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

1 comment:

Katy C. said...
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