[StBernard] Do Not Demolish

Westley Annis westley at da-parish.com
Wed Aug 26 18:57:27 EDT 2009

Do Not Demolish
Travel Stories: Kevin Fay recently joined voluntourists still helping to
rebuild New Orleans-area homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Judy's house
was waiting for him.

08.26.09 | 10:26 AM ET

kNext door to Judy's house was an empty lot. Nothing remained but a concrete
slab, the footprint of a house-someone's home-that was no more. The weeds
were slowly dismantling the slab, with every intention of reclaiming this
land and returning it to swamp. Just beyond the empty lot stood a run-down
house with a desperate plea spray-painted on the wall: DO NOT DEMOLISH.

Judy's house had been scheduled for demolition on Feb. 7, 2009. But when I
got there in early May, her house was still standing. In fact, it was nearly
rebuilt. Midway through the week, we finished with the tubes of caulk and
the sandpaper, and we swept the floors and broke out the paint. I used to
remodel houses for a living, and painting the trim was always one of my
favorite parts. It means the work is almost done; the house is almost ready
to become a home again. Pretty soon people will move back in. They'll put
rugs on the floors, hang clothes in the closets, put pictures up on the

For my wife, Allison, and me, and the other volunteers, it was just one
week. Give up a few days of your holiday, do something worthwhile, feel good
about yourself. But for Judy, the journey to the finish line had been long
and painful. Judy was born and raised in this house in Chalmette, Louisiana.
It was the only home she'd ever known. That is, until Aug. 29, 2005.

Like all of the homes in St. Bernard Parish (just outside New Orleans'
infamous Lower Ninth Ward), Judy's house was rendered uninhabitable by
Hurricane Katrina. In the nearly four years since the storm, she'd spent
time living in both a FEMA trailer and her mother's garage; in the last few
months, she'd been living in the hospital. Judy had been diagnosed with
inoperable cancer, and her health was deteriorating. She'd tried to move
back in at one point, tried to start the work of rebuilding, but she didn't
have the strength to reclaim the house, to rid it of the mold, to fight back
the weeds.

But then Judy's friends and family contacted the St. Bernard Project, a
local non-profit that rebuilds houses. That's how Allison and I found
ourselves working alongside Joan and Doug, a couple from California who were
back for their fourth week volunteering in the New Orleans area. Our little
crew of workers was led by Bob, a retired mason and firefighter from
Arizona, who had been volunteering for the better part of a year.

In early May, you've still got several weeks before the real heat sets in,
but it was hot enough. The electric wasn't turned on yet, which meant no
A.C., no fans. Rose and I sat on the front steps, taking one of our frequent
water breaks.

"It's just such a blessing what y'all are doing," she told me. "Coming here
from all across the country, helping someone out that you never met. God's
got a special blessing for you and your wife."

Rose was Judy's best friend. They'd both lived in the Parish their entire
lives. At this point, Judy was too sick to come and meet us. Talking to Rose
turned out to be the most important part of the trip for me. I certainly
didn't feel like I deserved any special blessings, but I did feel, very
strongly, the connection that two people share when one person helps another
when they need it most.

We knew Judy wasn't doing too well, and we relied on Rose for updates.

"The poor thing has been through almost 20 rounds of chemo, and her doctor
doesn't know if she can handle any more," she said. "But I went and saw her
yesterday, after I came over here, and I told her how close y'all were to
finishing, and she just lit up. I really do think this house is one of the
things that's keeping her going."

People talk a lot about "voluntourism," often while rolling their eyes.
Maybe it's the inherent cutesiness of the word. Maybe it's a backlash
against do-gooder liberals. I don't know, but the bottom line is it's easy
to find fault, to criticize; but it's actually fairly easy to help out, to
lend a hand. Most of us don't have a lot of free time, or extra money. But a
little effort, a small sacrifice, can change someone's life. A woman was
sick, dying, and a group of strangers had taken it upon themselves to make
sure she didn't finish her days in a trailer.

The St. Bernard Project was started by a family friend of mine, an amazing
woman named Liz McCartney, and her partner, Zack Rosenburg. The thing I love
so much about the work they do, is that they don't knock down houses and
build new ones. They go into your house-the house where you made your life,
raised your family, the house that Katrina left for ruin-and they rebuild
it. They strip it down to the studs, remove the mold, hang the sheetrock,
paint the trim, and they put your house back together again. Since the
Project started in 2006, they've rebuilt 230 homes in St. Bernard Parish and
New Orleans with the help of over 15,000 volunteers. In 8 to 12 weeks, for a
mere $15,000, they can bring a family back home.

It's been four years since Katrina, and New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish
still have a long way to go. Houses, families, neighborhoods and lives still
need to be rebuilt. But progress is being made. Judy's house had been
scheduled for demolition, but because a group of people, locals and tourists
alike, were willing to give a little of their time, her wish had come true.
A few weeks after Allison and I returned home, we got a message from the
Project: Her house was done; Judy was home.

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