriorate. Porta-potties became
overloaded. Wash stations were in short supply. Teenagers returning from
gutting homes formed long lines at the shower stalls, some wearing their
filthy boots into the showers.
It wasn't the Ritz, but, as we all knew, it could have been worse. While
touring the area, we saw people crowded into trailers, sleeping on the
ground in pup tents and setting up furniture in their gutted homes. One day,
we worked in a local soup kitchen, handing out Meals Ready To Eat to people
who seemed grateful to receive a beef stew MRE.
Under the house-gutting program, property owners could sign up to have their
homes gutted and later treated for mold as long as they didn't have major
structural damage. Habitat was among the groups that agreed to help, even
though its historic role has been to build houses, not tear them apart.
The first house we tackled was a typical St. Bernard home - a three-bedroom
brick ranch house, located at 108 Nutria Drive in the town of Arabi. After
breaking out the door, we peered inside to see a brown gumbo of furniture,
dishes, books and carpets all thrown together. The room was dark and ripe
Our team of 12 - two lawyers, five journalists, a contractor and various
other volunteers from around the country - had undergone training a day
earlier. But there is no way to prepare for this.
How would one know, for instance, that air ducts in the attic would be
filled with stinky flood water, which would rain down on you once the ducts
How do you gird yourself to go into a child's room and then shovel up their
soggy toys - their Barbie dolls, their teddy bears, their "Finding Nemo"
The refrigerator was always the most daunting challenge. First you clear a
path; then you lasso the beast with duct tape. The key was to turn the
fridge upright, wrestle it onto a hand truck and move it out of the house
before its contents - 6-month-old food - started leaking onto the floor.
People later would ask me: Why had these homes been left with wet contents
for so long? Why hadn't they been gutted months ago?
There are no easy answers. Having lost everything, many St. Bernard
homeowners lacked the funding - $5,000 to $8,000 - to get their homes
gutted, aired out and treated with fungicide. Some property owners couldn't
physically do the work or handle the trauma of picking through their lost
It is also hard to know how many of these homes will be rebuilt. Much
depends on the levees, new building codes and revised floodplain maps that
FEMA will soon produce. Without adequate flood protection, St. Bernard and
its property owners will be unable to obtain loans to reconstruct their
homes and businesses.
While the future of St. Bernard remains uncertain, I have no qualms about
the work we did. We met scores of big-hearted people, both locals and
outside volunteersand were part of a project that gutted more than 200 homes
in two weeks. With each house we cleared, we helped save residents thousands
of dollars and recovered some of their lost possessions. We also were doing
basic environmental work - separating electronic and hazardous waste from
the mounds of debris headed to Gulf Coast landfills.
On one of our last days, some of our crew stopped by Brad's, a local bar
where a jukebox played Lynyrd Skynyrd and cigarette smoke filled the air. As
we bellied up to the bar, some of the locals identified us as Habitat
volunteers. Before long, people were buying us drinks.
I felt ashamed accepting beers from people who have lost so much, but in the
back of my mind, I realized this was a reciprocal arrangement. Sacramento is
a floodplain, and much of California is threatened by earthquakes. Someday
the tables will be turned, and we will rely on the kindness of strangers.
About the writer:
Reach Associate Editor Stuart Leavenworth at (916) 321-1185 or
sleavenworth at sacbee.com.
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