Sunday, May 11, 2008

This I Believe

the good folks at NPR's "This I Believe" didn't accept the following essay for broadcast, but since i have this soapbox at my disposal, i reprint it here:

The City That Care Forgot (yet, some of us remember)

I believe, as simplistic as this may sound, that our capacity to continue to evolve as a species is directly related to our willingness to unselfishly reach out to our fellow human beings in times of crisis. And more than just reaching out, I believe that the lengths to which we are willing to go to alleviate the conditions that create crises in the first place, and how far we are willing to go to make things right after the fact, are just as important. I believe that nowhere in America today is that unselfish spirit of person helping person more in evidence, or more needed, than it is in the city of New Orleans.

This may sound odd, given the variety and seriousness of the myriad problems we Americans face in today’s world, but I believe – passionately and fervently – that if we, as individuals and as a country, refuse to respond adequately and appropriately to the tragedy that is present-day New Orleans, we just may be sacrificing a bigger piece of our collective soul than we’re aware of. Having spent the last year-and-a-half of my life, at no small amount of personal sacrifice, trying to make some sort of tangible progress toward responding to the city’s needs, I think I have a perspective that others may lack.

Everyone I meet is happy to tell me all the things they think they know about New Orleans – the government is inept at best, corrupt at worst; the people are all poor and ill-educated; it’s below sea level, so it’s just going to flood again; the police department is helpless to rid the city of guns and crack, or the people all too willing to use them – I’ve heard it all, and some of it’s true.

But I believe the city can come back, better than ever, if we all pitch in to help. In fact, for those who care to look, you can see it beginning to happen, and nowhere do you see it more clearly than in the vast numbers of people who have come here, on their own nickel, to help the city recover. I spend my days putting volunteers to work rebuilding homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, and I have seen first-hand what a powerful, life-affirming force this willingness to give can be, for the giver and the recipient. By shingling a roof, re-wiring a house, sharing a meal, listening to a story or offering a hug, and asking for nothing in return, we exemplify the capacity of the human spirit to conquer, against all odds.

In reaching out to Lower Nine residents, who had everything they owned taken from them in a single day through no fault of their own, these people, many of whom have become more-or-less full-time volunteers, have shown that capacity to touch the lives of others that I believe is so vitally important. And New Orleanians have recognized the importance of that selfless urge to help, and have accepted that help graciously, and welcomed us into their community with open arms.

This, I believe, is the fertile, common ground from which the City That Care Forgot will rise, and be whole again.

Monday, May 5, 2008

another post from herman...

photo by volunteer mike ryan

Today, Friday, was our last day working here in New Orleans. It was a wonderful day in many ways. It was spent with the guys and gals that form the "front lines" of, which I mentioned yesterday. Today we worked directly with some of the long-term volunteers for that group. The oldest of the bunch was 24. They are an inspiration.

Today we were back hanging sheet-rock. This time for Miss Lana W. When we arrived this morning Miss Lana was sitting in a car in front of her home. She was in the hospital having knee surgery when the storm hit. A friend helped her leave during the evacuation of the hospital. They tried to head for Chicago where they had people who could help them, but they got stuck in the traffic that had stopped in the highway just north of Lake Ponchartrain (for the most part, the flooding was south of the lake). Complications with her knee surgery forced them to get her to a hospital in Alabama. She was delighted to meet the people working on her home and I felt I could sense some hope as she saw it beginning to take shape. Her neighborhood is ravaged, but some homes have been completely and beautifully restored on her block. Her home was flooded to a point high on the walls but not submerged: so the demolition crew was able to spare the top couple of feet of wall which is enough to include the original bright boarders around the ceiling: I think she'll like that.

But on to the volunteers: they are a young, upbeat group of souls. Male and female, all with a tool or clipboard within their reach. I didn't learn as much about them individually as I would have liked, but time was short and the noise of power tools loud. There's also the generator chugging along on the side porch. (Miss Lana's home has no electricity yet, either.) But here's a quick snapshot of just two of them. John has quit his job and is taking a hiatus for an extended period to work on rebuilding homes in the 9th Ward. Eventually he is headed for Harvard Divinity School. Ben just graduated from high school last year and has delayed college for a year to work in the 9th Ward. They are both from Boston as I recall.

There were others working with us today and many more young people wandering around the shop and office, headed to various work sites around the neighborhood. Many of these "kids" have been here for months, sleeping on bunk beds, eating at a picnic table next to the small tool shed in the front yard, playing basketball on a lone hoop on a pole at the edge of the street. There is a quiet resolve to get the job done. An exception to the youth is Joe; he wears a shirt that says "not your average Joe" and he is not. He is working as one of the management staff here and works odd jobs 1 day a week to help support his volunteer habit. He has been here several months if I have my facts correct. There is also Matt, another young team leader. Matt has been here since last September when officially began it's rebuilding work.

As I understand it, will train unskilled volunteers. So a person coming here is not only helping to rebuild, but learning a craft at the same time. They appear to be weaving themselves into the fabric of the neighborhood and certainly into the lives of the volunteers.

At one point today an ice-cream truck came down the street. We all dropped our tools and headed for the front yard as one. Standing in the street eating ice cream and telling jokes, with a warm breeze blowing and a strong sense of hope among the ruins provided me with one of those clear moments of pure joy that are all too rare. One of those times when you live only in that moment for what it is and everything else melts away. (OK, not the ice cream; we were eating it too fast for it to melt.) It occurred to me that many of the things that happened here demonstrated a lot of things wrong with our great country, and the seeming neglect since the storm hype has died is appalling. But these people "on the ground" here in the 9th Ward (and other areas that were devastated in this city) demonstrate a hell of a lot of things that are right about this country.

Check out and get a sense of the growing trend of collectively rebuilding New Orleans with the most basic denominator of our way of government; the citizens themselves.

Herman Johansen

Friday, May 2, 2008

things are really moving!

herman, tom, dori, susan and rae ann

the following is a post from herman johansen, a recent volunteer helping us rebuild the lower ninth ward, one house at a time. i promise to get some new rick prose-generated info up soon, right now i'm totally up to my eyeteeth in running what is becoming one of the largest and most-productive rebuild organizations in new orleans.

and wasn't it just a few posts ago that i was talking about how to start a new organization? things are flying along, and i want to thank every one who has supported us so far, in particular, jeff osborn and terri lang and my amazing board of directors and, last but certainly not least, my hand-picked team of superheroes who get up every day in the most devastated neighborhood in america and fight the good fight. i love you all!

and, now, here's herman's post:

"What a day. We spent today in the lower 9th Ward. There are signs of life there, but so many desolate areas. It is an amazing amalgamation of hope and despair. The organization I actually worked with today is, a very grass roots group working out of a house they bought in the 9th Ward and rebuilding homes specifically in that neighborhood. Some of the volunteers there are staying for weeks or even months at a time. I was assigned to work on Eula's house. It turns out that Eula is both typical and unique.

Eula is a "Betsy Baby" having been age 5 when Hurricane Betsy hit in (I believe) 1965. She recounted the story of how her family was rescued by boat but she was accidentally nearly knocked overboard when someone shifted the weight in the boat. Ever since, she "leaves every time there is a hurricane" based on the respect for their potential damage she learned as a child. So as Katrina approached, Eula and her family headed for higher ground. When the levee's broke, Eula's home was completely underwater, as in the water level was above the roof of her home. Only 1 brother stayed behind. He was injured yet swam through the water in their neighborhood helping to rescue some elderly neighbors. After the storm, Eula and 29 of her relatives spent weeks living in 1 home that belongs to her cousin. Eventually some of them found other temporary housing in the area of the cousin's home or other cities around the south and Texas.

Eula had insurance. Eula paid her mortgage a few months in advance to make sure she would never lose her home. She is devoted to her family, her neighborhood. Her Mother has lived all her life in the 9th Ward. She had the same insurance company. That insurance company determined that Eula had a legitimate claim with destruction from the wind and rain, etc. Her mother's claim has so far been denied based on destruction caused by flooding, which policies don't cover. Eula's Mom is 68, diabetic and hypertensive. She was grieving and depressed and wanted to return home, but her house was a complete loss. So Eula takes part of her insurance money and buys her mother a flood damaged but salvagable house in the 9th Ward. She didn't want her Mom to rebuild on her original lot as only one other home on that block is now occupied. Eula then takes the balance of her insurance money and starts a new home on her old lot. She pays for the foundation, the framing, the room, etc. She buys furniture and materials at flea markets. She applies to various federal, state, and charitable organizations to help her finish and get back on her feet. She is denied all assistance because, by spending some of her insurance money to help her mother, she has "misappropriated funds." Finally she applied to; they approved her application and have supplied volunteer labor to work on the house. Today I and two teammates refurbished and worked on the two bathroom sink cabinets (both used and in various states of rough condition) so that sinks can be installed and ready for the plumber she has contracted to come tomorrow. Then we hung some blinds in the kitchen to replace the paper taped over the windows to keep the curious or opportunists from peeking inside. Caulking and other minor jobs were included.

The city won't turn the utilities on until after inspection. Eula is rushing to get licensed plumbers and electricians out to complete their part. She is confident that the city will deny her approval at least once if not twice. That's the "way they do it" she says. The power we used for the saws and drills today comes from a lone extension cord run to the FEMA trailer parked in the front yard that her brother lives in. FEMA will take it back soon and Eula seems almost relieved. Not because it's sitting in her yard, but because she worries that he will get sick from the formaldehyde poisoning. And by the way, when the government placed it there, they covered her sewer lines.

She tells stories of neighbors and friends who came back right away, but Eula didn't do that because she knew that they "would be taken advantage of" by contractors and suppliers and would be "vulnerable" at such an emotional time. But now she is almost home and is anxious to move in.

Sadly, to this point, her story is typical. The following is somewhat unique.

Eula seems to have no bitterness or anger. It may be there, but it doesn't show if it is. She speaks of how "lucky" she is. She watched on TV and heard stories from friends of those who had to lay relatives aside in the Superdome with handwritten name tags on their dead bodies. There are those whose insurance has not paid (like her Mom). There are others who didn't evacuate or had no where to go or who didn't plan ahead. She tells her story with little emotion; she states it as fact, but those facts won't dampen her spirit. She has family, she will very soon be living in her own home again. She has neighbors, she has a heart full of love. I'm a smart-ass and start to kid her about various things. She laughs and proves herself quite capable of holding her own in a battle of sarcasm and wit. The master bath sink is off-center 3/8 of an inch. It bugs the perfectionist streak in me and I mention it to her. She tells me it will "ruin her home:" then she laughs and says "thanks for being here."

In her presence, I somehow feel inadequate and ungrateful for all that I have, yet inspired to be a better person. She agrees to pose for a picture with us. It's pure selfishness on my part. I want to look at it and be reminded of her spirit; of her laugh and slap on the shoulder as we kidded around in the midst of all this pain and suffering.

After knowing Eula only a few hours I decide her family and neighbors are indeed lucky bastards after all."

Herman Johansen