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Friday, October 21, 2005

Getting Back to New Orleans

I am a member of the Evanston Meeting of Friends (Quakers) and we have been working to help a musical group in New Orleans. Shades of Praise is an inter-racial gospel choir in NOLA that was scattered across the country by Katrina. The Evanston Quakers received the following message from Allison, one of the members of the choir, who recently returned to the city:

"Sunday Oct 16th

As soon as I crossed into northern Mississippi, hours north of New Orleans, there were scores of trees down all along the highway and dozens of crews working to clear them. About two hours north of New Orleans, the green highway signs were bent over backwards. I had to whip my head around to get a glance at them upside down after passing them to identify my exit.

When I exited the highway, still an hour and a half north of New Orleans, most of the buildings from Poplarville to Covington had "blue roofs." That's the term for the tarps FEMA is stringing across the holes in people's roofs. until you can get a roofer to your house to fix it. Waiting for the roofer may take weeks. Waiting for FEMA can take almost as long. Lots of folks are risking the roof walk to strap up the huge blue tarps themselves.

Telephone lines were down across the road. Crews everywhere working to restore this and that. But the most shocking thing for me was arriving at Paula's in Covington. This beautiful home in a lovely wooded setting now looks like a logger's camp. Dozens of trees are down. Tractor tracks all over the yard where clearing of fallen trees has taken place. Paula assured me, "This looks like a natural disaster. New Orleans looks like a very unnatural disaster."

The next morning Paula accompanied me into New Orleans. Valerie and Alice were already at my house. Valerie wanted to be sure I would not see it for the first time by myself.

I took a route boarding the Industrial Canal, an area that never was very pretty. Now it was quite a bit less pretty and rather deserted.

My neighborhood was quite deserted. We pulled in front of the house. There was a huge pile of garbage out front. But the house had on it a colorful, handwritten sign that said, "Welcome home, Allison. Love, your house." Clearly the handiwork of Valerie and Alice.

The shutters were all flung open. I walked up the steps and my office was stripped bare, the floor covered in dust, and some of the sheet rock wall already torn out. This did not look like my house. This looked like an amazing architectural gem of a house in an abandoned town. A house that itself had been abandoned, but its mantle pieces, hard wood floors, and cypress columns were still stunning. "Somebody ought to fix this house up. What an amazing house," I kept thinking.
My friends had spared me the greatest shock. By arriving days before me, and stripping out as much moldy stuff as they could, the house didn't look like mine. It wasn't my house that sat there in ruins. Just this gorgeous architectural gem.

Alice, Valerie, and Paula watched me wander through the house, worried looks on their faces. But it wasn't till I opened one of the bathroom cabinets and saw my stuff in there. That's when the shock started to set in. I recognized this stuff. It was my stuff. What was it doing here????

Oh. this is my house.. and it was a mess!

I didn't know where to start. My toiletries were in a heap of mold at the bottom of the cabinet. Should I try to wipe each off? Throw them out? Leave them? What was I supposed to do?

Valerie gave me instructions. "Allison" she said gently, "the next step is to start wiping the mold off the antiques. We've carried them all out to the driveway. They look largely salvageable. Some will definitely need some expert care. But the next thing we need to do is to wipe off the antiques."

So I started.

I've been working on the house for 4 days now, usually with Valerie, sometimes with other friends. And everyday the garbage pile in front of the house has gotten bigger. What was I able to salvage? Well, look around your house at everything that is at least one foot off the ground. Most of this I was able to salvage. Most of my books, CDs, and clothes. (Although the clothes have required multiple washings with ammonia to get the mold smell out). My shoes are history as is all my upholstered furniture.. My mattresses and pillows must be tossed because of mold spore contamination, but my bedding is largely salvageable because it can be washed. My artwork, my knick knacks, dishes, and some pots and pans are OK. And then (there was) an assortment of useless items that I happened to have stored in plastic bins. One bin full of sarongs. One bin full of little purses. One bin full of gloves and scarves. And some of the antiques look salvageable, with a fair amount of professional help.

So suddenly I find myself moving. moving out of my house. but moving to nowhere. I don't have anywhere to move this stuff. And there are no available self-storage units for 50-100 miles around New Orleans. But I've got to get it all out as fast as I can lest this stuff, too, contracts mold. And also to give the house more chance to breathe. I have no electricity, and I won't have power until I get the house completely rewired. So the only hope for getting rid of the mold in the house is to tear out the wet sheet rock, tear out the cabinets, and leave the windows open.

I keep praying it won't rain.

And New Orleans is barely able to support a mold remediation project of this size. I'd say only about 1/8 of the stores that are on "high ground" are now open (and high ground accounts for only about ¢® of the entire city). And those stores that are open have only reduced hours. If I don't get to the grocery store by 4:00, it closes. And the lines are long.

For the first three days, I kept missing my opportunities to get to a store. Luckily Alice had done some major shopping in Houston and had stocked us with plenty of bleach, ammonia, gloves, masks, hand-sanitizer, etc. etc. And friends kept inviting me over to eat, or brought sandwiches by the house. Had they not, I wouldn't have eaten.

New Orleans is a sad, sad place. Even in Uptown, which was the least affected, every house has a refrigerator and a great deal of debris in front of it. Trees are down all over the place, and blue roofs abound. And Lakeview, which was one of the hardest hit, is completely brown. There is barely a living thing in Lakeview. By the second day there, I was so grateful to drive back across the lake to the "logging camp" where the birds are chirping and everyone is not walking around with a drooping head.

Last night there was a gathering of the Shades of Praise. There are about 20 of us back in town. We've been working hard to help every member of Shades of Praise to come back. Finding apartments, paying rental deposits when necessary, getting people some cash so they can buy a few basic household items. 20 out of 65 is a huge accomplishment, and I was overjoyed to see who was in attendance at the gathering. I got some of the biggest hugs I've ever gotten in my life. And for the first time I was in a room full of people, half of whom had lost much more than I had. Gary, after hugging me said, "How's your house?" I shook my head sadly. "How's yours?" I asked. "Gone," he said. "But more importantly," he asked, "how are all your loved ones?" "Fine, fine" I answered, as tears welled up in my eyes. Little did he know that he was one of the loved ones I had been worried about the most.

The Shades are all accounted for now, but we won't rest until all, who want to be, are back in New Orleans. Last night, the 20 of us stood in a circle, held hands, and with Al's familiar accompaniment, we sang, "Let Your presence fill this place." Tears rolled down our faces.

My plan for now is to stay in Covington with Paula and Jim. They have a couple extra bedrooms, and Paula has agreed to move her office out of one of them so I can live here. They also have a little attic storage space where I can stash my ridiculous abundance of artwork, knick knacks, and bin of small purses. I talked this morning with my sister about the antiques to try to determine the real value of each. I may send some to her, and some to my cousin. I definitely want to travel
lighter. Several times a day I mutter something about the ridiculous amount of stuff I own. Valerie keeps reminding me that compared to most people, I have very little stuff. But right now, if I had my druthers, I'd have just a little condo in the sky.

To those of you who have contributed to Shades of Praise, thank you, thank you, thank you!!!! Shades is the bright spot in all this for me.Rebuilding New Orleans will be hard and oftentimes very sad work. Shades of Praise is my source of hope and joy, laughter and song. A couple of you emailed and asked how you could contribute. The easiest way is through our web site at

Please forgive me for not answering all your emails individually. I am still quite overwhelmed with emails and phone calls. Paula's phone isn't working (actually her number is ringing at someone else's house!) and I am running through my cell phone minutes fast just in talking to adjusters, calling my credit card company, figuring out where I can get my mail, etc. etc. I hope that this email is a reasonable, if somewhat less than satisfying response.

I love you all dearly. And please please know that it is your love and support and all your offers of help, that have helped me to trust. to know that no matter what (and this was a darned big "what"), I will be OK, I will be taken care of, and I will be loved. Thank you!


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