Editor's Note: Alan Baker, Executive Producer of WTOL.COM, spent the week in New Orleans as part of a mission group from Epworth United Methodist Church in Toledo. These are his first-person accounts from the week.
It took us a while to stop seeing and start doing.
We needed to see the damage. From the relative safety of our rented minivans, we looked at the outward signs of Katrina's wrath, but I could tell a lot of us were looking inward, too. Why had we put our lives on hold and left our spouses, kids, and jobs for a week to come here? Where would we be assigned to work? What would we do?
We could barely contain ourselves by Monday morning. I could tell this team was cranked up and ready to go. But you can't leave on assignment without a rather sobering orientation lecture from the people at the Eastbank Storm Station, our gracious hosts for the week.
"You came here healthy, and we want you to leave healthy," said a project manager. You could tell he had given this advice to hundreds, probably thousands, of fresh, eager faces like ours before.
He ran down a litany of things from a legal pad so worn that you could see stuff on the top 10 pages by looking at the ripped, dog-eared corners. Dust masks. Tyvek suits. Safety glasses. Hard hats. We'd need them all.
You probably won't run into asbestos, but it's out there. Black mold is a problem. Watch where you step, because nails can perforate your soles and ruin your day. His matter-of-fact list didn't sound deadly, but deep down each of us knew it could be, if you gave the Grim Reaper a chance.
Good thing I went to the doctor and got stuck with tetanus vaccine before leaving Toledo. Made that bump on my arm a badge of honor.
Properly warned, we checked out a battery of tools from the tool room and loaded up our rented minivans for the trip across town to the job site. I don't think DaimlerChrysler intended for us to put as much stuff or as many people in their minivans as we did. Fortunately for us, they make a good product.
There are several distinct stages of life for survivors in post-Katrina New Orleans. For some, their houses haven't been touched since the storm blew ashore or the levees broke. When I see houses like that, I wonder.
Did that homeowner die in Katrina's howling winds? Did they evacuate only to have all their earthly possessions dunked in a toxic tea of debris, oil, and whatever else the river and the levees could wash up?
Why haven't they rebuilt? Hard to say. There are a million stories in the naked city.
The pendulum swings the other way, too. Some survivors have experienced a complete rebirth. Amongst all the rubble, the shattered shells of destroyed lives, and the plain white FEMA trailers, you see neat houses with perfect windows and fresh paint. Lights from inside pierce the dark of night.
Gone is the unbearable stench of rotting debris. No more piles of rubble. Despair replaced by a rebirth of the American dream.
Most of the people in New Orleans are somewhere in the millions of shades of gray that exist between untouched and rebirth. Our job on this warm, sunny day was to nudge some one closer to rebirth.
We spilled out of the vans into a neighborhood that looked like it could have been ripped from west Toledo and plunked down in Louisiana. These were neat homes where people raised families until Katrina shook this neighborhood like a snow globe.
We wouldn't be cleaning up debris today. We would be hanging drywall.
Why do that job when so many houses are untouched? One of the team members put it this way. "If we weren't doing construction work now," he told me, "It would be very disappointing to me. It's been 18 months since the storm. We SHOULD be doing construction work by now."
He had a point. This job fought its way to the top of Eastbank Storm Station's priority list. Who was I to turn it back?
The work went slowly at first because most of us lacked the knowledge needed to hang drywall well. Anyone can slap it up there. We wanted to be good.
Fortunately for us, some drywallers amongst us were patient enough to teach the rest of us. After a while, we really started to gel, shunning our rugged individuality to pull together and make the team we needed to be.
We spent a full day in that house. When we left, walls stood where none existed before. We were closer than ever before as a team.
And maybe, just maybe, this one homeowner in this one neighborhood on this one day would be closer to recovery than ever before.
I went back to the church and rested easy. I was tired, but it was a good tired.
The group from Epworth United Methodist Church worked under the auspices of the United Methodist Committee on Relief and the Eastbank Storm Station in New Orleans, part of the Louisiana United Methodist Disaster Response Ministry.