Empty, and Fulfilled

Volunteer leaders Julieanne Day and Veronique Porter, on car, assign tasks to their crew during a lunch break. Church-organized crews consist mainly of college students.
Volunteer leaders Julieanne Day and Veronique Porter, on car, assign tasks to their crew during a lunch break. Church-organized crews consist mainly of college students. (Ken Ringle For The Washington Post)
By Ken Ringle
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, August 3, 2006

NEW ORLEANS The way you attack one of the thousands of flood-wracked New Orleans houses still untouched since Hurricane Katrina is to open all the doors and windows. Then you rip out the screens and wrench out the interior doors hanging crazily ajar in the ghastly hallways.

You want to get as much air moving through there as possible, and also let in light, because by this time you're usually up to your knees in leaking, mold-covered debris, often still soggy 11 months after the storm, and God only knows what you'll uncover there in the rank and reeking darkness. The occasional rat isn't really a problem, nor are the cellphone-size roaches or the spiders as big as your face mask. And though they're still finding bodies here, that's rare and less disturbing than you might think.

What's really unnerving are those acrid objects you're standing among -- slimy, plastic-wrapped bundles of bed linens and Christmas decorations and rotting rhinestone shoes; powdery photo albums with peeling pictures of parents and grandchildren; anniversary mementos, rosaries, china figurines and hemorrhoid medication: all the heartbreaking and very private detritus of somebody's shattered life. You're eerily reminded constantly that it's none of your business. But if you're gutting houses in New Orleans, it becomes not only your business, but your daily life.

You feel like a mortician washing a corpse. You try to do it with both efficiency and respect.

Gutting a Katrina house -- which costs at least $6,000 if you have to pay for it -- is the first step toward rebuilding it. Homeowners who haven't taken that first step by Aug. 29, the hurricane's looming first anniversary, face the prospect that the city may order their flood-damaged house bulldozed. A city can afford to look like a war zone for only so long, and though far more questions than answers remain about New Orleans's post-Katrina future, even those New Orleanians who haven't returned yet from Houston or Pittsburgh or Atlanta are usually desperate to keep their options open. And so the gutting crews do their work, moving in vans and pickup trucks through the silent, empty streets of the flooded neighborhoods, where windowless houses gape like death masks mile after mile after mile.

This is the story of one of those crews -- a pickup collection of volunteer college kids from around the country, augmented by the occasional geezer like this writer -- marshaled with cheerful efficiency and heartening nondenominational purpose by the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana.

Plenty of other church groups, of course, are laboring on behalf of Katrina survivors as well. Indeed, the stressed-out homeowners will tell you churches are the only ones doing anything, that they themselves will never again look with confidence for help from any government agency at any level. But the Episcopal group recruits even unaffiliated stragglers. If you're even a single individual out there in Nebraska or Connecticut or Texas or somewhere, willing to work maybe harder and more fulfillingly than you ever have for a day or a week or a month or more, they will put you to work. All you need to believe in is New Orleans.

Volunteers rotate weekly through the St. Andrews crew, but about 20 or so hard-core veterans remain. They are black and white, male and female, from all over the country. Most are students or recent graduates of Grinnell College in Iowa, Kenyon College in Ohio or Ohio Wesleyan University. Very few are churchy or outwardly religious; even fewer are Episcopalians. But these young and veteran gutters are superb team leaders, gentle and empathetic with homeowners, firm but politely patient should some of the older volunteers patronize them and try to take over.

They party off-duty like any college kids, and are noticeably devoid of political posturing, save-the-world-itis or the far too common arrogance of the self-righteous. In fact they don't talk much about their beliefs at all. But they shake your heart with their untiring sense of purpose.

"Our chief principle in everything we do is that it's not about us, it's about the homeowners we serve," explained Katie Mears, a 25-year-old white former Grinnell history major who developed most of the St. Andrews program over the past seven months. "And that has taken some getting used to. Many of the homes we work on will probably never be rebuilt. But they are tremendously important emotional symbols to the individual homeowners who have lost so much. They want desperately to leave them cleaned out and tidy.

"We're not just gutting their house, we're helping them hold a funeral for their former life."

The group works out of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church on Carrollton Avenue, uptown near Tulane University, and they can probably even house you, which is really an achievement, given the shortage of affordable beds these days in the Crescent City. Then they will baptize you into the mold-choked, sweat-stained, exhausting world of the house-gutter, and in the process introduce you to some of the most memorable people you've ever met.


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