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.”

hydrogen sulfide

12 replies »

  1. Fine piece, Cat. First, allow me to thank you and congratulate you on your work with Beacon of Hope – I know you didn’t volunteer to get thanks or congratulations, but you deserve them, so here they are.

    Second, given your interest in NO, I hope you’ll take a look at the radical re-structuring of NO’s “public” educational system. The rush to create charter schools wherever possible and to make education an “entrepreneurial opportunity ” is a lab experiment for a major political party’s vision of “public” education in the 21st century. And given the piteous economic state of our states and municipalities, this model may be adopted much more widely than most of us ever thought possible.

    It would be a good chance to explore how “disaster capitalism” is going to affect us all sooner rather than later….

    Again, great piece – and thanks for exposing the sorry behavior of many who went to NO not to help, but to profit…

  2. This probably marks me as a bad person, but while I’m glad you found personal meaning in volunteering to help someone deconstruct and reconstruct their home, I’m saddened by the fact that the homes are being rebuilt and people are moving back into subsiding neighborhoods.

    Most of New Orleans is going to have to be abandoned over the next few decades, and five years on, there still remains no serious conversation about how to adapt to rising sea levels in places like New Orleans, Galveston, Miami, Washington DC, New York, et al.

  3. The homeowner had already spent $400,000 on renovating this place… and then received volunteer assistance to take out the substandard drywall? How will she fund the new construction? Once it’s finished, will she have homeowner’s insurance? I wonder how many people who choose NOT to live in a perennial floodplain will have to subsidize her risky choice with their premiums? And on a personal note, did you wear ventilators? Gosh, I hope so. Even without fumes, drywall dust is nasty stuff to inhale.

    I guess I’m as bad a person as Brian, or probably worse. I’d cheerfully volunteer to relocate residents of New Orleans, provide them with job training, clothing, shelter, etc. But propping up an irrational effort to live in a city built in a watery bowl below sea level on a coast in a hurricane zone? No thanks. There are hungry, homeless people right here in my own town who can’t afford to drop half a million on a house to begin with.

  4. I wish I had good answers for the long term prospects in New Orleans, but I don’t–not for the remaining public schools, neighborhoods in danger of coastal waters that will rise, or paying for renovations.

    Unfortunately, those questions plague the whole country and we don’t have the answers. Why pay to rebuild LA, Oakland, or San Francisco? They’ll just have more earthquakes. Small towns in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Ohio? They’ll just have more tornadoes. Heck, read Denny’s dam article and you can throw in a large but unknown number of cities endangered by ruptured dams.

    The problem is this: we’ve all got to live somewhere. Sam probably does not want us all moving to Colorado just because it’s high ground. A lot of our history, our culture, and our Homes are along the coasts or in other problematic areas. We have to plan for that Someday, but we all have to live somewhere now.

    At least there’s a right spot for Cleveland: The rising oceans probably won’t flood past Niagara Falls, so at least we’ve got something on our side.

    • That’s the thing, though, Cat – the same problems don’t plague earthquake-prone or tornado-prone areas, and you can see it a couple of ways.

      Tornadoes and earthquakes are one-time events, even in areas prone to be hit by them like Oklahoma and California (respectively). You can build buildings to withstand earthquakes of a certain magnitude, or you can build structures that are cheap to replace if they get blown apart by a tornado (with an underground cellar to shelter in while your house above ground is destroyed). But if it looked like the conditions to create a permanent tornado were building up over Tulsa, or if it looked like LA was going to be facing a single continuous earthquake from 2050 into the indefinite future, then we’d have a closer equivalence between the problem of sea level rise and the problems of earthquakes and tornadoes.

      The other way to look at it is that you can get insurance for most “act of God” disasters from standard insurance companies, but flood insurance isn’t usually one of them. The reason is that if you’re living in a flood prone area, it’s only a matter of time before your property is destroyed by a flood, while even if you live in a tornado-prone area, there’s a really good chance that your property will never be destroyed by a tornado. The same thing is true of fire insurance for homes in the Colorado mountains, BTW – most insurance companies won’t touch homes in the mountains even if they have the required firebreaks, because they figure it’s only a matter of time before the home is burned to the ground.

      I’ve heard of a few adaptation ideas being floated for how to keep New Orleans livable when it floods again (the moored, floating house is one of the more interesting ones), and maybe that’s a reasonable way to handle this. But rebuilding a standard home on a concrete pad where the roofline is below sea level when we KNOW that the problem is only going to get worse strikes me as a really, really bad idea. There are other possible solutions, like trucking in megatons of dirt to fill in the low areas, but we have to ask whether the money spent on those solutions are worth it or whether an orderly depopulation of the low-lying areas is the better long-term solution.

      I’m not trying to pick on New Orleans, because every major city built just a few meters above sea level will have similar problems eventually. New Orleans has it worse and has to face it sooner, however, due to the fact that the ground the city is built on is slow sinking.

      • You know, thinking about this, I think I really took this off-topic from what you were saying, Cat. My policy issues with reconstruction are independent of the craziness of the drywall, which is really what you were talking about.

        Sorry about that.

        As for the drywall, I wonder if culpability goes beyond just the Chinese manufacturer. I realize that the contractors who rebuilt the homes wanted to do it cheaply, but more often than not you get what you pay for. If you pay for crap, you get crap, and in this case that’s definitely what happened. Not just crap, but toxic crap at that.

        And it’s not like the contractors couldn’t have bought drywall made in the US and supported the US economy (jobs at the drywall factory) at the same time.

        • RE: Chinese drywall – I have now sort of reached the point where I assume that if it’s made in China it probably poses a threat to my health. Now, that realization doesn’t mean that I always have alternatives that I can trust, I know. Making things safe would be Bad for Business. I’ll never forget a few years back when the Chinese were trying to kill my dog, for instance.

          Fortunately the process isn’t burdened by a lot of regulators….

  5. What Cat’s post and the subsequent comments do for me is increase my frustration level. On the one hand, you have people who are doing the best they can in the face of ridiculous odds (I think about the shoeshine guy we hired for our booth at a conference in NO a couple years ago – he lost his house, his business and his wife in Katrina) and Cat’s attempts to make a small dent in a humanitarian tragedy that is nowhere near over.

    Then there are the equally valid policy concerns, raised by Brian and Ann, that in truth are merely the tip of the iceberg. How many other cases around the country could we find of American policies that are counterproductive at best and that systematically put citizen well-being in danger at worst? Have a look at Denny’s last two posts for a starting point.

    As a result, we find ourselves in a discussion thread that’s bizarrely out of balance because it’s hard to even know what to be madder about. It’s even harder to look at our government and the corporations that run it and see much hope for a resolution on either side of the equation.

  6. We do all have to live somewhere. Fortunately, there are also lots of other places to live. In Louisiana, for example. I don’t think Sam has to worry about a mass migration to Colorado.

    My point wasn’t about “misguided American policies,” but about the irrational determination of people to resist change at all costs. Culture and history are created by change, as unpleasant as it is to those who live it. I think the desire to help someone in distress is one of the best parts of human nature, but that deep emotional appeal is tricky to manage and harness effectively.

  7. The issue with forced relocation (aside from the notion of “forced”) is that there has to be something for the people to go to. If we apply the same standards to all cities in danger of inundation and insist that their populations GET OUT, we’re talking about a lot of people: NY, DC, ALL of Florida (who’s going to tell all those retirees that it’s time to find another place to live). There are some great maps here: http://vrstudio.buffalo.edu/~depape/warming/100meter.html.

    I’m not saying it’s not going to happen and I’m not saying we shouldn’t plan for it–but it’s more that packing the moving vans. Sure, Central Missouri is safe (OK, except for that New Madras fault thingy), but where are the jobs and industries to move people to? The western Sunbelt will be above water, but face it, they’ll also be WITHOUT water. But I digress.

    Anyway, aside from that, my purpose in writing this was to write about the ongoing effort, the needs of the people, and the sad waste of time and expense.