Katrina +5: a dispatch from New Orleans

I knew that I would have a lot of free time on my hands during my 5 days in New Orleans (my husband, John, and his team made the bridge Grand Nationals, and the games run from 1 PM to 11 PM daily).  So I decided to find an organization to volunteer with while in town.  Many people and groups are still doing recovery work and the city still needs a lot of help.  There are hundreds of houses still in post-Katrina condition.  Then there are the houses that were restored and now need to be gutted and rehabbed all over again.  That’s the kind of project to which I was assigned.

Back in May, I began searching for a volunteer organization that could use me for a couple of days.  I found a website called “HandsOn New Orleans” that coordinates with a number of local organizations.  Through that site, I found Beacon of Hope, a local group that has a number of restoration projects going in different parts of town, including the Ninth Ward, Gentilly, and St. Bernard.

Beacon arranged for me to spend 2 days working on a house in the St Bernard area (map here).  The houses in St. Bernard seem to have been mostly built after World War II, bungalows, ranches, and the like—more modern looking that a lot of houses in New Orleans.

What I did not realize until my second day at the house was how close it is to one of the canals with a levee that was breached—within 6 blocks.  The first time I went to the house, I took the St. Bernard bus (route 51) up to the neighborhood and it dropped me off at Paris Ave. and Filmore.  I walked about a block east on Filmore and turned down the street I was looking for—never noticing the incline ahead to the bridge over the canal and the long levee wall that stretched in either direction.  The second day, however, I missed the route 51 bus and took the route 52 bus instead, the St. Bernard-St. Anthony route.  It dropped me off on Filmore in the other direction, so I had a much longer walk that took me up and over the canal.  When you cross over the canal, you actually are at or above rooftop height.  At that point I got a better understanding of what happened to houses in the neighborhood when the levee was breached.

When I first got to the street I was looking for, I saw a number of houses that were still untouched and wondered if I would be working on one of those (there are photos online here of both the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard).  The house on the corner where I turned right was occupied.  There was a vacant, very overgrown lot behind it, and then two vacant houses that were in post-hurricane condition.  On the left side of the street, the house on the corner was abandoned looking—waist-high weeds across the sidewalk.  The lot behind it was empty, except for jungle-like overgrowth.  Then there were two houses that looked occupied, except for the giant dumpster full of drywall sitting in front of the second, a lovely cream-colored house on a raised foundation with a plywood ramp running up the middle of the front stairs.

A pick-up truck was sitting across the street with a magnetic “Beacon of Hope” logo on the door.  I met Ashley from the office and we sat to wait for Shane, the contractor in charge.  He arrived with his son, Dan, and we set about opening up the house to let it air out before getting to work—vital in the 90+ degree heat.

Shane gave me the background on the project.  The lady who owns the house lost a house in Katrina.  She needed a home for herself and her two children, a son and a daughter.  She found the house we were working on in its post-Katrina state and it seemed to the salvageable.  So she bought it and hired a contractor.  The project apparently became increasingly expensive, to the tune of $400,000 or so—but it was finally finished.  The new owner moved in with her daughter and, when the school year ended, her son joined her.

At first everything seemed to be going well.  But after a couple of weeks her son, who has asthma, started having more frequent and serious attacks.  Finally, he ended up in the emergency room.  The medical staff questioned her about the house and they finally suggested a possible culprit:  Chinese drywall.  The homeowner had the walls tested and the problem was confirmed.

Now, if you have not heard the stories about Chinese drywall, there are plenty of documented cases of the problems that it poses.  The drywall from China is contaminated with chemicals that give off a sulfurous rotten-egg or chemical smell, including hydrogen sulfide.   It also produces corrosive fumes that attack things made of copper—like pipes, electrical wire, and air conditioner condensers.  You know, those parts of the house that make living there safe, possible, and more pleasant.  The advantage to contractors who choose this product is that it is plentiful (an important consideration after a disaster) and, not a surprise here, cheap.

For the second time since Katrina, the homeowner found herself and her family homeless.  Because of the high cost of the initial rehab, she was strapped to pay for the problems to be corrected.  The insurance company did not want to pay for the work either:  it’s pollution related, and they don’t cover pollution (kind of like after Katrina when they did not want to pay for houses destroyed when the levees broke, calling the damage “flood” damage, not “storm” damage, and therefore, “not covered” damage.)  She moved her family into an apartment until the house could be repaired.

The contaminated house became one of the Beacon of Hope projects.  Unlike Habitat for Humanity, Beacon does not build homes from scratch (a fact which some volunteers apparently find disappointing).  Shane took over supervising the demolition, documentation of the defects, and rebuilding.  The project is supposed to be complete in six months.  One of the only hopes of recompense for the homeowner is a class-action lawsuit against the manufacturers of the Chinese drywall.  It’s a long-shot, at best.

When I arrived, the drywall had been removed from the walls and was stacked against the walls from which it was removed, awaiting documentation.  That’s what I did for two hot, sweaty days (it was in the low 90s with the typical high Gulf Coast humidity).  It was actually noticeably cooler outside the house.

I don’t know how much work you’ve done with drywall.  In two words:  it sucks.  The sheets are heavy, awkward, fragile, and unbelievably dusty.  Normally, when you take down walls, you don’t worry too much about keeping the wallboard intact and a wrecking bar becomes your best friend.  However, these walls had to be disassembled, which is almost as time consuming as putting them up.  But, for legal purposes, it had to be done that way as we had to document each piece of drywall in terms of which room it was used in, its location in the room (specific wall or ceiling), its dimensions, and any manufacturer’s identification found on the back of each piece.  Some pieces which fell apart on removal, lay in piles like so many jigsaw puzzle pieces.  And like a jigsaw puzzle, it had to be reassembled.  Also, like many assemble-it-yourself projects, there are leftovers that seem to belong nowhere.

So, each piece of drywall was carried into the staging area in the great room and laid on its face with its back exposed.  Each piece was logged in a notebook and given an id code.  The code was written on the back in as many as 4 places:  at one end under the tape (the tape at the ends of drywall are unique to the manufacture), under the name of the manufacture (in this case, “Knauf-Tianjin”), under the country of origin (“China”), and under the sheet’s serial number.  Some sheets have all four of these identifiers, some “mystery pieces” had none (and just get one label in the middle).  Then each piece of drywall was photographed—one photo for each id tag and one aerial shot showing all the tags.  The last one was usually taken from a step ladder.  It’s appreciably hotter on top of the ladder, above the range of the open windows and fan on the floor.

Each room had to have physical samples taken from both the ceiling and the walls.  That means cutting a 1-foot by 1-foot id-labeled square from a sheet and removing the manufacturers’ tape from the end of the same piece.  Each piece of evidence is put into a separate quart-size zip-closed freezer bag with the homeowner’s name and address on it, and then double-bagged.  The bags are picked up nightly.

After all the documentation and photography, the drywall is carried out to the dumpster that was my initial clue as to the identity of the house.  After two days of work, there’s another couple of hours of documentation remaining.

While I was there on the second day, two men showed up to strip the wire from most of the house—it could be sold for scrap, but not reused for electrical work because it was damaged by the fumes.

Then the rebuilding can begin—again.

I’m glad I was able to help out in some small way.  This experience made me wonder about the level of duplication or waste.  Disasters attract a lot of well-meaning professionals and volunteers.  But they also attract flocks of vultures, would-be contractors or fly-by-night operators who do shoddy work or just take the money and run.  How much of our donations or recovery money has gone to these kinds of rip-off artists?  We have no way of knowing.  How much farther along would New Orleans be in recovery if we were not redoing the initial rehab work?  Again, we have no way of knowing.

Undoubtedly, the answer is a “farther along than it is.”

Cross-posted on Scholars & Rogues: http://wp.me/p4854-4zd

hydrogen sulfide

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