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Ms. Smith Goes to New Orleans

DM News’ Nicole Smith went to New Orleans as a Habitat for Humanity volunteer to rehabilitate houses for those who suffered the effects of Hurricane Katrina.

“I cover nonprofits,” Ms. Smith said. “It was about time I put my money where my mouth is, and I actually did it – experienced what I write about.”

Here’s her account of the two days in the Big Easy.

NEW ORLEANS – “We rip down houses” was what the signs read on each adjacent block along the up-and-coming Musicians’ Village. They were vibrant in their bold yellow background color and black font. It was impossible not to look at them, and it was obvious why they were there.

The roads leading to the Habitat for Humanity work site were lined with houses that were boarded up and often caved in. Rows that once represented the architectural epitome of New Orleans’ housing were now condemned to spray paint on a front door citing the impending date of destruction for what was once someone’s home.

Despite the foreboding imagery and emptiness of the residential areas, there were no feelings of sorrow or pity. The tears had dried up alongside the floods, leaving an aura of determination. Energy emitted from everywhere.

Sometimes it is not enough to sit at home and send donations via the Internet or mail. Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty in the actual rebuilding. And for two days alongside the Mississippi, I did just that. I signed up to work on new houses with Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that builds 25,000 homes a year for low-income families.

Caulk, Shock and Sheetrock

Work began at 7:15 a.m., and for someone who is a morning person, it could not have started soon enough. Day 1 saw 40 volunteers from every corner of the country, each armed with bug repellent, a bag lunch and a curiosity for how they possibly could help, having no construction experience.

As the group listened to safety instructions, I felt as if the others were sizing me up as nothing but a meddling journalist. However, these Olive Oyl arms can do more than simply sweep floors and refill water bottles, as the group would quickly learn.

We divided into groups who were assigned their own tasks. I partnered with three nurses from Washington state, and we gutted and cleaned out the interiors of nearly a half-dozen houses. We lugged wooden planks, garbage, lead piping, Sheetrock and other clutter out of each freshly painted house.

It felt refreshing to do hands-on work. As a native New Yorker, having sweat drip into my eyes and dirt smudged on my face as I hauled excess siding to a Dumpster was a new feeling. There was no superintendent to call for help.

As the humidity rose, so did the level of garbage. The houses with Sheetrock inside had to be swept clean for inspection. The white dust rose, and all urges to wipe sweat off your face passed immediately.

After each house had its floor wiped clean, we moved on to caulking the pipes and electrical wiring. I still have no idea what caulking does or its purpose, but I know that I got to use a very powerful gun to secure holdings into place.

Lunch was eaten under tents, and it was at this time that the team leaders told us a little about the area that we were working on and about Habitat for Humanity itself.

Rent Vent

Much to people’s dismay, Jimmy Carter did not begin Habitat for Humanity and Harry Connick Jr. is not at the work site singing folk tunes as volunteers hammer away.

Those interested in Habitat housing endure a lengthy application process and then work a total of 365 hours on their own house and their neighbors’. Each house costs $70,000, and recipients can take out a 20-year mortgage, making monthly payments of $500. They must be a low-income family to apply.

Habitat for Humanity will build 81 houses in the Musicians’ Village in New Orleans. Thirty are already standing.

After lunch, I was given a demonstration on how to install doors in each of the bedrooms. The man might well have been speaking Mandarin, because I did not comprehend one step of the process. My prayers for an escape were answered as the rain poured down and we all were ordered to “duck, cover and roll” for the rest of the day.

Before Hurricane Katrina, residents in the Musicians’ Village paid around $400 a month for rent. Since the hurricane, prices have skyrocketed to $1,000 per unit, making Habitat’s homes a very good deal.

My cab driver discussed this with me on the ride back to my hotel.

“That doesn’t make any sense that they are raising prices,” I said.

“It makes plenty of sense, to a thief,” he replied.

Prices also have risen in the surrounding area at grocery stores and other facilities, making it clear why I paid $3 for a piece of pizza that was half the size of one in New York.

“They are trying to charge $10 for a bag of ice,” the cab driver said. “I’ll take out my revolver and pay 10 cents a bullet!”

Shakes and Ladders

Day 2 brought sunny skies, nearly 200 volunteers and a determination – on my part – to avoid anything that required installation. I joined the group in charge of hammering on siding and painting second coats on the exterior of the houses.

Everyone back home was frightened by the idea of me holding a hammer. I am happy to say that I never touched one throughout both days of work. Instead, I painted a second coat on the bright blue house.

“Are you comfortable on ladders?” the leader asked me.

“Oh, of course,” I lied.

I have been scared of heights as long as I can remember, so the thought of carrying a bucket of paint up to the roof of a house seemed crippling. Yet the daredevil in me had to do it.

My hands shook a bit as I climbed the ladder, and I nearly dropped half the bucket of paint into my lap. But I managed to reach the cracks of my destination.

I spent the entire second day on top of that ladder moving from house to house, blue to red, slapping creamy color onto rows of siding. The thrill of overcoming my fear was worth every minute of labor.

As my second and final day of work came to a close, I met a woman who was moving into a house I painted. The gratitude on her face was worth the sweat, dirt and blue paint that I fear will be stuck permanently in my blonde hair.

“We appreciate y’all coming down here,” she said. “We couldn’t have done it without you.”

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