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A Volunteer's Gulf Coast Journal

A contractor shares his experiences helping to rebuild a Katrina-ravaged community

Two years after hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast, community rebuilding continues with no shortage of homes requiring reconstruction. In February 2007, Boston-based builder Rich Glenn and his helper traveled to Waveland, Miss., volunteering their time to rebuild homes for a week.

“Any kind of volunteer work is, in a sense, a drop in the bucket compared with what I saw there,” said Glenn. “We need a mobilization type of effort to compete the recovery. But volunteer organizations are one way to get things started.”

Still, Glenn left Waveland with a good feeling, knowing the group he volunteered with is committed to finishing entire houses. This fact eased the fear that his volunteer work wouldn’t make a difference.

Here is Glenn’s story, recorded in a journal while in Waveland.

Sunday

(From left): Rich Glenn, Atilla Ujhelyi, "Miss Hazel" Tracey , and Dave Karaus. (From left): Rich Glenn, Atilla Ujhelyi, "Miss Hazel" Tracey , and Dave Karaus.

Is this really going to happen? Boston’s Logan Airport is crowded, but it looks like my 30-year-old assistant Attila Ujhelyi and I will soon be traveling as volunteers to rebuild houses devastated by Katrina. We were supposed to leave last Thursday, but when a major snowstorm hit the Northeast, our flight to New Orleans was canceled and today the earliest we could reschedule. From the looks of the crowds, the same goes for the thousands of other travelers also at Logan. Since we have to return on Friday, I wonder if it’s even worth going.

With support and well wishes from friends and family, it would be pretty disappointing of us to bag out at this point. Obviously, many others have made bigger commitments, including Dave Karaus, a friend of 30 years and a Boston-based contractor who got me started in this business. It’s because of him that we are even going on this trip.

Dave wanted to get involved in the rebuilding after Katrina and found out about Massachusetts-based Wayland to Waveland (W2W), a grassroots movement started by Cindy Lombardo and Kathy Steinberg. The original intention was simply to collect and send clothing, blankets, and other supplies that hurricane victims need, but the effort soon evolved into a commitment to help rebuild homes

The organization’s name symbolizes the connection between the Boston suburb of Wayland and Waveland, Miss., once a quiet beachfront town of 7500 that found itself at the epicenter of Katrina’s path. To put the destruction in Waveland into context, 15-foot storm surges destroyed the town’s entire infrastructure and 70-percent of the houses.

Dave signed on to spend three weeks overseeing a shifting group of volunteers in the hope that 79-year-old “Miss Hazel” Tracey can leave the FEMA trailer she has been living in for 16 months and move back into her home. Dave and his helper, Jeremy Parker, drove their van and a trailer filled with tools and kitchen cabinets from Boston to Waveland. Attila and I are joining them two weeks into the project, and we have already lost three days due to the storm. After our flight gets into New Orleans at 11 p.m., we pick up our rental car and head 50 miles east on Route 10 to Waveland. In the darkness, we have no chance to assess our environment or to get a sense of the hurricane’s effects a year and a half after it happened.  Better just to get to the motel and get some sleep. 

Tomorrow will be a big day.

Monday

Our motel is in Bay St. Louis, an adjacent town east of Waveland. Dave, Attila, and I have a big breakfast, and then we follow Dave over to the job site. Dave takes the beach road to give us a view of Waveland. We pass a few active job sites and some homes that have been restored and are in good shape, but mostly cleared lots and houses in various stages of disrepair, almost untouched since the hurricane. The houses in Waveland are built in two styles: the usual, mostly ranches of wood or brick, and the other half on stilts of wood or concrete, a full story above ground level. Neither withstood the storm surge waters. Many of the houses on stilts are pitched at eerie angles like lookout towers for a ghost town. The Army Corps of Engineers cleared lots whose owners gave them permission, but homeowners who were absent still have yards with debris and discarded cars and houses left as they were after the storm. We turn right off the beach road onto Waveland Avenue. A number of homeowners have strung wires with “No Trespassing” signs in front of lots containing nothing but weeds and a few pieces of concrete foundation. Other lots contain forlorn reminders of life before the storm: a few bottles and jars stacked on a brick fireplace, the last remnants of a home.

After about a half-mile on Waveland Avenue, we come to the two houses W2W is working on. We are focusing on Miss Hazel’s house, a yellow brick ranch that had to be gutted after the storm. Miss Hazel was in Texas when Katrina hit, and when she finally had a chance to see her home, she realized, like most Waveland residents, that she’d lost everything. Because she has no insurance or financial resources, W2W is providing the labor and most of the materials, with some help from her family, to rebuild her home. Work has proceeded in fits and starts as volunteers become available, but now completion is in sight. 

Dave and Atilla survey a lot cleared by the Army Corps of Engineers. Dave and Atilla survey a lot cleared by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Miss Hazel's home after a new roof was installed. Miss Hazel's home after a new roof was installed.

Dave shows us around. The Sheetrock is already up, taped, and has one coat of joint compound. Most of the windows are trimmed out, but the interior doors remain to be hung. The plumbing is roughed in, but the only running water is from a hose by the front yard (we were told not to drink the water.) The electrical work is almost complete, thanks to Peg, an electrician who’s been to Waveland four times. When she and three other volunteers were here last week, Peg installed all the switches and outlets.  However, there is still a tangle of extension cords leading outside because the house hadn’t been hooked up to the power lines.

We meet Miss Hazel, a gracious Southern lady, after she comes out of her FEMA trailer to greet us. Jeremy, Dave, and the rest of this week’s crew gather: Gary and Cheryl, a Newton, Mass., couple back for a second week of work; Lisa, a mother from Cambridge, Mass.; and Ken, a plasterer from San Francisco who came on a referral from Habitat for Humanity.

Dave shows me the bathroom, and I see where I’ll be spending most of my time this week. There is an acrylic bathtub standing on its end, and the walls where the fixtures will go and around the tub are still exposed studs. The plumbing is roughed in, and Dave needs the tub installed, backerboard and drywall hung, and then ceramic tile installed 5-ft. above the tub on three walls. Although I’m neither a plumber nor a tilesetter, I see a project in my future. Dave has all the materials for the project except a wet saw, which he assures me he can find.

Miss Hazel's bathroom. Miss Hazel's bathroom.

Step one is installing the tub. I adjust the height of the cleat for the tub by adding a ½-in. shim (someone forgot the floor tile), and begin test-fitting the PVC drain connection. After three test-fittings and a bed of thinset for the base of the tub, Attila and I manage to apply the glue, maneuver the tub into place, and seat the fitting in the required 30 seconds. Next, I shim the walls and hang the drywall and backerboard.  This drywall is paperless and mildew-resistant, and it is new to me. It seems like a good choice in this environment.

Attila, my impossibly conscientious helper, has shifted over to working on the walls. He is an immigrant from Hungary and has been in Boston for 10 years, the last two working for me. Atilla chose to come to Waveland at his own expense. The idea made me nervous, since his wife, Lorena, is expecting in June, but I guess it won’t be any easier to get away after they have the baby. In any case, Attila is soon overseeing the crew of volunteers as they apply second and third coats of joint compound in all the rooms. Perhaps his Hungarian accent adds weight to his directives, as the others check in regularly to get his opinion. This frees up Dave to run errands and work on his own project of installing kitchen cabinets. Dave has found the majority of his time is spent teaching and overseeing each crew, particularly volunteers without backgrounds in the trades. Group morale is high, and everybody takes direction and is willing to work long days approaching exhaustion. Nasty jobs, like insulating the attic, are traded off in small doses in the morning. Even in February, it gets too hot here to insulate comfortably after midday. 

Melanie Karetas, Miss Hazel’s vivacious next-door neighbor, shows up with pizza for lunch.  A 50-year-old former waitress, Melanie is the project cheerleader. Like many in Waveland, her house was completely washed away, but her ex-husband had convinced her to get flood insurance three months before Katrina hit. So last October, Peter Bachman, a contractor from Wayland, brought his crew of six down and in 10 days framed a new house from the ground up, with Melanie’s insurance covering the cost of materials. Amish volunteers then completed the roofing. Ready for siding and drywall, the house is the gemstone of the Wayland to Waveland effort. However, all efforts are now focused on Miss Hazel’s house and getting her moved back in before work resumes next door.

By the afternoon, I’m attaching the last pieces of backerboard and drywall to the bathroom walls. I’ve had to do a lot of shimming to make the surfaces match up, but it’s looking good and should be ready for tiling tomorrow. We work until about 8 p.m., then order Cuban take-out. We set up planks on sawhorses for a table and use work lights for illumination. Miss Hazel joins us for the excellent dinner, and we have a few beers and trade stories. She tells us about being in the same house in 1969 for Hurricane Camille, the previous worst storm in the area. They had a hurricane party then and drank margaritas by candlelight as the water level reached chest high.

We head back to the motel for showers and bed. I have no trouble sleeping.

Tuesday

Mardi Gras, as celebrated  in Bay St. Louis. Mardi Gras, as celebrated  in Bay St. Louis.

Attila and I grab the not-too-exciting continental breakfast at the motel. Dave is already up and out, meeting Melanie at Lowe’s at 7:30 a.m. to buy an attic-stair unit for her house. A second cup of coffee helps me remember how to do the tile layout. Dave already has gotten thinset and for both the walls and tile floor, and has gone out for a tile cutter and spacers for the floor tiles.

Dave, a fine practitioner of in-your-face persuasion, has found that a lighter touch works best down here. His mantra about the crew, “They are volunteers,” has been helpful. By noon Dave is back with a wet saw, loaned for free from a Christian community center, signed for on a blank piece of paper. I’ve gotten much of the tile laid on the back wall, but it’s the easy part below the window with mostly full tiles. Attila and the others are moving from room to room, sanding and plastering. An idea occurs to me: This job, despite the setting, is just like any other job I would do. There is no quick fix or special formula. There are some concessions to production, like off-white walls with white trim, but in general we’re plodding through this project just like a regular paying job. But because our time is so limited, there is a special incentive to avoid getting bogged down. In the words of a carpenter friend, “Aim high and keep moving.”

Today is Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras. We had entertained the notion of heading to New Orleans to join the festivities, but neither the time nor the energy is available. Instead, Dave, Attila and I decide to check out the parade in Bay St. Louis. We get there midafternoon, in time to see the last couple of floats and high-school students dancing to the bass-heavy beat of recorded music. We collect and put on the beads they throw us. We head back to the house, and I wear them for the rest of the day for a little Mardi Gras spirit.

Back in the bathroom, work has slowed down as most of the tiles around the window and edges require cuts. Attila has switched from walls to working with me, so he can cut with the wet saw while I measure and lay the tiles. We work past sunset, but by 8 p.m., I decide that I’m so fatigued that the likelihood of making mistakes outweighs the potential progress. 

Wednesday

Wayland to Waveland volunteers outside Melanie Karetas' house. Wayland to Waveland volunteers outside Melanie Karetas' house.

Dave and Miss Hazel have developed a daily ritual: Each morning Dave gives her a tour of the house to see the progress from the previous day. Today, with most of the walls primed and the bathroom taking shape, she exclaims, “If I’m dreaming, don’t wake me up!” 

This morning I take a break from working on the bathroom so that Ken can do the second coat of joint compound there. I have lots of options and start with the casings for the attic stairs.

Jeremy, a 24-year-old with a bearlike presence and a natural charm, has come up with a special treat for lunch. Last night he was hanging out with the neighbors across the street and came away with a 20 lb. bag of shrimp, Cajun sausages, and potatoes. This family of two adults, three kids, and two dogs is living in the same type of FEMA trailer as Miss Hazel. It has been ingeniously designed to sleep up to eight people, but hardly in comfort.

The morale of the crew, spurred by Miss Hazel’s appreciation, is incredibly high. The volunteers enjoy trading stories and music, but the focus remains on getting the job done.  Also, we’re in the ”visual progress” stage of work, where projects that have gone on for months by different crews are coming to completion.

None of the volunteers from this round are actually from Wayland. Although it’s organized and led by Wayland people, Wayland to Waveland’s big-tent philosophy of including volunteers from different areas and groups has broadened its appeal and impact. Like Dave, I was drawn to this group knowing it was an ongoing effort with established goals and organization. Mainly, I wanted to feel like I was putting my abilities to use, which has been the case. Also, W2W features a person-to-person connection between us and the people we are helping, which is a big part of the experience.

By late afternoon, the remaining wall tiles are installed, ready to be grouted in 24 hours. I switch to a series of kitchen projects: shimming and drywalling a half-wall and installing the cabinet doors. Six-inch by six-inch earth-tone tiles were chosen for the bathroom floor, as well as the floor of the other half-bathroom. Attila volunteers to stay late and finish the half-bath’s floor so tomorrow we can tile the full bathroom floor and still have time to sightsee for a few hours around New Orleans before dark. Our plane leaves Friday morning.

I do the floor layout, making use of the one square corner in the half-bath. Attila hasn’t done ceramic tile before this trip but has done related things like vinyl floor tiles, so he has no trouble picking it up. 

Dave and I, along with Gary, Cheryl, and Lisa, head back to our motel, a 12-story casino that was one of the first projects to be completed after Katrina. The dinner buffet here has a block-long line, so we search for something open after 9 p.m., eventually finding a Mexican restaurant.

Thursday

Atiila, my "impossibly conscientious helper." Atiila, my "impossibly conscientious helper."

This is our last day of work. We make it to the house by 8 a.m. Lisa has been rolling the finish paint in the bedrooms for an hour. Dave has contracted a local electrician to finish the work in the main panel so that the house can be powered up. I lay out for floor tiles while Attila mixes up a batch of thinset. Around 10 a.m., Miss Hazel brings in her daughter and son-in-law for a tour. They have flown in from Omaha, Neb., and though dubious about coastal living, are otherwise impressed with our work. They go out to purchase a bed and other furniture that Miss Hazel will need to move in.

Dave bolts the cabinets next to the half-wall into the cement floor. The laminate countertops are ready to be picked up today, and the refrigerator has been ordered, leaving only staining and polyurethaning the pine cabinets to complete the kitchen.

During lunch, the power company comes by to connect the house to the grid. Turning on the lights in the house gives us a lift and a chance to clear out a maze of extension cords and droplights. By 2 p.m. the last floor tiles are set, and Attila and I are ready to head to New Orleans. Miss Hazel, back from shopping with her family, pulls in just before we leave. We have a chance for final hugs and pictures.

By 4 p.m. we’re approaching the eastern suburbs of New Orleans on Route 10. I’ll have to admit that one incentive to come here as a volunteer was the chance to survey the damage from Katrina and not feel like a gawker. At one point, we reach a stretch of abandoned housing that goes on for mile after mile. It’s mostly apartment complexes, but includes single houses and strip malls, seemingly intact but without people or signs of reconstruction.  Rebuilding seems to be going on only around the edges, adjacent to areas that were flooded the least. I’ve come to realize that you can’t rebuild without electricity and an infrastructure. There is no evidence of the massive effort necessary to rebuild this area in the foreseeable future.

By 7:30 p.m., we’re heading into the French Quarter in search of some local cuisine. Later, we walk down Bourbon Street, still festive and the crowds hungover from a successful Mardi Gras two nights before. This part of the city was untouched by the flooding, and the energy feels resurgent. We catch a local band, then head back to Bay St. Louis.

Friday

Miss Hazel's bathroom floor, ready for grouting. Miss Hazel's bathroom floor, ready for grouting.
By 8:45 a.m. we are on a plane headed back to Boston via Philadelphia. I can’t help but reflect on our trip and wonder what role our volunteer work played in the Gulf Coast’s recovery. W2W is a locally based effort with an obviously limited scope, but are other communities and groups doing similar things? I don’t know. Volunteer groups are not a substitute for federal resources and action, but maybe a spark of good intention will lead to more attention. All I know for certain is that this effort felt good for everyone involved. I’m ready for some extra sleep and a return to my regular work.

Postscript

Dave and Jeremy stayed through the weekend, completing the kitchen and the finish carpentry and grouting the tile work. A local plumber volunteered to install bathroom and kitchen fixtures, and eight local Christian-group volunteers came by to do the final cleaning. Dave loaded out on Tuesday for the drive back to Boston, but Jeremy stayed to help Miss Hazel get her certificate of occupancy and move back in.

In April 2007, another group from Wayland to Waveland, headed by Peter Bachman and including Jeremy and Peg, went down for a week and completed the exterior siding and Sheetrock for Miss Melanie’s house.  

For more information on Wayland to Waveland, visit their Web site at: www.waylandtowaveland.org.

Read more about other volunteer efforts currently underway in the Gulf in Daniel S. Morrison's "Cross Section" coverage Good news in the Gulf  from Fine Homebuilding Issue #190 (Oct/Nov 2007) pp.20-24.
Photos: Courtesy Rich Glenn
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