I just returned from a week in a third world country. Which one? New Orleans. 

I volunteered to go to help gut homes. My gut said, “Go.” Last November the New Orleans’ St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church launched a mission of rebuilding, I’m not Presbyterian, but I’m married to one. They call their program RHINO (Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans). This is one RHINO worth standing behind. All manner of faiths and compassion are welcome.

RHINO brings in volunteer teams for a week, houses, feeds and arms them with tools for hand-to-hand combat. Teams of up to 40 are bunked in the church’s education building, a large, stately New Orleans home located in the dry and secure “sliver by the river.” (The sliver, mostly upscale neighborhoods, is the New Orleans’ high ground.) To date, RHINO has gutted 55 houses. Their 200-home waiting list continues to expand.   

My week was one of the smallest teams. Regardless, we gutted two houses in four days. No doubt not all of the estimated 200,000 flooded New Orleans’ homes are salvageable. Okay, make it 150,000. Do the math. There’s both a shortage of volunteers and paid workers. The volunteer shortage relates to “Katrina fatigue,” according to a recent national survey. The worker shortage relates to a lack of housing.  

Our first house’s only distinguishing characteristics were the spray-painted National Guard data — date inspected, Guard unit, and the number zero, as in zero bodies found — and the flood elevation line still visible after four months. The young family fled Katrina, taking little with them. Like everyone, they thought they’d be returning in a few days. As for the levees, we often heard, “We always thought we had it under control.”

Inside, mold, unknown fluids and fumes assaulted the senses. New Orleans’ new motto might be, “New Orleans, City of Mold by the Mighty Mississippi.” Growing up in that old farmhouse in Indiana, I probably slept with mold. Regardless, my mask went on instantly. We opened as many warped windows as we could jimmy, breaking a few on purpose. Air circulation was essential. Next we removed everything, bolted down or otherwise, including toilets. Any kind of glass, metal or plastic container still sat with stagnated floodwater. “Yuk”, was a common exclamation.

Spotting a dirty nickel I facetiously asked, “If I find a nickel, can I keep it?” A volunteer pastor working next to me, dryly remarked, “Just let me step away so the lightning doesn’t strike me.” 

Emptying the house took one day, creating two very large trash piles in the street. Disposal trucks trolled the streets looking for business, and the piles soon disappeared. Where did the trash go? 

The second day we removed all paneling, door frames and dry walls, creating a third pile. In New Orleans, dry wall is a misnomer. 

The third day I arrived at the site with two left-handed gloves. Fortunately RHINO had ample backup supplies. 

Our second house, framed by brick, had an adjoining street ironically named, “Camelot.” The 40-year-old owner had cleared out the furniture and most of the dry wall, then suffered a heart attack and lay incapacitated in one of the only two open hospitals.   

On Wednesday night I was rudely awakened by the most powerful lightning storm I’d ever experienced. The next day we learned that three tornados, each 150 yards wide with hurricane category 3 winds, took out some buildings previously unscathed by Katrina. 

After a few weeks of operation, the RHINO coordinators sensed that five days of gutting was too much to ask of mostly out-of-shape volunteers. Good call, because by Thursday, vigor, vim’s twin, had gone AWOL, though our spunky spirits labored on. 

At the day’s end I never knew a shower to be so welcome — and a glass of milk. A ceremonial burning of the stained clothes seemed appropriate. 

Friday was devoted to bodily recovery and a guided tour of the city. Seeing is believing: Endless ghost streets and neighborhoods, street lights and stop lights still mostly inoperable, and dead Magnolia trees. While the devastation predominantly impacted middle to lower income housing, Katrina was an equal opportunity destroyer. Ritzy neighborhoods not in the “sliver by the river” also sat empty and gutted. 

Everywhere stood yard signs of resiliency: “I’m Coming Home, I Will Rebuild, I Am New Orleans,” “We’re Home,” and “No Bulldozing. Save Our Neighborhood.” Signs of challenges to reopening businesses: Burger King promised hires a $250 bonus every two weeks, and Popeyes offered $9 an hour in a state with no minimum wage. A New Orleans credo — “When life gives you lemons, make daiquiris.” A young couple on why they returned — for the “Joie de vivre.” 

Before flying home on Saturday, I drove an hour east to the Mississippi coast heading for the gulf town of Waveland. Waveland was blown off the map; literally, leaving only ravaged trees and concrete slabs. On the slab of what once was a Catholic church perched this defiant sign, “Katrina was big, but God is bigger.”

To my fellow teammates: Two Toms, a John and a Don from the Lewisville, Texas First Presbyterian Church, and the nothing-could-be-finer ladies from South Carolina, Margaret, Laura and Debbie — it was a pleasure, even while the task wasn’t. Salute. We all would have preferred rebuilding, but gutting is the critical step. We returned home knowing our efforts meant hope for two families. 

Each evening I sat on my host home’s expansive porch, watching life crawl back to normal, at least in the “sliver by the river.” The St. Charles Church bell tolled hourly. With apologies to Papa Hemingway, I thought of his classic, “For Whom The Bell Tolls.” It tolls for this upscale neighborhood, and it tolls for all of New Orleans. Meanwhile, around the country the tolls grow fainter and fainter. 

The next hurricane season begins in a little over three months.

Keith Frohreich, a Cass County native, resides in Los Angeles. 

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