We're Here To Gut Your Homes: One Week In St. Bernard Parish

Story, Photograpy and Video by Philip Nadasdy

When I entered Camp Premiere in St. Bernard Parish (just southeast of New Orleans) in March, a safety instructor told us not to call it "gutting" a home - the word may be too harsh for homeowners to hear. I couldn't help but think that when a homeowner sees their entire life's belongings (including the carpet and walls that housed them) heaped into a pile as high as their roof they wouldn't be caught up in semantics. Although when you find yourself with a faded and moldy wedding album the very next day, even the suggested "debris removal" sounds too sterile and removed from the owner, who is watching you intentionally place it away from the other "trash" in the appointed memorabilia pile. These are things you must think about, though, when you remove debris for homeowners affected by Hurricane Katrina (that and the cockroaches, infectious mold, snakes, spiders, deceased pets and, hopefully, nothing worse).

Nearly seven months after Hurricane Katrina broke the levees near St. Bernard Parish, the community has started a massive rebuilding initiative. Spear-headed by FEMA and private organizations like Habitat for Humanity, the call to rebuild the parish (separate, but adjacent to New Orleans proper) is being met by thousands of willing volunteers. As college spring breaks go into full swing, an unprecedented number of young people are the majority of volunteers.

Camp Premiere acts as a coordinating headquarters for incoming volunteers. Literally a city of tents, the federal complex is made up fifteen person tents, portable showers and laundry, a main mess hall and a private security force, and it can hold nearly 1500 volunteers at one time. Potential logistical nightmares linger around every stage of planning when you're attempting to feed, house, bathe, and transport over a thousand people, and although there are unexpected kinks in the system (women waiting an hour and a half for showers), the camp is doing a tremendous and admirable job. Photography is banned on the premises, as it is a federal complex, but it is truly a sight to see.

"We can't thank you enough." "You have no idea how much you are doing."

The seemingly long delay before rebuilding does not come as a result of laziness, but from a total lack of basic infrastructure for months after the storm. As a result of Katrina (and the following hurricane, Rita) over 27,000 households in the parish were destroyed or damaged by floodwaters and wind. Fifteen feet of water covered the majority, if not all, of the parish's homes and businesses. To make matters worse, the parish lies next to a strip of major ports and industry, and a damaged refinery spilled oil over a portion of the community in what is known as the "Murphy Oil Spill." To help put the damage in perspective, the first major retail store to re-open in the parish, Home Depot (a shining light, no less), opened its doors in late February-a full seven months after Katrina. While media attention focused on the Super Dome and Convention Center evacuation debacles and then shifted to D.C., St. Bernard Parish (and much of New Orleans) slowly dried out and was left with a giant swath of evacuated homes that needed to be cleaned, claimed for insurance, and inspected for animal and human remains. As it stands now, St. Bernard Parish is populated by private construction contractors, federal workers, volunteers in tents and churches, and displaced homeowners in FEMA campers, all of whom are trying to bring the community back to its feet.

Working in the flooded homes is dark, disgusting work. Besides the mud and all of the homeowner's belongings, the house must be taken down to the structural materials that can be treated through chemical washing. Outfitted with two wheelbarrows of manual tools, hardhats, masks, and gloves, the work teams (usually between 7-15) arrive at each home and can completely gut a home, on average, in a day and a half. The flood lines mark the walls, and in some cases, small minnow skeletons stick to the windows. The smell is the most obvious and obtrusive hazard to working in the homes. People call it "Katrina water" smell, a general stench of rotting materials. The best I can do to describe it is like rotten wet bread mixed with chalk (from the moldy drywall), though, open any drawer or door to a pantry and you're liable to find an entirely different and worse "Katrina water" smell. Thanks to a swipe of Vicks VapoRub under the nose, I managed to avoid at least some of the lesser stenches.

Somehow my team, Black 8, was routinely given some of the largest homes on the block. On our first home, we tackled a two-story with the flood line well marked on the middle of the second floor walls, so everything had to come out. We were blessed on this particular home to meet the owner, Belinda, who kindly brought us Krispy Kreme doughnuts each morning. She was our first impression of New Orleanian hospitality, and whether or not it was the eight months that helped her come to terms with the loss of her house, she maintained a friendly smile throughout our work with her.

We tore down your lifelong vinyl collection in blocks with pry-bars because they were glued together by mold...

The New Orleans we all think of-Bourbon Street, beads, bars, etc.-is as clean as it ever was. The French Quarter and Garden District were spared from flooding. The fact that these areas were spared is well known, but their support and care for those affected is greatly felt. Upon numerous occasions, I was met with hugs from strangers upon hearing I was volunteering in St. Bernard Parish - "We can't thank you enough." "You have no idea how much you are doing." I imagine that I was not the only person to be welcomed with such gratitude.

One particular couple comes to mind who were kind enough to invite me and some fellow team members into their French Quarter home after a St. Patrick's Day parade. We were offered drinks and a place to sit down in their quite lavish home-certainly a change of pace, considering I had been throwing someone's clothing out of their second story window five hours earlier. We were given their thanks and perspective on New Orleans after Katrina. And to remember them by, in true New Orleans fashion, I was given a special set of beads with blinking boobies dangling from the end.

By the end of the workweek, team Black 8 had moved on to the home of an elderly musician who had left nearly everything behind. Soundproof rooms housed numerous drum kits and enough stereo equipment to open a store. We wouldn't get to meet him, but we would come to know his things - from benign items like monthly magazines, to audio recordings (reel-to-reel) that undoubtedly stored jam sessions and tracks of his making.

The future of the flooded homes is uncertain. There were reports of teams being called off a worksite after a day's work because the house was scheduled for demolition. With no new flood zone maps being issued, flood insurance is impossible to obtain, making the option to sell the property impossible. To make matters worse, the levees currently surrounding the parish are built to only hold a category-3 (possibly 4) hurricane. Katrina was a solid 4. The majority of the media's shift towards a blame game was warranted, but upon seeing the lingering state of disaster in the Gulf Coast, you realize that it's much harder to point fingers when you're holding a shovel instead of sitting behind a news desk or standing behind a podium. The next great shift of media focus will hopefully be that of more progressive rebuilding efforts.

While working, and with a little experience, you start to appreciate how the complexity of the situation-massive loss of life, political crisis, etc.-can be whittled down, literally, to unscrewing a light bulb, or in some cases, hitting it with a sledgehammer. You appreciate what your own two hands can do, and even more, the 1500 other pairs working around you. But amid the gratification, there is still a deep sense of loss for those involved, instilling a sense in all of us that the seemingly inane work must be carried out with care. It became clear that it is entirely too harsh to tell someone, "We tore down your lifelong vinyl collection in blocks with pry-bars because they were glued together by mold," or "We cleaned out your rotting pantry with shovels and tossed it on top of your bed sheets," or "We tried to find your grandfather's gift to you, but the six inches of mud, oil, and God-knows-what-else got in the way, sorry." Instead we just gutted their house to the beams. In fact, we ended up gutting the entire neighborhood.

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We're Here To Gut Your Homes: One Week In St. Bernard Parish