Sunday, April 23, 2006

NOLA Work: What I Did (A Long But Worthwhile Post)

My first day of work was last Friday. I went out with a gut crew to a 'new' house; it had not been visited yet. In fact, it had not been touched since the flood.

The furniture was strewn all over. Personal effects--letters, medicine, toys, photos--were tossed around on the floor. It reminded me that though it must have been extremely tough to leave all your worldly possessions behind, it's more important to make sure everyone survives.

Clothes and bedding littered and clogged the bedroom floors. Everything was piled haphazardly on everything else by the ruthless waters.

The water lines were clear. Mold and mildew stained not only the walls and items below the water lines, but continued creeping up, all the way to the ceiling. It was especially noticable when we got down to the sheetrock.

It took all morning to empty the house. It was hot and humid, and we had to wear long pants, gloves and respirator masks. It was hot and sweaty in the mask, and it also felt like you weren't getting a full breath, since the air was only coming in the pink filters.

I was already exhausted by lunchtime. After lunch we had to clear out the work shed, which was crammed with ruined tools and books, dishes and other stored items. Many of them still held the fetid water from last summer.

Then the real work began: the gutting. First we had to tear down the wood paneling, which of course had to be preceded by removing the molding at the tops and bottoms of the walls. Then we took crowbars and hammers to the paneling and tore it down in big sheets. Very satisfying. Finally, when all the fake wall was gone, it was time to get rid of the moldy sheetrock.

By this time, I'd already had to take at least one break. Working in the heat like that had really done a number on me. Perhaps it was a migraine, or a touch of heat stroke, or pure wimpiness. But my head throbbed, my stomach was queasy, my eyeballs ached, I felt lightheaded. Oh, it was awful.

For nearly an hour, I quietly and methodically hammered down sheetrock. It was immensely satisfying. It was disgusting, seeing the damage the floodwaters had done to materials all the way to the ceiling. The ceiling itself had fallen in many places, actually. As you can see, the air was thick with dust and particles. We were grateful for the nasty masks.

All the furniture, personal items, walls, sheetrock, insulation, and everything else went out the doors and windows, piled up on the curb outside the house. The pile grew in length and height throughout the day.

The family who owned the house was there the whole day, helping out and chatting with us. They had owned the house for thirty-seven years and raised five kids. They were in their seventies and just the sweetest southern old folks you could ever meet.

I took several more breaks throughout the afternoon, doing my best to head back to work once I felt marginally human again each time. I didn't have the energy to talk, or bend or move much, but I did what I could. I helped clean up and soon enough our day was over. We were all exhausted, dirty, sweaty, and smelly. I'd begun the day with all new work clothes, but by the end, oh man was it all broken in, but good. My lovely new gloves dyed my hands yellow/orange. And that is a very dirty arm (I am very pale under there).

As soon as we got back to base camp, out of the heat and out of the work clothes, I immediately began to feel better. The headache didn't really go away, but it did lessen after I took some pain relievers.

This was all just my first day working.

Day Two, Saturday, was finishing up gutting a house, and it was just a morning with a small group of us. I spent most of the time perched on a ladder, removing nails from the ceiling with a hammer. It was a pretty easy half day after the ass-kicking day before.

Sunday was Easter, and it was also the lull between volunteer people, so camp was pretty deserted.

Monday I joined four others in traveling to a Boys and Girls Club, where our task seemed to be fairly easy: getting tile up off of two floors.

However. The tile was some kind of wood laminate that was very well glued down to the floor. We tried using crowbars, sledgehammers, axes, a metal broom thing, but the best way was just to hack at it with hammer prongs. So we sat on the floor for a whole day, banging away at the floor. We all developed blisters and sore hands and wrists. It was slow-going, tedious work, and we were also very, very sweaty and smelly by the end. We didn't even get half of one floor done, but we did pretty well for being such a shitty job.

Day Whatever-is-next was Tuesday, when a group went back to the first house I was at. We had to finish it up: take out the ceilings, take out the bathroom tiles, rip up the flooring. It was a tiring day. I was one of the people who went up to the attic/crawlspace. The ceiling there consisted of wooden planks nailed to the support beams, so I couldn't just stomp them down. I used a hammer to loosen the nails and then hit or kicked them down. I had to be careful, shifting between the support beams a foot and a half apart. But it was fun. I made a big mess, and it was extremely satisfying when a long plank crashed down to the floor. It was not so fun to push down all the crumbly insulation, however.

I made sure to take breaks every hour, but by early afternoon the migraine/heat stroke hit me again. We were all worn out but got the floor in this whole room up. Loud work that was not made easier by my sore hands and blisters from the day before.

I have so much respect and love for the long-term volunteers in the Gulf Coast. People have been there for weeks or months, working their asses off in awful conditions. They are really making a difference. AmeriCorps NCCC teams are all over the place. The team at Hands On New Orleans right now will be switching out with another team in a few weeks. They're the ones that got the operation up and running smoothly. Talk about heroes!

Next post will be about the fun and the sight-seeing. It was not all sadness and hard work. There was plenty of exploration, laughter, comaraderie, and good times.


Anonymous said...

Your poor blister!

I'm so proud of you.

Lots of love and bug hugs,


katiek said...

I just found your blog and I wanted to tell you that my best friend is in Americorps NCCC in New Orleans- the same group you were talking about!