Lo and Behold

... the diary of one Chicago guy pointing his car South and traveling to New Orleans to work, gut homes and not mess up the recovery efforts in New Orleans USA April 2006 ...

Location: shivering

Please check out mark-guarino.com or wordpreserve.com.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

New website

This month marks the launch of my new website, which I'm also using to link to this current blog.

Visit mark-guarino.com or wordpreserve.com.

On both I plan to post articles and news that encompasses everything in my writing life.

I also plan on returning to New Orleans in 2009 for further volunteer work, this time through a different organization than Habitat. So look for renewed postings here.

Happy 2008 and here's best wishes for a healthier New Orleans to come!

Saturday, February 17, 2007

We're on WXRT

Rob and I had the pleasure of taping a two-hour edition of "The Eclectic Company" this week. We were guests of rock icon Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers) and local luminary Nick Tremulis, known for his own rockin' contribution to social justice issues. We talked about our work last year for Habitat plus played TONS of New Orleans music — classic R&B, indie weirdness, zydeco, etc.

It airs in Chicago Tuesday 2/20 10 p.m.-midnight CENTRAL TIME via WXRT 93.1-FM. If you're outside Chicago you can stream it live via their website, wxrt.com.

Thanks to Marty Lennartz, Jon and Nick. We had a lot of fun.

Check the site for a new chapter on this journey.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

1,000 volunteers needed this summer ...

... and not even working for Habitat

Hundreds of Volunteers Needed in the Greater New Orleans Area

Habitat for Humanity wants to alert volunteers of an opportunity to work with the St. Bernard Parish Recovery Project in Louisiana. There is a tremendous need for volunteer support. This opportunity is being coordinated exclusively through St. Bernard Parish. Please see below for more details.

Situation Background
St. Bernard Parish, located to the southeast of New Orleans, remains one of the most devastated communities in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. St. Bernard suffered significant structural damage to 100 percent of its residential and commercial units. Not only was it victim of torrential rain and winds, but a massive storm surge left nearly all of the parish inundated. The citizens of St. Bernard Parish need your help to recover.

The Plan
The parish launched the St. Bernard Recovery Project on January 12th, 2006. The first phase will consist of volunteer teams of 10 entering flooded homes in order to salvage family treasures and remove debris (furniture, carpeting, sheetrock, etc.). Those homes still to be visited, already deemed structurally intact by the St. Bernard Parish Fire Department, number in the thousands. The second phase of the project, scheduled to begin when 5,000 homes have been cleaned of debris, will involve a partnership with the elderly, disabled, and single working parent households who have little means to rebuild.

Please note that this is not a Habitat for Humanity project. St. Bernard Parish is coordinating this effort. While this is so, without the prior support of thousands of committed Habitat volunteers, the project would never have come this far. However, there is a long way to go. Habitat for Humanity is one of several organizations that have been asked to make this opportunity known to its volunteers. This effort is being organized by St. Bernard Parish and Homeland Security professionals and will be one of the most comprehensive community recovery projects ever undertaken.

Those willing to donate their time and abilities are asked to commit for a minimum of six days. Volunteers arrive on Sundays for team assignment and OSHA-certified safety training, and work Monday through Friday during the cooler hours of the day. St. Bernard will house volunteers in Camp Hope and transport them from site to site. This volunteer base camp features 24-hour security, a medical tent, wireless Internet capability, satellite telephones, and shower and laundry facilities. Volunteers sleep in temperature-controlled classrooms with cots provided. In addition, the parish will provide three meals a day. A donation of $100 per week is requested from each volunteer to help with food, electrical, and security costs. Those who cannot provide this requested donation will not be turned away.

St. Bernard Parish will coordinate the volunteer effort in removing health and safety hazards from homes and hauling the debris to the curb.
Committed volunteers must wear:
· Eye goggles
· Steel-toe boots with steel shanks (to protect soles from nails)
· Work gloves
· Volunteers should bring four pairs of work clothes.

In addition:
· Volunteers must have received tetanus vaccinations
· The EPA, the DEQ, the LDHH, and the ATSDR all require that volunteers wear N95 particulate respirators.

If you suffer from asthma, reactive airway disease, mold/spore allergies, a compromised immune system, or are pregnant, on steroids, undergoing chemotherapy, have leukemia, or are an organ transplant recipient, you will not be permitted to participate in debris removal.

The opportunities to work on this project will be great. There is a tremendous need for support. Officials have estimated needing at least 1,000 volunteers per week until the end of the summer. For every hour a volunteer works, the devastated, bankrupt parish can apply $15 towards its reimbursement of the federal government. The parish is mainly blue collar, and each home that is cleaned of its debris saves the homeowner $5,000-$7,000. So many were without flood insurance, as the community is above sea level and not considered a part of the flood plain. Of the 67,000 residents, only 10,000 have been able to return. The parish government is operating with 50% of its staff, so the project is driven almost entirely by volunteers.

Your support is desperately needed. For many this has proved to be a life-changing experience. To call it humbling or eye-opening is an understatement.

If you are interested in volunteering, you can register for the St. Bernard Parish Recovery Project by going to the New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity website at http://www.habitat-nola.org/st_bernard/. Any questions can be directed to Michael Hayes at the New Orleans affiliate, at (504) 861-2077 or michaelh@habitat-nola.org.

Please help us spread the word. Thank you for your support!

Michael Hayes
Special Projects Coordinator
New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Week later

About a week after returning I am still having dreams of destruction. If the dreams are not literally about New Orleans, they are simply ordinary dreams with backgrounds of destruction.

I have made a vow, though, not to look at my photos for awhile. On Sunday I scrolled through them for family but felt sort of sick afterwards. I think I'm going to put them aside for awhile and not look at them for a few months.

I hope to continue this blog yet right now am trying to decide in what direction. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006


I'm home. It took a long time. The last two nights I dreamt of tromping through sludge and empty homes, taking pictures, digging, in an area of nothing but devastation. I was told by a friend yesterday morning that the volunteers will likely experience a form of post traumatic stress for awhile. I think he may be right.

I'll write more when I get adequate sleep.

Sunday, April 30, 2006

Sunday afternoon

Just returned from the jazz festival. The largest crowd ever. I can't say it was fun. I kept thinking that most of these people are here in support of the New Orleans economy and that's good, but really, it's about that venerable American tradition of marathon drinking, acting rude and wearing stupid clothes. Lots of fat old craggy men wearing fanny packs, Hawaiian shirts and panama hats — not a good look. One T-shirt read something like (I'm paraphrasing) "I went to New Orleans and all I got was this stupid T-shirt, a plasma TV and a Cadillac." Another read "C'est Levee." Cute but regrettable that a terrible disaster -- out of sight and out of mind for most Americans -- is whittled down that way. As if people need to be dumber.

So I can't say the festival left me skipping.

This has been a life changing experience. I plan to return in some fashion, to gut more homes. Maybe not for Habitat but for a church here. Many are running programs just like Habitat but out of general public eye. It seems that to return to the monotony of daily life is a cop-out of some slight sort. Not that any additional work will make me feel I'm making a difference but it will serve as just this: to not forget.

I'll write more later, but first, here are some photos of the day.

The festival is located in a neighborhood called St. John's Bayou. It is quiet, peaceful with many beautiful little cottages peppering a bayou. I've spent a lot of time here just walking along the bayou. It's serene.
I saw a fish jump in and out of the water — guys like this one were throwing their lines.
The homes are intoxicating.
This reads "Keep the bayou beautiful."

Inside the fairgrounds, while waiting for Elvis Costello, the crowd went into an uproar. I looked around trying to figure out why. Then I saw it. It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a plane with a banner that reads "Impeach Bush!'
This may have been the only banner advertising that received a standing ovation from the people in the seats. And in a red state, too.

For those of you reading in Chicago, I ran into this familar and friendly face:

It's Bill FitzGerald, owner of the live music club of the same name in Berwyn. Bill is driving back tonight. In July, his annual American Music Festival will celebrate its 25th year, a great Chicago tradition and definitely the best festival of the summer. A miniature New Orleans jazz festival -- many of the same artists but without as many people. Kudos to him for sporting the Robbie Fulks tee, too.

I also ran into this famous face, but it was on the Trinitron.
Elvis Costello with Allen Toussaint, the great New Orleans producer, arranger and songwriter. While it was fun to hear them perform together, the crowd was terrible. So I retreated with my sidekick, 14-year-old Kenneth, and we checked out the Meters and other stuff on the smaller stages. Which included DL Menard, the great Cajun musician, songwriter and singer, considered the Hank Williams of cajun music.
Cajun music is music that is both happy and sad at the same time. A waltz beat with a guy in backwoods French, wailing about lost love. Makes perfect sense to me.

Sunday morning

Rain arrived last night. We went for dinner to the Bywater at a place called Elizabeth's. It's next to a levee and, driving through the narrow streets, you get a sense you're in another time. This place radiates mystery, it's not just a cliche.

Coming back home, the rain increased. It was needed. It rained throughout the night but upon morning, it was bright and sunny. It was not before I came here years ago I realized that different parts of the planet radiate different forms of light. Here, the sun is BRIGHT. Combine that with the flora, the lush green, the different shades of homes and you have an intense daily life.

After a soak in a big clawfoot bathtub (they don't shower here except on the first floor), I took a walk for a paper and coffee and now am about to head off to the jazzfest. I am really itchy from all that fiberglass insulation I handled all week. Plus tired. A good tired though. I'm walking to New Orleans but dragging my feet.

Here are some shots of my walk.

The Rue de Course, a local chain coffeehouse, this one in an old bank building.

After Mayor Ray Nagin played to black votes by promising New Orleans would be a "chocolate city," some whites were offended. Thus, these signs:
Hello kitty
Mighty oaks
Back to the casa de la Reyes. I love this house.
Now off to see Springsteen and company.

For some in the Lower Ninth, a new start at life

Here they were, working on a gutted home in the Lower Ninth Ward when I stopped by. They were putting in the electric. Three out of four of them were from Chicago. They put down their tools and came outside, enthusiastic to talk. We stood on the front steps at midday. The sky was deep blue. And there was no sound in the neighborhood other than our voices. Even the main street, with its little car traffic, was probably six blocks away. Behind us as we talked was the green grass slope of a levee.

"(New Orleans after Katrina) is not about black or white," said Al Mitch (at left). "It's about do you have some skills? Do you want to work or do you not want to work? I can't see, really, going back to Chicago."

He's the tallest, a 32-year veteran of Com Ed. Before last month, Mitch was retired and happily so. He was sick of installing cable during Chicago winters. The worst was the the last time the Chicago Bears played the Super Bowl, which happened to be in New Orleans. He listened to the game on the radio and imagined the cool Delta breeze. "I had to work that day. It was two below. The Bears were here and I was freezing," he said.

Mitch, 59, was happily living in Fernwood, a South Side neighborhood, until he got a call from his friend Darryl Summers (at bottom), a contractor friend who went South in December. New Orleans, he told him, was booming. And not only were the people down there sick of the local contractors who never showed up on time, did shoddy work or didn't return phone calls, but work was plentiful for a dedicated professional and better yet, the weather all good.

Now, both men, one retired, decided to change their lives. In a matter of months, they and their wives and children will turn their back on the Midwest and call New Orleans home.

For Summers, 49, it's a homecoming. His mother is a native and he spent the summers riding the streetcar and eating the food. Compared to Chicago — a hard, ugly industrial city — New Orleans is casual, overflowing with creature comforts. "I always loved New Orleans. The people, the music, the atmosphere. You walk down the street, (the people) wave at you," he said.

While others are writing the city's obituary, Mitch sees a "new beginning." "Although it was a disaster, a person with some skills, you have a chance to explore your world, live your dreams," he said. Due to rampant price gouging opportunists — and because they are polite, professional and good — the group hasn't advertised once. They also credit their schooling in the rigid and vast matrix of Chicago code rules, which makes basic install jobs in New Orleans a piece of cake. "Chicago, it's hard. Here, you work hard, but it's not hard," Mitch explained. Plus, the micromanagement of Com Ed, something he said began to eat at him from the inside, would not exist. In New Orleans, he would be a free man.

Mitch brought with him Tiger Fairrow, 25 from Bolingbrook (in orange), his friend's nephew who is also a licensed contractor but not as sure as his elders whether he wants to stay. Right now he just likes the steady work and sunshine.

While here they rounded out the group hiring George Lloyd (top, in grey). Lloyd has his own post-Katrina plans. As soon as he can, he's moving to Buffalo, where there's family. Despite the flow of work in his native city, he has nightmares. That happens when swamp water rises as high as your neck. And you spend seven days in the Superdome, watching murder and suicide he insists happened despite investigations in the Times-Picayune that report the contrary. "Rape, murder, drugs, guns, you name it, it was in there," he said. Despite the squalor and the violence, he said he wasn't scared because he's seen it all. "I done live through all that," he said. "I was worried about the kids."

Lloyd, who before Katrina worked several jobs including at a shipyard and sterilyzing trays at a local hospital, said the breakdown was just the natural course of events. People didn't enter the Superdome ravaged. But it became apparant that there would be no resuce and no one seemed in charge. Time simply took its toll. "When you ain't got no oxygen and the power went out and it's hot, no one can eat and you're confused, naturally people are going to get disturbed," he said. "Then it turned violent."

After the Superdome, Lloyd was bused to Tulsa, Okla., but after eight days, he turned right back around. He arrived in the Lower Ninth and find his apartment building "totally gone." Today he's staying with a cousin in Kenner, a suburb.

While up on ladders, his new co-workers prod him for stories he hesitates to retell. "The little food they had, there was not enough to go around. When kids go hungry, that's a helluva thing. It shouldn't have been," he said. "It was hell in there."

Mitch said that despite the horrors that happened in this neighborhood, he's convinced things will change for the better. For that to happen, it will take a new sense of perception, trust — and patience. "Anyone who thinks it's going to change overnight is fooling themselves," he said. "It's monumental."

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Freaky Friday

By Friday, none of us could barely move. This is exhausting work. Not just because I don't do physical labor everyday. But there is speed involved. A Habitat higher-up told our team leader that if every team was like our's, they'd be finishing more houses. We really locked into a rhythm by week's end and everyone became essential. It shows that you can get a group of strangers, put them in one setting and if the chemistry is there, stand out of the way.

We found dark humor that, on the same day we finished a week of in the worst devastation possible, W. was in town, heeding the call of his spin doctors. We heard the helicopters yesterday. Too bad the general public doesn't know how much of a fake photo-op his appearances like these are. Just like "Mission Accomplished," it is a calculated distortion. He showed up at a home building, not gutting. The idea was to show that New Orleans is on the rebound, the government is doing its job, conversativism is still compassionate and these neighborhoods are coming back fast. The truth is, of course, there is hardly any construction here. These neighborhoods are far, far, far, far from that stage. A majority of the city's black population is dismissed from here and nothing will be the same. If he wanted to roll up his sleeves and help us gut one of these sadly destroyed homes in neighborhoods that went on for miles, he was welcome. However, his handlers instead chose to shovel sweet candy in front of the nation, an image that does not exist and the idea that the problem is solved.

And this is another example of why the real story of Katrina is not being told. It's lost in the smoke and mirrors of the administration in charge and a media that's inert. If this is the case in New Orleans, on American soil, can you imagine what atrocities are being covered up in Iraq?

I drove to to the site because I needed to get to the Jazzfest grounds the moment we were finished. So I followed the bus.

"Operation Blessing" is the name of a group run by professional hatemonger/zealot Pat Robertson who donated the buses, so to advertise, that slogan was spread across the side of every vehicle. If we knew that Monday, most of said we would have driven ourselves to the site.

We finished the second home by late morning. It involved getting the debris out of the second floor (no easy task, just chuck it down the stairs), tear down the ceiling high above the foyer (Andrew and Rob did that) and general cleanup. Look how satisfied we are.
Then we went to the new house. We all agreed -- this house had a definite creepy vibe. The rooms were clausterphobic, the mold was to the ceiling, narrow hallways and few windows made it very dark, the living room was dark red and the outside was purple. A team had already pulled out the personal debris and mud/sludge. Our job was to do the drywall, cabinetry. Here are some "before" photos.

I took this shot from the inside. Religious statuary salvaged with the American flag in the back. Images we see all the time from the despots of the right wing war machine, but definitely not in this context. Where's real patriotism and compassion when they actually matter?

The door next door was creepier because it had not been gutted. It was like how we found the first house --- furniture in sludge, everything a mess. Remember how on Monday my batteries died so I couldn't take pictures of that? On Friday I poked my camera up to the window of this house to capture what homes look like before anyone -- families, cleanup crews -- goes inside. It's pretty horrible.
Here, the sofa is in the kitchen:

Then we took a lunch break. I've never had so many Snickers bars in one week.

And I walked around the block. Here's some photos of the neighborhood. An ironic mermaid fountain guards a waterlogged house.
A motorcycle in a backyard no one will likely ride again.
Santa Claus down for the count at the doorway.
In backyards, fences and sheds were always in shambles.
How New Orleans: In this pile of debris, someone strung Mardi Gras beads.
Warning: snakes.
View of the streets.

Brawny wrestlers must have gutted this house. Look how high up they got that mattress and sofa.
As always, Virgin Mary stayed behind to watch over many homes.
I would end this post with a photo of the finished house. But I handed my camera to someone on another team ... and I dropped it. It shattered. Buying a replacement today.

When the bus came, I jumped in my car with Rob and raced downtown. I dropped him off at home then went to the Reyes, showered, then raced again to Jazzfest to catch Bob Dylan. I can't really talk much about the music because I'm covering it for a magazine. I will say that St. John's Bayou, the neighborhood in which the fairgrounds are located, is one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city and the one that made me fall in love with New Orleans way back when. I walked the bridge over the Bayou past the little cottages, flowers in bloom. The festival was incredibly packed with people. As Dylan sang "it's rough down there/high water everywhere," it perfectly summed up what I've seen all week.

One thing that was immediate obvious was activity. All week we worked in neighborhoods that were deadly silent except for our crowbars and hammers. But in other parts of town, life. The silence of the devastated neighborhoods told a story in itself. Not many people at Jazzfest will have a chance to see what we've seen because they're removed by just a little distance. So in a way, silence kills, still.

There's more. Just stay tuned.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Group power

People can say one person can make a difference. I don't believe that true. If the game is fixed, it's fixed. If you live a country with a ruling class, it doesn't matter what you try to do, you can't sit down at the table. I wish they would stop telling kids anyone can be president. Unless you get into the Ivys, had a father on the board of a certain company or simply shit gold coins, in the U.S. -- home of the free, no less -- you will not be able to affect much change. It's simply the truth. One of our nation's great myths is the power of the individual. It matters in art and sports. It doesn't matter in the era of corporations and a White House run by CEO's, especially now that the gap between rich and poor is astronomical.

I don't think I am making much of a difference myself. However, as part of a group, we are making a difference. To at least two families — three by the end of the week. To those people, we -- as a group -- did something. As an individual, not much.

I learned the importance of the group, not the individual, today. But let's start last night. After all, this is New Orleans and good food and drink must be had. Both still thrive.

Winding down from the Lower Ninth Ward tour, on Wednesday night I went to this restaurant in the Bywater, a great neighborhood I would love to live in someday:
It's called Jack Dempsey's and their specialty is fried seafood. Look at this happy table:
They're not drunk, they're just blurry.
The Bywater is what Wicker Park in Chicago once was and is no more. A true bohemian enclave with cool old homes that open up to opulent lush gardens. Here's the local wine shop. If you didn't know it was in New Orleans, its exterior is easily France.
After eating fried pecan pie with ice cream at my host's home (thanks for accomodating the request, guys), I went to the Quarter to meet up with Rob and three team members who had been drinking all day. They also caught a movie. We went to One Eyed Jacks, a music club/bar.
They're not blurry, they're drunk. Not really. They're a fun group. We are already proficient with gallow's humor based on what we've seen -- dead cats, snakes, etc. -- I can only imagine how far the people who live here full-time have gone in trying to make light of absymal conditions you see every day.

This morning we showed up at our house. It was two hours from finished. Those were fast two tours. My duty became pulling drywall from the bathroom and then a teammate and myself shoveled muck from the tub. Yes, muck. It was filled with broken drywall but underneath -- rotting black wet muck that smelled worse eggshells. It smelled like death. When we uncovered it, noxious fumes released. My stomach felt it for an house. Nasty.
Here are some photos of our house. We swept the floor clean, too. Now this house -- once mired half way up with mud, soiled possessions, glass, mold, etc. -- can be officially rebuilt. We did a damn fine job. In fact, a Habitat person later came by and said our's was a "model home" for Habitat.

You're looking at the bathroom and laundry room and behind it, the bedrooms of the two girls.

Here's that other bathroom with the muck tub.
Living room with kitchen behind. Check out the porcelein cat we rescued on the fireplace.
The kitchen leading out to the sunroom.
Personal possessions we were able to salvage and set aside.
Look at all the complete and utter shit we hauled outside. Sad to say but we know a lot about this family -- what they ate, what movies they liked, what clothes they wore, what schools they went to, how much money they made, what they did on the weekends, etc. -- simply from handling, and ultimately junking, their possessions.
We were so proud, we took a photo. Notice the shirts. Don and Faye -- from San Diego -- brought us a bag of cheap French Quarter T-shirts so we would have team apparal. They say ridiculous things like "I'm with stupid" and "You better buy me another beer cause your (yes it read 'your') still ugly." We then wrote stupid stuff in marker on each other's backs.
Then we made the plan for the next house.

It happened to be just across the street. The owner is in Texas. She hired a contractor to gut it, but he got injured. Plus -- as we discovered -- he did a horrible job. Everything was random and poorly done. We ended up having to correct his mistakes. Sad that a group of strangers can do a better job than a contractor but we have the sense that people are being royally screwed left and right here. Rob plus two others go in first to check it out.

This was the hardest day of the week. I am fatigued, almost numb as I write this. I just want to nod off to sleep. I spent the afternoon choping away at drywall and then on a ladder taking down ceiling. We had to shove the debris down the stairs, someone had to load it into a wheelbarrow and truck it outside. It was laborious. Yet by now our team is an oiled machine set for action. We worked very hard. In the process someone scooped up a dead cat without knowing it (the cat had obviously died underneath debris). It took the wheelbarrow person to notice the cat in the trash.

The new house:

Side of the house. FEMA has a rule tht you can't have more than one debris pile. So our debris pile snaked from the front to the garage.
I am so bone tired from today I have to quit for now and finish up later. Stay tuned.

I'm back. It's 6:30 a.m. and I have ten minutes.

Last night we went to a bar in St. Bernard to eat and generally mingle with locals as well as get to know each other more as a team.

There was a lot of hard living at this bar and it was evident all night.

The locals knew we were volunteers and continued to come up to us to thank us for our efforts but also, they were curious why we cared. One guy kept asking, "are you doing this because you care or is it more for the experience?"

One guy said he watched nine feet of water rise in his house in 30 minutes.

One guy, while playing pool, said he frequently leaves his truck outside the bar purposely rigged so it can be stolen easily. And so it does. But it always gets returned. People have lost trucks in this area and need the equipment to do any number of things right now. This last time it was "stolen," it was returned with the oil changed, a wash and (of course) a pound of crawfish sitting in the back seat.

One guy and his wife have gotten to know our team over this past week, simply from their presence in the bar night after night. He was a big guy (see below) but actually had to get up and walk away because he started crying, talking about how essential it was for volunteers to come here.

Not just to work, but to show the rest of the country how devastating it is down here right now. He's a contractor and joked around, giving each of us a creole name and promising us to take us to the swamps fishing.

But like most of the conversations in the bar that night, black humor and general silliness would suddenly stop and there would be this pathos. Someone would mention that, by the way, they lost their home. Or that, by the way, someone they know is lost and they can't find him.

You leave here wishing everyone you know could be sitting on one of those cheap bar stools, drinking Corona and listening to bad country music, just like you were. Here's what is happening down here and if you can't imagine what's like, this bar would be a good starting point.