New Orleans, day 2


The long day is coming to a close.

But the entire reason for my coming to New Orleans can be summed up in a single word.


Nine of us set out this morning on mold duty. This is a recurring task in which a team works to remove mold from houses flooded during the levee breaches during Hurricane Katrina.

This tedious grueling task carries health risks to those working to remove it, and health risks if left unchecked.

Driving just a few blocks away, we saw so many rows of houses badly in need of help. It seems as though the cleanup will take forever.

Believe me when I say that the sooner you come to work, the better. It’s an outrage that volunteers remain the sole hope for so many displaced citizens.

Peggy, a lifelong New Orleans resident and in her current home for 40 years, survived — though more than a year later, her residence is stripped down to the studs as she lives in a trailer, parked in her driveway.

Before entering, we donned filter masks, goggles, work gloves and plastic suits that covered us from neck to toe (no need to put the hood on). The house faced flooding up to 5 or 6 feet, about to knee high on the only floor (it’s about 2 feet off the ground).

Inside, her family belongings that survived the flood damage sat piled in one room. The entire interior was stripped of all drywall, just a shell of stud frames, like a new construction in progress.

Except that every two-by-four had a coat of mold.

How do you rehab a moldy house?

First, sweep all the floors.

Second, scrape each and every stud, one by one, with wire brushes.

Third, vacuum all the floors after waiting an hour.

Fourth, wipe every stud and floorboard with paper towels lightly dampened with diluted Pine Sol.

Let’s say mold duty doesn’t rank high in popularity, say compared to working at the animal shelter.

Fortunately, we had a strong, steady group rarin’ to go. One was a database programmer at a record company in New York City. Another was an anatomy teacher training aspiring nurses at a community college in upstate New York.

The teacher was leaving today. So many volunteers come and go with each passing day. The church has room for 100 and should be full by week’s end, when I depart.

As we spent the morning scraping, my arms grew weary. Stepping outside for a break, the fresh air felt good. Those plastic suits, as you can imagine, get super sweaty super fast.

But, better sweaty than covered in mold dust.

Oh, and that breathing apparatus pinches your face and leaves nifty red creases across the cheeks and bridge of your nose. Plus, it makes for tougher inhalation.

But, better than breathing in infectious powder.

We spent the entire afternoon and some of the evening wiping down every wooden surface, often in semi-darkness.

Even then, I began to question my commitment. The team had half its members, as the others had left earlier because of other engagements. My enthusiasm was flagging — I was tired, dirty and ravenous with hunger.

My breakfast was half a bowl of cereal. My packed lunch was two peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches, a handful of pretzels, a few fake Oreos and a bottle of water.

At lunchtime, Peggy saved us.

She made a wonderful jambalaya with fluffy rice on the side. And topped that with dessert: bread pudding (one volunteer paid the highest compliment, saying it reminded her of her grandmother’s version) and ice cream.

As we took in this unexpected feast, Peggy told her story. She cares for her two brothers, both with diabetes. She goes to church every day. She has a small salon in the back. Like many natives, she never leaves when the hurricane warnings come.

Katrina knocked down her pecan tree onto her neighbor’s house. Other than that, the hurricane did nothing to her property.

Then, the levees failed. The water on her street began to rise.

Soon, it was in her house. Should she leave or see if it recedes? Her house had never had to deal with flooding, not like those poor souls in the Lower Ninth Ward.

She called 911, and an operator told her help was on the way. Peggy instantly knew the operator was lying, not out of ill will, but because no one at 911 knew what to do.

She prayed, and then she slept on it. When she rolled out of bed the next morning, she fell into a pool of water in her bedroom.

They swam over to a neighbor’s steps, while her brother, an ex-Marine, rescued others stranded by the floodwaters, including many elderly residents.

He told them it was safer a couple of blocks over, so they took to the middle of the road to avoid downed power lines. She hesitated to enter the black waters, contaminated with feces, garbage, debris and at least one body that she counted. Her knee had been wounded earlier in 2005, and wading into that muck was a sure infection.

At the Church’s Chicken, they waited it out. And the waters continued to rise. She watched as looters took food and drinks, but then shook her head in disgust as they stole prescription drugs, liquor and an ATM machine.

Overhead, rescue helicopters flew by, never stopping to rescue them. Three days later, one finally came to pluck them to safety.

She stayed with family in San Antonio. For a month, officials wouldn’t let her and other residents back into the flooded areas. It took three months before she could return permanently. Since then, she has had to deal with an uncaring media, corrupt members of the police and National Guard, and criminals on the block.

But she is not afraid.

Her heartbreaking story is all too typical for Gulf Coast residents.

Her kindness did not go unnoticed. She greeted us with a big hello and made sure we were OK throughout the day. And did I mention the home-cooked Cajun meal?

The teacher who volunteered for our team asked later why Peggy continued in her faith. I speculated that as she watched her friends and neighbors swept away in this disaster, she found that God had spared her and her family.

She survived. Her beloved family home survived, barely.

Her faith endures, as she endures. Maybe she believes God sent us as angels to continue the rebuilding process. (I am far too modest to agree, far too polite to argue.)

Even now at this late hour, another team member is relating Peggy’s moving story to a fellow volunteer.

She lives by example, a humble day-to-day fight to stay and begin anew. She has little time or patience for politicians or panderers. Her neighbors are still hurting, waiting for the day someone, anyone can help them rebuild.

We finished out a 10-plus-hour day, after rains and darkness came. Not all of the projects will be like this one.

And certainly, we shall not be as lucky as we were meeting Peggy. She is the reason I’m here.

She’s the reason we’re all here.

• • •

New Orleans 2006


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