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April 29, 2006

New Orleans Katrina Clean Up Day Seven

Final day - Saturday.

No work today. Just packing up, getting processed out of camp, and heading to the airport for home.

I'm not sure how my posting this week has come off. I've tried to chronical things in a fairly straight forward way. In retrospect, as I read it back, I worry that it lacks a bit of dimension. There is just so much going on, it is hard to pull it together at the end of the day.

Still, I hope you've enjoyed my notes and more so, hope that you are inspired to volunteer here at some time.

Dan Deneweth noted some statistics from the camp bulletin board. Habitat for Humanity, for this camp, has a set goal of gutting 5,000 homes. To date they've done about 1,100. Dan indicated that this week our camp had done 80 homes! So, that completed number is closer to 1,200 now - and we didn't work Wednesday!

This was done with about 500 volunteers in camp this week, as I understand it. The camp can accomodate 2,500.

So, clearly there is more that needs to be done, and more help can always be used. I'm not going to implore anyone to do it, but by all means, if you can do this, I can't recommend it enough.

Would I do it again? Absolutely.

Thanks again to Return Path for sponsoring our team here. Honestly, I would have had no idea that this was going on, and no real chance of creating this opportunity for myself. I think the entire team from Return Path is grateful for the chance to do this.

I know we all appreciate our co-workers covering for us in our absence and we all miss our families and friends.

Information on how to help here is somewhat obscure if you just go to the main Habitat for Humanity site. I'm sure this is my naivity as well, and that there are many other organizations helping down here. Just google it.

If you are interested for yourself, or better, for some organized group you are a part of, start with a Google search on Habitat and Louisianna.

Once I am home for a day or two, I'll post my photos.

See you back in Colorado!

Posted by gcrgcr at 9:29 AM | Comments (1)

April 28, 2006

New Orleans Katrina Clean Up Day Six

Friday. Our last day of work.

This was my favorite day of work so far.

We awoke and did the now typical morning routine: mess hall, team meeting, gear prep and check, get lunch, prep cooler, etc.

The bus let us off in our neighborhood and we started with the home which we left at about 90% completion yesterday. I think we spent about an hour, maybe 90 minutes here, finishing up. We had some drywall and insulation that still needed to come down, as well as a plywood ceiling in one room that hadn't collapsed on its own.

I'm not sure that I mentioned some of the extraction methodology for gutting houses. When you bring stuff out, you classify them into four piles:

So, as we finished up at 2404 Paul street, we moved the Valuables pile back into the home. This is particularly sad, as I said, because there is so little left compared to everything else. In this pile there was a photo album of some sort, hand crafted, that had the word "Niece" on the cover, in some sort of puffy, crafts type glue. I'm not sure how much of what is in it is recoverable, but the neighbor had told me that the niece had bought the house to keep it in the family, so I was glad we found this for them.

So, we closed out house number two, grabbed up all our tools and hoofed it down the street to 2209, a large home, where we joined with another team that had already started there today.

In fact, as other teams wrapped up their houses this morning, they joined as well to assist with this larger home. We ended up with four teams of ten working here.

I enjoyed watching how the smaller teams interacted and behaved in a larger group setting. As someone from our team said, in I think a "Survivor" reference, it was like the "merging of the tribes".

For the most part, there was little discomfort or trouble with merging. A few squabbles here and there over gutting technique variance and some territorial issues (I'm gutting this room), but mostly things worked themselves out fine. This was a much larger home by square footage but still not a lot of space for 40 people to be gutting and removing debris.

All in all, I was impressed and it worked out fairly well.

This home was more like our first home. LOTS of river muck covering floors, extremely pungent and heavy. It takes a lot of scooping to clear a room. It takes some level of intestinal fortitude to do the scooping for any sustained amount of time and not toss your cookies.

I can't really describe the odor, but, I will always remember it. I'm sure I can speak for the entire team when I say that they will remember it too.

Refrigerators. I hadn't mentioned this yet either. Refrigerators are one of the first things that must be secured and removed. Think about it. A box full of food that has been partially or entirely submerged in water for an extended amount of time. Now, nearly eight months later we need to remove it. So, the trick is DO NOT OPEN THE FRIDGE. We've been told that teams that have had a fridge open on them while extracting have gotten "the big stink". The stench is so bad, the teams must abandon the home and no one goes back for two to three days!

The key is to secure the doors with duct tape, rope, extension cords, whatever you can find. Often the refrigerators have floated around the house, and landed in strange places and on different sides. This creates additional challenges for removal in may cases.

At our last house, the refrigerator was doors up in the hallway, blocking access to the back bedrooms. Dan Deneweth and I removed a freezer as well, that was loaded with now rotten food and river juice, from a laundry room where it was stacked oddly on top of the overturned dryer.

One of the three refrigerators that needed removed today was already partially open, on its face. We had to secure it, and as we pushed it upright, keep the doors from opening further. That stench is another that is overpowering and which I won't forget.

Blech! So, after that I needed a break.

I headed down the street to the "pot o gold" facilities. On my way back I stopped and spoke to the folks at the end of the street. Their house has the city water tower in its back yard. The city is Mereaux, LA, and no, this is not a hurricane induced situation, the tower is large, sturdy, and didn't float there. It has always been there.

The owners had signed up with Habitat for Humanity to have their home gutted, and had just arrived to check on their house.

Needless to say, they were beside themselves. The man, whose father was there with him, told me his story.

Fortunately he had sent his wife and two girls ahead of the storm to relatives in Indiana. He stayed behind, I guess thinking that the storm wouldn't be "that bad". He ended up trapped in his attic and on his roof for nine days.

He said his house was full of snakes (including the deadly water moccasins we have heard a lot about here). He gashed his leg and treated it himself with a first aid kit in his attic. He sat in his boat, moored to his home, for several hours as cars, trees, debris, and even bodies, floated into and past him.

Apparently he was interviewed on the Today show at some point as one of the "last men out" of the area.

Looking at his gutted home, you think he'd be sad and distraught, with the rebuild effort and financial hurdles ahead. Nope. He was amazed what the Habitat team had done, and so very thankful for the effort. He couldn't express what this meant to him and how difficult a task it would have been on his own. He gave me a hug and I wasn't even on the team who gutted his house!

He seemed concerned that the 2006 hurricane season is only four weeks away. It sounds as though he and other folks are waiting to see how that goes, along with continued levee repairs now and following this hurricane season, before making complete rebuild decisions.

I told him we'd be back in two or three years to see the finished rebuild, and he said we are all welcome anytime.

I imagine that many of us whenever we visit New Orleans in the future, will certainly think of and hopefully visit Paul St. I will.

Posted by gcrgcr at 11:18 PM | Comments (0)

April 27, 2006

New Orleans Katrina Clean Up Day Five

After getting yesterday off, our entire team was eager to get started on a new house.

The weather was much nicer following the storms that rolled through here yesterday. Bright sunshine, 78 degree high, and humidity low enough that I don't think we noticed it at all.

Looking back and evaluating our process and performance for gutting our first house, we had decided that getting just over half-way complete today would be a reasonable goal.

The ultimate goal would be to finish our house by tomorrow, so we could leave two families with completed efforts.

That plan got off to a good start with the house we were assigned. This was definitely in better shape than the first one. Don't get the wrong idea here, it was still in need of complete gutting.

There was water in the home at high level for a long time. But the ceiling hadn't fallen completely and throughout, there was not much carpet, the square footage was less, and there was less muck and pungent odor.

We did get our pungent odors though - the storage room, piled high with "stuff" and there were something like five or six aquariums in this home. Some for fish, others we think for turtles or snakes. Either way, they were filled with river water and sludge and have been percolating just for us...

We hadn't yet had an owner show up while we were working on their home. Today, I noticed a neighbor and spoke to him. He was living with his sister and brother-in-law now. He is from Hopedale, which he described as a fishing community. The houses are all up on large columns. His four bedroom house was completely swept away. His account was that Hopedale is basically gone - compared to the neighborhood we are working in now, that says a lot.

As for the house gutting, as I said, things definitely set up better for us, however, I have to say, our team just did a phenomenal job. We were definitely well rested and more experienced, and we tore right into it. We are quite efficient together and everyone just did so great.

To sum things up in terms of performance - at the end of each shift, the work site leaders come by and evaluate progress in terms of percent completion. Our first house on Monday, we got to 45% - and that was probably being pretty generous.

Today, we doubled that - 90% complete at the end of our shift. Booya! We almost closed this thing out!

So, needless to say we were all very proud of our collective and individual efforts. Tomorrow we should be able to wrap this up quickly and hopefully start another. Rumor was we may be put with another team or two on a much larger house. We will see.

Still having a great time, working hard and definitely making a difference. I think we'd all be willing to stay much longer to do this work, there is so much that needs to be done. I can't say enough about the volunteer efforts here, there is much more to do, and I'm sure the help will be needed for a long, long time.

Still, I think we are all looking forward to coming home.

Posted by gcrgcr at 4:41 PM | Comments (0)

New Orleans Katrina Clean Up Day Four

I didn't get to post yesterday, so doing a quick update on Day Four. It can be summed up rather easily.


We bedded down the night before, and awoke to the sound of rain and thunder. The rain intensified several time and was mostly unrelenting. Torrential, maybe at times.

Since I have my trusty ol' computer here, I scoped out the weather.com satellite view. I should have saved that to show you.

The entire US was pretty much clear. This very large orange-red blob was covering the entire lower portion of Louisianna.

So - by 9:30 am we got official word from the camp officials that work was off. It was actually clearing in the western sky at that time - still, the sites would have been too dangerous with all the water on the ground.

So, we rounded up and headed into New Orleans for some sight seeing. Had some good food - muffalettas and po'boys and such. Also coffee and doughnuts (beignets). Maybe a beer or two, I don't recall...

Anyway, we were back on camp ground well before curfew, and tucked in for Thursday's effort.

Posted by gcrgcr at 4:15 PM | Comments (0)

April 25, 2006

New Orleans Katrina Clean Up Day Three

It is day three for us here in Camp Premier, though it is only day two of actual work. After starting our first house yesterday, we were eager to finish it off if we could.

We began in what is becoming routine of sorts, slightly different for each of us, but probably largely similar: wake, go to mess tent to eat, get dressed, team meet-up, prep gear and cooler, load onto bus, go to work site.

Three days in and we are indoctrinated fairly well.

The word for today is "humid". Wow. Temperatures were not bad, and much of the time clouds would slide in front of the sun, but boy were we wet. Only 20 minutes into it, my shirt was soaked, and my jeans fell like they were being pulled to the ground by gravity. Still, I appreciated the slightly cooler temperature in general - but humidity can just make you uncomfortable.

Working on our house today, I realized that there are really two phases of work. Yesterday we moved things and scooped muck. A massive undertaking in itself. We did get some light stripping in - our house had wood paneling covering every wall in the house, including closets.

So, today, with most of the things moved and scooped, we began the second phase, the actual gutting.

This is the phase that can be fun at times, particularly when you have a need to use the sledgehammer.

We still had the master bedroom and bathroom to clear. Ugh. The bedroom included a queen size mattress and box spring, a bureau, lots of clothes and about 4 inches of much on every square foot of the room.

Half of the room was carpeted. Oh, carpet. I forgot to mention that yesterday. It is a lot harder to scoop muck off of carpet. Also, the carpet itself must be then be removed, after you've scooped muck off of it and cleared the entire room. It, like everything else, is wet and heavy.

Innovative as we are, and doubtless the crews around and before us do this as well, we use large strips of carpet to drag/haul out drywall and other debris. As some of the volunteer trainers had told us on Sunday, "try to touch things once" - get it in a wheelbarrow or onto a sheet or whatever you can find to drag it out.

The master bathroom had the worst muck. I simply can't describe the pungent odors released with each scoop. The bathtub was filled with water, but was probably more like raw sewage at this point. We were allowed to leave that as is.

While a few of us finished off the bedroom, everyone else proceeded with the actual gutting of the house. Ripping down the paneling, drywall and insulation. Lighting fixtures, ceiling and baseboard molds, everything you can think of comes out. The only things you leave are the water heater and toilets.

This family had a large aquarium in the home. It was smashed up and we imagine the fish may have been happy to be free for a short while. We found what we think as a "pet fish" embedded in the drywall about eye level in the master bedroom.

There is lots of activity in the neighborhood as you work. The other three teams that come out with us on our bus are each at various houses up and down the street. Construction trucks and other large sanitation or cleanup vehicles trawl the streets. Not sure if they are going to jobs or looking for them.

There are home owners at some of the houses. Many have trailers or RVs parked on the lawns, hooked into electricity and septic, for living while they figure out what they are doing with their house.

As we ate lunch in the car port of an abandoned home next to ours, the neighbor on the other side came over and chatted to us. As we've heard from others, he expressed just how much the community appreciates the volunteers. He said people here talk about "us" everyday.

We talked to an estimator/contractor hired to demolish the house on the other side of ours. He said most "gutting" efforts produce 75 to 150 cubic yards of debris. He figured we had over 75, which for a single level dwelling I think is a lot. Our pile was massive (I'll post pictures later).

I think about the amount of work we did in two days. 10 of us, say 6 hour shifts for two days - 120 man hours. It is really quite remarkable what we did, and I can't imagine these families doing it on their own. The cost to have your house professionally gutted, we here, is 5 to 10 thousand dollars. That has to make a big difference to these folks, and I am glad we were here to do it.

Tonight we head into New Orleans, the French quarter, for some well deserved time "off base". The mess tent has good eats, but I am looking forward to some local grub.

We should start a new house tomorrow, so more to come on our adventures here through the week.

Posted by gcrgcr at 10:29 PM | Comments (0)

April 24, 2006

New Orleans Katrina Clean Up Day Two

Wow. Day two turned out to be a lot of work, but very exhilarating and remarkable.

As I mentioned yesterday, we are in a FEMA run facility operated by the Federal Government. As an Ops person, I have to say, I quite enjoy the process and procedure that abounds here. Straight forward and simple rules. Clear structure and reason for all parts of the camp. Things run pretty darn well.

Anyway, the teams here go out in two waves. The first teams go out to the work sites at 7:30, so need to be up by no later than 6 probably. The second teams go out to the sites at 8:30. We are a second wave team. So, we were up around 6:45 today.

No one showers (why bother) so it is over to the mess tent for breakfast. In addition to a Team Captain each team has a Tool Captain. Ours is fellow co-worker Harry Pallick. Harry, as Tool captain, gets up earlier than we do, gets all of our teams tools inventoried and prepped, and leaves for the work site earlier than us. He also stays behind at the site after we leave as well, securing the tools until the tool truck comes by.

By the way, Harry is napping over on his cot in our tent as I type this. The life of a Tool Captain!

Following breakfast our team meets at 8:00 for a team meeting. Together we review that everyone is there, has appropriate Personal Protection Equipment, and their FEMA sack lunch.

Our "cooler team" - Jeremy McGuire and Paul from Boston - head over to pack our water cooler for the team. They recommend each team member drink 1 or 2 bottles per hour during the work shift. We take as much as we can, about 90 or so. As is the procedure prescribed, we mix frozen water bottles with regular ones. This cools the regular ones. Later at the site we open the cooler and let the frozen ones thaw.

Once an assigned bus arrives, each to transport four teams to the job, we load the coolers and hop on. We finally make it to our first home site about 9 am. We are at 2500 Paul Drive.

The good news is, our house has a large doorway in the front, probably was a sliding glass door or french doors. The bad news is, we can't really even take a step in.

The debris and furniture are pretty much completely blocking our way. As we force in a bit, we step into dark green muck and start to get a sense of whatmay have happened here.

The ceiling is on the floor. Drywall, insulation, ceiling tiles - everything. Differs slightly depending on the room. In this home, the living room has a nice 12 foot or so vaulted ceiling. All of that ceiling is on the floor.

Lookint high on the wall, we can see the water line from the storm at about 10 ft. This is a single story house and is maybe 15 feet tall in total to the top of the roof. Even on the roof during the storm there would have been little room for safety. Freaky, scary, and sad.

We worked hard to clear the rooms and make our way in. Removing large items first, couches, chairs, the ceiling, whatever is in your way.

The floor has anywhere from 3 to 6 inches of river mud on it. Everywhere. EVERYWHERE. We scoop, and scoop, and scoop. This is heavy, wet, silt, mud. It is on everything, soaked into everything, making everything very heavy.

I wish I could post my photos, but I don't have my transfer cable. I'll post them later, but they still may not do it justice.

Gutting the house is definitely a mix of emotion.

First, there is the sheer work of it. It is hot. 85 degrees and maybe 45 percent humidity, outside. Inside is hotter until you can get some windows opened or smashed out.

We are wearing a hard hat, long pants, short or long sleeves, an air respirator over our mouths, protective eye goggles and work boots.

Along with the work there is a definite feeling of challenge and motivation. "We can do this" and "Let's go!" are on the mind.

As you get into it, and slow down due to the conditions and work, that fades a bit, but not completely. For the most part, we stay upbeat and moving. Continual progress.

Amazement sets in, definitely as you get into personal belongings, hoping to find valuables and memorabilia that can be salvaged. Furniture, like desks just fall apart as you pull out drawers. Still you look hopefully for something of value or sentiment that can be returned to the owners. It is sad to peel through stacks of photos, glommed together by the moisture, and find none with anything left but smears of ink that are not recognizable.

Essentilly you are awestruck at what has happened here. Total loss. Photo albums, clothes, letters, furniture, literally everything a family had, is in here and is ruined.

It is a good thing we are here. All of these volunteers. I can't imagine how much more work needs done. I'm glad we came.

I know this, we will work just as hard, if not harder through the week. And, we will sleep better and better each night!

Posted by gcrgcr at 6:53 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 23, 2006

New Orleans Katrina Clean Up Day One

The quick background, for those who may not know where I am currently.

My gracious employer, Return Path, has sponsored six of us on a volunteer effort in New Orleans for the post-Katrina clean up efforts.

Before I go into arrival details, quickly I want to mention what a great opportunity Return Path has provided us. Specifically Matt Blumberg our CEO who has made community service an important part of our corporate tapestry.

Return Path sourced the opportunity, provided most of the organizational horsepower, and ultimately has paid for our travel and rental vehicles.

Thank you Return Path!

Now, to the effort. We are specifically working in St. Bernard Parish, one of the more devasated areas. As I understand it, there are 27,000 homes in need of "gutting" or razing here. If our total camp assigned team of 10 does 4 or so in our 6 days here I think that would be amazing. There is a lot that needs done.

Today was spent traveling from Denver to New Orleans. Then, after meeting up with two of my co-workers, we made our way out to our FEMA operated volunteer camp.

We arrived in 45 minutes or so, driving through what I think was largely "the ninth ward". I heard someone mention that, but am not sure what that means.

Along the way, we saw many things. The majority of homes and businesses are still closed, boarded up, in need of cleaning or look unsalvageable. Many have piles of debris out front or all around. Symbols and markings are spray painted on each building, dated and clearly from the very immediate post-Katrina search and rescue efforts.

I saw a tree, oak maybe, that had to be 12 feet in diameter, maybe 50 feet tall or more, ripped out of the ground and sidewalk it had previously been growing near. Whoa.

Our camp is Camp Premier. It is large and well run. There are many tents for bunking. We are staying 12 to a tent, gender separated. We enjoy a large mess hall, with good food, games and activities, all the water and soda you could want.

There is laundry service, about a 24 hour turn around we hear, and hot showers.

Now, following our initial intake registration, receiving IDs, camp tour, team and tool leader meeting (I'm a team leader), team meeting, and orientation, we are finally bedding down for the first day's work.

I'll cover more of what that is like tomorrow. From all of our initial training, I "think" I know what to expect, but again, I'll save that for next time.

Also, much thanks to our co-workers, covering for us back home. We'll do you proud. Also, to my family. Thanks for letting me go, I miss you guys already, but am proud to have come to contribute to this wonderful effort that is so needed.

Until next time...

Posted by gcrgcr at 9:43 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack