Grant to Rebuilding Together – New Orleans
Rebuilding New Orleans
By Jennifer Brennan
For one week in February 2008, Jackie Scheer, Mary Quirk and I traveled to New Orleans to work on houses damaged in the flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The volunteer work was coordinated by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Rebuilding Together – New Orleans, and the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans. Rebuilding Together – New Orleans is a local affiliate of a national non-profit organization – Rebuilding Together. The national organization has restored and revitalized more than 100,000 homes in the past 19 years. In New Orleans, Rebuilding Together and the Preservation Resource Center have completed 100 houses with the help of 5,498 volunteers like us.
I had been to New Orleans several times, and always loved the city. Strolling through the French Quarter and taking a Riverboat cruise are some of my favorite vacation memories. When I saw the devastation caused by Katrina, I knew I had to do something to help. I had not previously been able to travel to the city to help with the recovery efforts, so upon learning that the National Trust for Historic Preservation was looking for volunteers to work in the devastated area, I jumped at the chance. I was excited to return to New Orleans, but also somewhat nervous about what I would see and the unfamiliar environment in which I would be working.
Everyone has seen the reports of the devastation that followed in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, but I was shocked and overwhelmed by the extent of destruction that is still visible throughout the area. Upon arrival in the city, the damage didn’t seem too bad. I flew to New Orleans a few days early to do some site seeing in the French Quarter, and it seemed as though nothing had changed from before the storms. Tourists still flock to the downtown areas and all the famous shops and restaurants are filling up again. When I left the tourist areas, however, the damage was apparent.
Camp Hope, the volunteer base for our group, and many others, was located in Saint Bernard Parish, outside the city. Each day, Jackie, Mary and I would be traveling through the hardest hit areas of New Orleans to get to work.
When we arrived at Camp Hope, we were introduced to the rest of our team – two other volunteers and a National Trust staff member. Sean Vissar, the Volunteer Program Officer for Rebuilding Together, told us that we would focus on a house in the Saint Roch neighborhood, located just outside of the French Quarter. The house, a Double Shotgun Style, is owned by a gentleman who does not have enough money to complete the work on his own. A Shotgun Style house is typically one story in height, one room wide and two to three rooms deep with the entrance to each of the rooms lining up from front to back, giving the style its name. A shotgun can be fired from the front door through the house and out to the back door, with nothing stopping the shot. A double shotgun house is simply two shotgun houses attached to each other (similar to a townhouse). Much of the work had already been completed. The house was clean and most of the kitchen cabinets had been installed. Additionally, the painting and installation of the crown molding had been completed in the front room. Our main job was to paint the remaining four rooms of the house, and install crown molding in three of the rooms. If we had enough time, we would also repair holes in the floor and install the remaining kitchen cabinets.
During this meeting we also met Walter Gaddis who is in charge of the National Trust New Orleans field office. Walter, along with his co-worker, Kevin Mercadel, are the only staff members that the National Trust has in New Orleans (they are currently in the process of expanding their office). Walter gave us a brief update on the efforts to preserve much of the city’s housing stock and he was anxious for us to get started so we could see for ourselves what was happening in the city.
I was determined to learn as much as I could about the storm and its aftermath through trips and events set up by the National Trust, as well as exploring on my own. Walter was instrumental in helping me accomplish this goal. Walter’s friends opened their homes and shared stories of their experience in the days and weeks after the storm.
One evening, we were invited to the home of Bill and Betty Norris. They have lived on the Gulf Coast for most of their lives and in the French Quarter for 18 years. Betty works on the Vieux Carre Commission (the historic preservation commission which focuses on the French Quarter), and is well known in the neighborhood as a preservationist. Walter Gaddis and Kevin Mercadel joined as for dinner, as well as the Norris’ son. We discussed the aftermath and how the city is handling the clean up efforts. The demolition of local low income housing projects in the city is a major source of conflict. The National Trust office sees these structures as viable housing stock; however, the city and many residents believe that the buildings should be torn down. Walter explained that the city was using the devastation of the storm as an opportunity to get rid of areas that are seen by many in the community as blighted. Since February, the housing projects have been torn down, with little to no efforts made to deconstruct the buildings and reuse such valuable and unique features as their clay roof tiles and iron railings.
While Kevin and the Norris’ were describing their experiences, the thought that kept coming to my mind was the fact that nothing had really changed in the way mass evacuations would be handled. If another massive storm like Katrina hit New Orleans this hurricane season, with similar flooding and destruction, how would it be handled?
Being able to meet and talk with people who had lived through the aftermath of Katrina proved to be invaluable in understanding what had happened in the city and what was still occurring on a daily basis. I now knew people who had faced incredible odds and had come back to the city they loved. It was people like the Norris’, Kevin and Walter that would continue to bring New Orleans back.
Throughout the week, the group had picked areas to visit throughout the city. We went to the Lower Ninth Ward, which is the area where some of the worst flooding took place. The Industrial Canal is to the west of the neighborhood and links the Mississippi River to Lake Pontchartrain. It was built to allow large container ships easier access to the port of New Orleans. The neighborhood is protected from the canal by levees. These levees were breached during the storm surge that came up the Intracoastal Waterway and into the canal. With the force of the water, some of the levees broke down completely. What had once been blocks and blocks of a thriving neighborhood were gone. While there wasn’t much to see, it was a surreal experience. Squares of empty concrete slabs where houses had once stood were left all throughout the neighborhood. There were concrete steps that led to nothing, iron railings bent in half from the force of the water, and sea shells in the middle of what had once been a driveway. To think about what was once there, to know that these sites had been where people’s homes had once stood, was heartbreaking.
I remember one house that was in the exact place the flood waters had left it. I wasn’t sure where it had originally stood, but the waters had picked up the house and dropped it on top of a chain link fence. The house had split in half and I could see inside. This one house re-enforced my understanding of the devastation and destruction that the people of New Orleans had faced when they were allowed back into their city. As though the storm and flooding had happened weeks ago and not two and a half years, everything was still inside – even the refrigerator, microwave, kitchen table, and all of the dishes. The clothing was in the bedroom closet and a couch and television were still in the living room. It seemed unimaginable that this was once someone’s home and all of their belongings were just left there. And it wasn’t just one house that looked like this; two and a half years ago, an entire neighborhood did; a community was completely obliterated.
Later in the week, Walter Gaddis took us on a tour of the rest of the city. We started in the Holy Cross neighborhood (which is part of the Ninth Ward) and went through the city to see other neighborhoods impacted by the storm. While I knew that other neighborhoods were damaged, I thought most of the damage was in the Ninth Ward and Holy Cross. However, neighborhoods to the west, such as Lakeview and Gentilly, were also flooded in the days after the storm. Restoration work continues in these neighborhoods, but they appear to have made much greater strides than other neighborhoods. You can see high water marks on some of the houses, but there is not visible widespread wreckage like in other parts of the city. This is not to say that these people did not face the hardship and loss that those in the Holly Cross Neighborhood and Ninth Ward had. They had come back to homes that were heavily damaged or destroyed by the flooding. It just seemed that the amount of time that it took for them to get back on their feet was much shorter than other communities. It was hard to see the neighborhood and not question what the differences were – why were these people able to rebound so much faster than those in other areas?
By Friday, we had completed the majority of the work that we had been assigned on our house in the Saint Roch neighborhood. We had painted, installed crown molding, cleaned some of the rooms, and did more touch up painting. We were also able to fix some of the flooring in the house, but not all of them. It would not take a new group of volunteers long to complete the house.
The week in New Orleans was one of the most eye-opening experiences I have ever had. What is happening on the news is completely different from what is going on in reality. While it is not possible for the news to keep a running update, more time should be given to the daily struggle that is still taking place in the city, almost three years after the storm. The work will not be complete by the third anniversary or even the fifth anniversary. The New Orleans damage, not to mention the rest of the Gulf Coast region, will take decades to repair. While so much progress has been made, the residents of the Gulf Coast region still need help. There are organizations throughout the region, including Rebuilding Together, that are always welcoming volunteers. You can donate as much time as you can, any amount of time will provide some relief for the homeowners in the area. The groups welcome trained and untrained volunteers, as the work varies from worksite to worksite. The people that I met and the sites that I saw are something that will always be with me. It was an experience that I will never forget.
For more information regarding the continuing efforts of Rebuilding Together and the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans, please visit their website at http://www.prcno.org/programs/rebuildingtogether/.
Shotgun Style House in New Orleans
The Shotgun Style house is a narrow rectangular residence, typically no more than 12 feet wide, with doors on either end. It was the most popular style of Southern house from the end of the Civil War (1861-65) through the 1920s. Shotgun Style houses were most popular before widespread ownership of the automobile allowed people to live farther from businesses. Building lots were intentionally kept small – no wider than 30 feet. A railroad apartment is somewhat similar, but has a side hallway from which rooms are entered.
An influx of people to cities, both from rural areas and foreign countries, all looking to fill new manufacturing jobs created high demand for city housing. Shotgun houses were built to fulfill the same demand for rowhouses in Northern cities. Like their Northern counterparts, several were built at a time by a single builder, contributing to their relatively similar appearance.