New Orleans House Party: Welcome to the ghost town
Last month, Adam Craven, a graphic designer for City Pages, barreled down I-55 to New Orleans in a caravan of five rented minivans. Along with a crew from his Minneapolis church, the Rock, he spent a full work week cleaning out houses in Louisiana. What he found wasn't pretty: scrap-metal vagabonds and spectral streets, hundreds of trashed Dylan CDs and a lost Purple Heart. He also found out that interior demolition in mold-infested houses is not friendly to the human respiratory tract. The labor left the Minnesotans wearing clothing that was only fit for the incinerator--and harboring a resilient sense of optimism about what might yet be salvaged from the city's ruins.
His story begins below and continues throughout the week.
A team of 16 of us arrived at East Hermes Street around 9:00 a.m. to do our first "mud-out." A mud-out consists of dragging a home's complete belongings to the curb and then cleaning and tearing down all the sheet-rock. The house was in East New Orleans; in an area that had about 4 to 5 feet of standing water after the levees broke. The street was silent except for a dog barking next door with no owner in sight. It seemed like a ghost town.
We broke the door down in back and peeked into the house, not sure what we were in for. It was hot, dark, and muddy and it smelled like moldy rotten food. We first started dragging furniture and appliances out. The house hadn't been touched since Katrina hit. The fridge was full of food and there was still a load of clothes in the washer. It was hard seeing some of the family mementos and photo albums. It all had to be trashed. We were only able to salvage a few things that were in a Rubbermaid tub and some trophies.
I came on this trip with 23 other people from my church, the Rock. We were stationed at the First Baptist Church in Slidell along with over 250 volunteers from across the country. Each morning we would receive an assignment and split into teams. We then would head South across Lake Pontchartrain, watching the destruction increase as we got closer to our assigned house. We worked around eight- or nine-hour days from Monday to Friday. Over a course of a week, our team was able to completely mud-out five houses.
The first house was owned by a man named Charles. Charles was a very tall black man in his early 40s. He was wearing a large FUBU sweatshirt and black shades. He works for the local housing board, he explained, and he'd lived in the house with his wife and two sons. Charles stopped by sometime mid-morning asking who authorized the work we were doing. We quickly explained where we were from and that his wife had been consulted earlier that morning. Once things were sorted out, Charles proved to be surprisingly optimistic and open.
We were able to get all the furniture out and about half of the drywall torn down. Around four o'clock our team quit and headed back.
Words and pictures by Adam Craven
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