8.04.2011

My Father's S.O.S.

On his way out the door that Friday morning, my father's S.O.S. was loud and clear: “Hey, kid, Share Our Story."  The word "our" resonated with me because Dad's a retired farmer from Wisconsin, miles and miles north of New Orleans, and yet it had become his story, too. It's a simple story, really.  We met Janet at the Wednesday night church service. My dad asked where she was from as we introduced ourselves. When she replied New Orleans, he asked if she had a house to clean and offered our services without hesitation.  She said sadly that she was going to bulldoze the thing down and be done with it. She'd been back three times, she told us, to try to start some sort of clean up, but each time she'd gotten sick  -- physically and emotionally is my guess.

   He offered again that we'd come there the next day and gut the place for her.  She reluctantly accepted his kind gesture and wrote down her address on the church bulletin.  She was from the East side, in the Aribe area.  She'd lived there for 29 years and hadn't ever even evacuated before.  Until Katrina. When I asked her why she left this time, she said that the wind gusts of 125 mph scared her all the way to Tennessee.
   We started our morning in a tent city. I was struck by how many people had given up their spring break to come and volunteer.  Some of them drove; the license plates read New York, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Tennessee. Others had flown in from as far away as Washington and New York. I kept looking for a familiar face in the ocean of 130 or so people and, while I didn¹t actually recognize anyone, there was a look of compassion and concern that was common to all of them. Volunteers each of them, people with a heart for service, forgoing spring fever follies to help the healing.  We had a quick devotion, sat through an obligatory orientation to cover safety issues, and were trained on how to sort the rubble for the FEMA trucks that would eventually come to dispose of it.  We were issued protective gear, rubber boots, coveralls, gloves, safety goggles, and a respirator mask.  We were encouraged to listen, really listen, to the homeowners.  We were there as much for them, we were told, as for our task of cleaning out their stuff.  In the end, after all, it's all just stuff.
   We then headed to Janet's home for our noon appointment with her and her house.  I can't effectively describe what we saw as we pulled the front door off of her place.  Flooding had gone from floor to ceiling, so with the ceiling collapse, there was insulation everywhere.  The entertainment center blocking the entrance had to be removed before we could get to the furniture that was on top of furniture, all of it covered by mold. Black mold.  Stinky. Smelly. Musty. Mold. Contaminating everything. Everywhere.  
   Our task was to remove everything that made Janet's house a home into curbside piles.  She mentioned that she'd like to try to save her records - record albums as well as file cabinet records.  An avid genealogist, Janet had a lot of research in those records.  We tried to save a few other things, too - her wedding dress, her son's Boy Scout uniform complete with badges, her china.  But most of it went to the curb.  Her commentary as we removed stuff was so interesting:  I paid $2500 for that couch just last year, I got that piece for half price, I never did like that table.  Three hours later, we were removing moist dry wall and had the place nearly gutted.  It was on his way out the door to finish the project the next morning when dad gave me his SOS.
   Heaps of heartache and helplessness and yet a hint of humor:  Janet expressed her gratitude as we were leaving and said she didn't have much to offer us, but we could take a dip in the pool if we'd like.  Yeah, right; I’ll let your imaginations conjure up a picture of what was swimming in her pool after all of these months . . . and a hint of hope; she was now thinking that she could fix the place up and rent it out.  It really had been a nice home for her family, in its day.
    It was the spring break just nine months after Katrina hit. Dad and his crew cleaned up 35 houses, but their volunteer work there had to come to an end.  Tears still fill his eyes when he shares the story of how he helped people put the pieces back together in the aftermath of a hurricane. I wonder if the pieces of their lives can ever truly fall back into place. And then I remember Janet and get the urge to share the story again.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you for sharing this example. So many of us feel powerless in the face of disaster and it is important to see examples, exactly like this, so that we feel empowered to reach out and help!

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