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Hard Work In the Big Easy
Vacationers Donate Time To Help Katrina Victims

By Eric Patel
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, July 9, 2006; P01

The preparation advice seemed extreme, even for Third World travel.

Hepatitis A and B boosters. Tetanus shot. Face mask for airborne toxins. There'd be no groceries or drinkable tap water within five miles. All nearby homes would be unlivable by Western standards. All this for a trip to New Orleans?

Yes, the Big Easy has become a lot harder to visit, especially if, like a growing number of travelers, you're looking to volunteer in a city severely damaged and surprisingly unhealed since Hurricane Katrina's devastation last August. It's a city that even has its own version of refugee camps. Within hours of touching down, I found myself ladling out scrambled eggs to a long line of residents at a makeshift "cafe" under a tent set up by aging hippies to feed homeless locals.

Like many others, I had come to help, frustrated by the familiar litany of official inaction: FEMA foot-dragging, local government gridlock, even Red Cross scandals. But what don't make the headlines are the small yet significant actions of a clutch of volunteer organizations, and I was out to find a few to which I could contribute.

Even a cursory tour around New Orleans confirms the worst you've heard. The Lower Ninth Ward -- ground zero for the worst levee break -- is a virtually untouched, surreal landscape: splintered houses lying on cars, cars in trees, trees on houses, moldy rubble everywhere. In spring, seven months after the event, the entire area was silent -- no rumble of bulldozers, no excavators, no dump trucks.

In that bleak landscape, dozens of volunteer organizations have come to help -- getting people food, water or supplies or helping them reinhabit their homes and neighborhoods. They offer hope to locals and a blend of hard work, challenge and even adventure to volunteer vacationers.

During a 10-day trip here, I worked with two grass-roots nonprofit groups. The first, New York-based Emergency Communities, fed residents in the disaster zone of Arabi, a few miles east of the French Quarter (that site has since closed, although the group has operations in other areas in the same parish). The second, Common Ground Collective of New Orleans, helps homeowners in the impoverished Ninth Ward get back into their flood-destroyed homes and provides a variety of other services. Both are run on a shoestring and are fueled by a diverse and seemingly endless supply of volunteers.

"We started because there were no resources down here at all," said Sakura Kon?, a spokesman for Common Ground. "Now there are few resources for those most in need. That's where we can help."

* * *

Emergency Communities was founded as a direct result of Katrina by a group of self-described hippies who were adept at setting up large-scale outdoor kitchens at concerts, conventions and forest gatherings. They reasoned that they could apply that skill to disaster zones.

Says EC Executive Director Mark Weiner, "Alongside the physical destruction of a hurricane comes a loss of community. We try to re-create that sense of community and add a human touch to all our services -- whether it's providing a hot meal, a hot shower or a space where people can just hang out and chat."

After Katrina, EC was one of the first organizations to arrive on the Gulf Coast and start feeding people. The group receives food donations from charitable organizations and local producers, and now receives some funding from the United Way.

"They fit a need that is still unmet -- providing essentials," said Gary Ostroske, CEO of the United Way for the Greater New Orleans Area. "They feed a lot of people at a very reasonable cost. It's an unusual group, and I think they're doing a spectacular job."

The residents of Plaquemines Parish, two hours south of New Orleans, where EC recently set up another operation, seem to agree. Far from the chilly reception one might have expected when conservative Louisiana meets a band of hippies, they have been welcomed, says Ostroske, "with open arms."

The operation moved to New Orleans in December 2005, and by March was serving 2,000 meals a day. During my week-long stint in the Arabi zone, my fellow volunteers were an eclectic bunch: dreadlocked hippies, clean-cut high schoolers, businesspeople, schoolteachers, homeless people, college students and a miscellaneous selection of camp followers with bandanna-wearing dogs.

Despite the motley coalition of volunteers, the Arabi operation was a slick one -- like a MASH unit but without the uniforms. The dining tent was set up in a parking lot, along with an intricately laid out kitchen and dishwashing tents, dry goods and kitchen supply areas, trailers for cold foods and supply distribution centers. A "healing tent" offered tetanus shots and Reiki massages. The security detail was called the "peace patrol," and the recycling center got a steady stream of material for composting. Porta-potties, solar-powered showers and an open-air sink with a marvelous collection of shaving gear created a large outdoor bath area. Volunteers lived in tents perched on abandoned storage pallets, as the ground was, and is, too contaminated to pitch a tent on.

The wind blew that polluted ground into our faces most of the day, as we prepped food, washed dishes, mopped floors and served residents. There was an endless array of jobs, and the days were long: Breakfast setup started at 5:30 a.m., and the last of the dishes got done around 10 p.m. In between, there was time to sit with residents and hear their stories.

The locals were invariably gracious and grateful to us, but their taut faces and strained smiles attested to how thin they've been stretched by the storm-that-won't-end. Their existence, they said, is ordered by an endless array of Federal Emergency Management Agency paperwork, insurance company red tape and long waits for pay phones, food and supplies. We heard many tales of mistreatment, disrespect and sheer incompetence.

"We're just waiting," one resident told me in his languid New Orleans drawl, "till something better comes along."

* * *

Common Ground Collective, the second organization I worked with, was formed just after Katrina hit. Initially the group provided medical assistance and supplies to hurricane victims; now their activities are varied and shift with the seasons. When I visited, the focus was on helping Ninth Ward homeowners rebuild, giving priority to the disabled, seniors and single mothers. Now, with summer heat and the onset of hurricane season, home-gutting is limited to early morning hours when it's coolest; tutoring, church refurbishment, a fledgling wetlands reparation program, medical clinics and the organization of shelters for the next storm are underway.

People from more than 100 countries have volunteered in the program, according to Kon?. Operating out of an abandoned Ninth Ward school building, Common Ground is run by a loose-knit group of about 50 volunteers. Funding comes mainly from individuals and religious groups, Kon? said, and the number of volunteers at a given time fluctuates from a few hundred in slow spells to more than 3,000 during this year's spring break.

During my stay, the 200-odd volunteers were largely college students or recent graduates, though my co-workers also included a retired couple from Wisconsin, an ex-school principal from Vermont and an Israeli army officer. Volunteers slept in communal or individual tents (on pallets, of course) in a vacant lot across the street. (In preparation for hurricane season, accommodations have since moved into churches or schools for safety.) Breakfast and dinner were provided in the school gym, and lunch was transported to work sites by volunteer drivers.

Outdoor showers were mobbed after work hours, and during my stint, the water was more often cold than hot -- prompting some (including me) to seek accommodation elsewhere. I ended up in the convenient but very basic Ursuline Guest House in the French Quarter (see Details).

After breakfast each day, teams of four to eight workers were assigned to specific tasks -- mainly gutting houses and cleaning schools. Though the homes we worked on were structurally sound, most were biohazard zones, containing significant amounts of asbestos, lead and arsenic. After stewing in the filthy Katrina floodwaters, all the houses had severe infestations of black mold, a toxic fungus that can attack human lungs.

That's why we were suited up in hazmat gear each day, with double respirators, two layers of gloves, goggles and steel-shank boots. After the safety briefing (a long list of hazards we'd be exposed to), I began to question whether a rank amateur like me should have been doing this. But I swallowed my misgivings, and our team traveled by van and rental car to our site.

In our van that first day were hammers, crowbars, sledges, wire cutters, shovels and brooms. Our goal was to remove everything from our assigned house: furniture, personal effects, appliances, carpets, drywall, insulation and ceilings, leaving nothing but bare studs. These would be bleached (an effort called bioremediation) to kill mold. At that point, theoretically, it would be safe to rebuild.

The house, a one-story building with a generous front porch, actually looked good from the outside, with a new roof, a recent paint job and double-paned windows. But a spray-painted "X" near the front door meant it was uninhabitable.

Inside, debris was everywhere. Sprinkled throughout were reminders of the family that called this place home. A few surviving photos, of a prom couple and a smiling high school graduate. A football trophy. A top-salesman award. In a bedroom closet, neatly stacked clothes had congealed into a muddy, unbelievably heavy lump. Next to them was a prized pair of Nikes in a plastic box, now floating in months-old floodwater.

The refrigerator proved the hardest item to remove: It cracked open when we tilted it, emitting a green ooze, and the stench of food rot so overpowering that one worker vomited into her respirator. Moving the washing machine, full of water, was equally tricky. One of us held the outflow hose, standing clear of any toxic spillage, while the other two pushed and pulled to shimmy the machine to the porch. There we unceremoniously shoved it over to the front yard. We took off our respirators, gulped in some air, exchanged high-fives and went back in for more.

By mid-afternoon, we had removed everything that literally wasn't nailed down, and moved on to attack the drywall and ceilings. We piled all the home's contents -- furniture, debris, insulation, clothes and linens -- at the curb, forming the now-familiar New Orleans spectacle of mountains of mold-infested debris lining the streets, gutted homes forlorn in the background. By day's end, when the seven of us jettisoned our hazmat suits, our clothes were soaked with sweat.

Our ragtag group of volunteers had managed to gut a house in a day. It would be be bioremediated in another few days, offering a glimmer of hope to a family that didn't have anywhere else to turn for help.

And for me, that was the best part of this trip. Groups like these have sprouted up miraculously in the distinctly unwelcoming post-Katrina environment. They're held together by a common bond -- a desire to help those in need -- and the energy the volunteers create is wonderfully infectious.

The sheer volume of devastated neighborhoods, the lack of funds and the gridlocked local government, combined with a less-than-effective federal response, may yet decide New Orleans's fate. But nibbling around the edges of the problem, volunteer groups provide relief, respect and small signs of progress to the locals. And for residents who've had to adapt to an existence of loss and frustration, the hope these groups offer could be enough to keep them going -- till something better comes along.

Eric Patel is a writer living in Vancouver, B.C.

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