When NOT to Just Accept Damage: A Day of Gutting and Mucking in Braithwaite

typhotoTy Siddiqui, Field Manager

When Hurricane Isaac hit New Orleans on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, it seemed like a bad omen.  I stayed hunkered in my second floor apartment with no electricity and no one with whom to talk.  I saw Isaac’s aftermath in the city and counted us all lucky, since it could have been worse.  I was relieved when the power on my block came back on the following Sunday night, and that businesses re-opened almost immediately.

Then I heard about what happened to Plaquemines Parish.

Stories began to flood in from the news and first-hand accounts about dead animals (deer, ty1cows, nutria, dogs, cats) littering the streets.  Homes had been lifted up off their foundations by flood waters and deposited on the levees.  People had stayed in their homes to ride out the hurricane, assuming that the levee would protect them.  Most of those households were rescued by neighbors with boats, while a few unlucky individuals were dead.  For me, it was a complete flashback to Katrina.

I instantly felt compelled to help them, but I had no resources (no money and no car).  Not-to-mention that public attention on citizens in Plaquemines was fleeting, as Hurricane Sandy did a follow-up act  and wrecked the East Coast, leaving thousands without power.  Local attention became divided (including mine… I have many relatives in D.C. and New York/New Jersey), and even the news that an oil/chemical facility in Braithwaite called Stolthaven released toxins into the floodwater during Isaac didn’t seem to re-focus the locals.  Our attention at the Bucket Brigade became focused on Braithwaite, as aerial images came forward showing the extent of the chemical release.  I thought, “Great!  Not only do these people have to deal with flood clean up and extensive damage to their property, but now there’s a chemical toxicity risk to deal with too!”

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My opportunity to help eventually came through the New Orleans Archdiocese.  Catholic Charities of New Orleans began to organize volunteer days that specifically focused on ty3Braithwaite, Louisiana.  Hundreds of homes had been flooded or destroyed, and the owners had contacted the Archdiocese in order to solicit help.  Every Saturday, between October and December, volunteers could spend six hours pulling down drywall and insulation, and ripping up nails and carpet.  This help could save households the expense of hiring a company to do it, or the personal anguish of doing it themselves.  So on Saturday, December 1st we (including a volunteer named Jay from the Bucket Brigade and several from New Orleans Lamplight Circle, a local spiritual non-profit organization) gathered at the Catholic Charities Headquarters on Howard Avenue (under the guidance of our leader for the day, Andrew) and made our way to Braithwaite through Arabi, Chalmette, and Violet, Louisiana.

While driving through it, I noticed that Chalmette looked like New Orleans-proper did… ty4untouched by hurricane wind and water.  People were driving to their jobs or homes, school buses careened onto local streets, and the looming refinery’s rusted cooling towers released giant clouds of steam and chemicals into the sky.  The sun was shining… a stark contrast to my gloomier thoughts.  I’ve learned things about Chalmette Refining, which include its abhorrent safety record, its disregard for the health of the surrounding community, and its multiple accidents per week.   All of these things happen because the proprietary company (Exxon Mobil) won’t invest money to sustain the facility… they only slap a temporary fix on something broken, and wait until it breaks again.

We turned off of St. Bernard and on to a local highway which passed St. Bernard State Park.  We made our way down some twists and turns, and then began driving next to the Stolthaven facility.  There were large indentations like pregnant chads (gifts from the winds of Isaac) on the upper portions of several tanks. We also watched as metal workers welded new panels onto the sides of three broken chemical tanks.   This situation wasn’t a chemical emergency to them… it was just another day on the job.

ty5Past Stolthaven, the area became more residential.  Homes began to rise in the foreground, and the sight of them was enough to make one cry.  Houses were “hulk-smashed” and laying in pieces, while others had just the roofs ripped off.  A few had escaped virtually unharmed, except for having parts of their foundation washed away (the roofs now look like valleys instead of plains).  The other stories were true as well.  Entire homes and sheds had been picked up by the floods and dropped onto the levee wall… a testament to the force of these flood waters.

These visuals began to invigorate me and my volunteer friends, and we continued downty6 the road for another 10 minutes or so, until we arrived at our rendezvous point… the parking lot of the local Catholic church, where the Archdiocese and United Way had erected a tent.  They were busy organizing canned goods and others non-perishables into boxes for residents.  My crew and I stepped out of the car, took a few pictures (to commemorate our time spent together that day), and waited for instructions.

Andrew approached our group and told us about the house we’d be working on that day.  The home was in the middle of a subdivision, and the neighborhood had been evacuated.  Most of the gutting work (removing drywall and the like) had already been accomplished by a previous crew of volunteers, so all that remained was pulling nails and cleaning up.  The home was a 10 minute drive from the rendezvous point.  We loaded back into the car, and began following Andrew back the way we came.

ty7As we drove down the highway, I remarked to Jay (researcher for the Bucket Brigade) about the numerous citrus orchards we were passing.  Jay began telling me about the farmers in the  region who grow mostly organic citrus.  Apparently, they out-produce the rest of Louisiana in citrus and are THE citrus provider for local Crescent City Farmers’ Markets, including Holly Grove Market.  Or at least, they were.  With this latest chemical spill, many of these farmers will lose their organic label, costing them thousands of dollars in future earnings and doing “God only knows what ” to their produce.

I ruminated on this depressing fact until we reached our work site: a very pretty ty8Ranch-style brick home behind a road check-point manned by St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parish sheriffs.  Andrew’s briefing about previous volunteers’ work was accurate; the trash pick-up in front of the house was piled high (three to four feet) with the guts of the interior.  Furniture and household nick-knacks littered the front yard, and there was no presence of glass in the windows.  Large televisions were lying abandoned on the lawn, and the only remaining evidence that this home was loved and lived in was a fake decorative face on the tree in the front, smiling and welcoming us inside.

ty9I could tell that this house used to be beautiful.  We walked through the front entrance into a foyer with bright and expensive tile, an immediate signal to me that “Mother Nature” doesn’t discriminate between the rich and poor… everyone gets hit with a hurricane.  The foyer took us to a recessed and large living area with a broad fire place, and French doors that led onto a covered back patio.  The pool was filled with brown water and covered by a layer of green algae.  Standing in the center of the home, I felt the moisture that the walls continued to hold.  The sky became overcast, and what little natural light there was fell away.  This home where people lived just felt like a musty and empty basement.  Looking at all the hard surfaces, I realized… this home was specifically built to take on floodwater with little structural damage.  Obviously, the residents here expect their home to flood every few years or so.

We began our work.  Most of the group took to removing nails that stuck out of studs, ty10baseboards, and joists throughout the house.  I began working in the last room toward the back, which still needed to have its sheet rock cleared out and carpet ripped up.  One of the regular workers with the project, Al, showed me the ropes.  I picked up large pieces of crumbling sheet rock and piled them into the wheelbarrow (which barely fit through the door frames throughout the house).  After having the first piece completely crumble in my hands and all over my clothes, I regretted not wearing a Tyvek suit.  I decided to fore-go the mask as well, since my heavy breathing was fogging up my glasses.  The only protective gear I wore was gloves (which would suffice for my current task).

ty11I made several trips with the wheelbarrow to the sidewalk, dumping piles of sheet rock and a few pieces of insulation.  Emily and Vivek (a newly-married couple and close friends of mine), Jay, and Bart (another member of Lamplight Circle) were either on ladder or on their knees, removing nails.  After most of the sheet rock was cleared, Al and I removed the baseboards and rolled up the soggy carpet and pad underneath.  With a giant “heave-ho”, we loaded up this last remnant of the room, and carted it outside.

Next came the private bathroom (which we could all tell was very nice in its hay-day).  The large, tiled shower was adjacent to the two-person bathtub with water jets; yet both areas were covered with pieces of drywall and dirt/sand swept in by the flooding.  Emily and I went to work, sweeping and shoveling up the mess.  After subduing the back of the house, I began to work on the living room with Emily, sweeping up caked-on dirt and pieces of insulation.  Upon examination, we discovered an old mantel clock (broken, of course) that I set on the mantel of the living room fire place.  I wondered how many floods it had lived through, and how many more it would see. ty12

It was important to take a mental break from the depression, and allow our youth and vigor to provide needed distractions.  Bart began talking about his history as a lyricist, and broke out with an impromptu rap (with rapturous applause following it).  I let slip a muffled guffaw when Jay swung his hammer to extricate a nail, only to catch the porcelain light fixture on the ceiling, which released a pocket of Isaac floodwater on his head.  Emily, Vivek, and I found a large abandoned monster truck tire on the side of the road, and Emily proceeded to crawl inside it and model.  Each of us found a way to abate our sadness over the damage.  We then took a break for a quick bite.

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Our final hour of work included a few short tasks… some sweeping, more nails being pulled out, more piles of trash sent to the front yard.  With our workload decreasing, I took the opportunity to take some pictures of the results.  We had created a clean home, ready to repair.  But what about the next hurricane?  There were a lot of things that volunteering made me ponder… the fact that the people in this region have the sword of Damocles hanging over their head when it came to flooding, and the thought that while this work helped them, they’ll be doing this all over again in two years. I began to be reminded of another unsustainable pattern… that of Chalmette Refining, and their “patch job” approach.

With our work finished, some of the nuns from Catholic Charities came by to pray with us, ty14and thank us for our work.  We took a group snap shot (I try not to miss a group picture opportunity), and began packing up our equipment.  We took our final look around the house, took a few more pictures, said goodbye to Al, and went on our way.

The drive home was quiet, and surreal (with the exception of a few pit-stops to nab some oranges near the road and take a few candid photos of the damage).  Each of us was wrapped up in our own thoughts.  I’m glad I got to see the area affected by Stolthaven, and help an injured community.  But where do these people go from here?  Driving past Chalmette Refining again, I kept thinking about the disasters that happen to us down here and the choices we make in their wake.

People in the flood plain of Plaquemines know that another storm will hit them and they’ve ty15accepted this reality; however, the help that we provided was only a quick fix to a constant problem.  Wouldn’t it be a greater help to create an unbreakable levee system?  Or a foundation that won’t rock?  Or a home that won’t flood? Just as Chalmette Refining uses weak and temporary clamps to seal up leaks in chemical pipelines, we are only providing a temporary solution.  We are becoming too reactionary, and not being innovative. Because of this, the culture of this region now includes one staple: damage is a part of everyday life, and we must simply accept it.  Maybe what gives Louisianans the strength to carry on in times like this is also their weakness.   Perhaps their ability to just “accept” damage (like hurricanes) has made them turn a blind eye to the wrongdoings of other things (like local industry).  I will continue my work at the Bucket Brigade and hope that the next time I visit Braithwaite, their situation will have a sustainable solution.

My experience in Plaquemines Parish was a positive one.  I encourage everyone reading this to visit www.ccano.org and help clean up Braithwaite… but when you finish, please call or visit the Louisiana Bucket Brigade to find out how you can help make a long-lasting impact on these communities.

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