Day 6 -- The Paintings on the Wall

We suited up in Tyvek for this job.
We suited up in Tyvek for this job.
Here's the kind of damage we were up against.
Here's the kind of damage we were up against.
This painting upstairs is what drew my attention.
This painting upstairs is what drew my attention.
"Hi, my name is Bri"
"Hi, my name is Bri"
Compare this with photo number 2 to know the difference we made.
Compare this with photo number 2 to know the difference we made.

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.

I don't know Bri.

We packed the same wrecking equipment and the increasingly weary wrecking crew into the minivan for the half-hour ride to our next assignment.  We had been warned - this would be the worst one yet, in a really desolate neighborhood.  Watch your back, they said.  Watch each other.

We set our talking GPS to find it for us.  The pleasant voice-mail-style woman's voice told us to take Interstate 10 to Interstate 610 across the northern part of town, then exit.

She told us to turn right off the interstate and pass an apartment complex that was in shambles.  Instead of keeping apartments contained, the sliding glass doors hung loosely from their casings.  The roof shingles dangled precariously and the street lights leaned the way Katrina blew them.

No one had cut the grass in 18 months.  I've seen jungles neater than that.

But hanging proudly from a section of roof was the white sign with the red letters that drew raucous laughter from the crew.  "Now Leasing" it said.  Oh, the bitter irony.

GPS lady told us to turn left to find our destination.  She seemed to know an awful lot.  We looked for the town house we were supposed to gut, but the place where we stood was a six-unit apartment building that hadn't been touched since the storm.  Plastic plants in one unit poked out of their cracked plastic pots, still looking green in a sea of brown rotted muck and falling drywall.

Then came the good news.  We needed North Coronet Court, not South Coronet Court.  GPS lady was off by a compass point.  Or maybe we were.  We blamed her anyway.  She didn't seem hurt by it.

We rolled up to the second location, which fit the description perfectly.  The bottom half of the town house had walls, cabinets, a stove, a dishwasher, and a bathroom that hadn't taken themselves to the curb yet.  They would need our help to make it that far.

This was the worst of the worst that we had seen.  Monday's safety lecture seemed like it happened a year ago, but all the advice came back.  Tyvek suit.  Mask.  Safety glasses.  Hard hats, since we'd be ripping down a ceiling.

I suited up, ready to see if my Herman Survivor boots that completed the ensemble would live up to their name.

The first part of the demolition went well.  The walls gave up easily.  Gravity and a fireman's pike pole made light work of the ceiling.  I only bumped my head once.  I started swimming in my own sweat.  That makes sense, because the Tyvek doesn't breathe -- that would defeat its purpose.

Some fetid, festering water the same color as used 30-weight oil spilled from the kitchen sink as I cut through the lines and carried it out.  I didn't think much of it until I slipped in that water a little while later, doing a split.  I haven't used those muscles like that since the Reagan administration.

We divided the waste into the four piles that New Orleans mandates.  First pile - drywall and general construction-type waste.  Second pile - appliances, also known in the trade as "white goods."  Third pile - electronics.  Fourth pile - hazardous materials like paint, gasoline, or flood-damaged cleaning products that weren't useful to clean any more.

Pile one was big.  Two was smaller, with the dish washer, stove, and range hood.  Three was even smaller, since all we had for that pile was the remnants of a Sony cabinet-type television that fell apart when we touched it.  The fourth pile was nonexistent, since we didn't run into anything hazardous.

That's when I found out about Bri.

One of the members of the team told me to go upstairs.  It's heart-wrenching, he said.  There's a crib up there, he said.  I already knew that this storm froze people in time, and we often served as armchair archaeologists.  This wasn't any different.

I walked upstairs and went into what looked like the master bedroom in the front.  It was probably very nice at one time.  Colorful border lined the room about face-high.  Some one cared -- that stuff takes time to hang well.

The crib, with its pristine look that defied its status as a storm victim, made me miss my one-year-old twins back home.  That's happened a lot this week.

A few steps down the hall was a bigger shock.  On one wall, yellow and blue flowers punctuated a kelly green background.  On the closet door, happy yellow hand-prints peppered the same green background.  It reminded me of the time we made Christmas wrapping paper with my 4-year-old son, painting his hands and feet, then peppering the paper with happy handprints and footprints.

On the opposite wall, a stick figure drawn in a child's hand had a thought bubble over her smiling face like the ones you see in the comics.  Inside it, the words, "Hi, my name is Bri."

I don't know Bri.  The clipboard that held our assignment paperwork didn't tell me any more.  GPS lady was silent.  No one on the team could say for sure.

But we all had our ideas of what she was like.  Bri drew herself as a girl, a little smaller than the other stick figure only arm's reach from her on the wall.  It was obvious this was a happy place once.  Katrina changed that.

I lingered in that room longer than I should have.  What I really wanted was a hug from my kids.  I wouldn't even mind their runny noses.  But they were a shade over 1,018 miles away, safely ensconced in Toledo, far from the misery and ruin.

It still nagged at me.  Who's Bri?  Where is she now?  What happened to her?

I finally had to go back downstairs and get back into the game.  We still had tons of stuff to move, and the piles were taunting me.

I found myself in a classic "How do you eat an elephant?" moment.  The job was large and intimidating, as if I was sitting at the dinner table with a pachyderm on my plate.  It would take perseverance to finish.  "One bite at a time," I'd tell myself.  "One bite at a time."

One wheelbarrow at a time shrank the pile of rubble inside, and grew the ones outside.  Each wheelbarrow seemed to hurt more than the one before.

We worked through lunch and finished our part of the job in about five hours.  I didn't try to take the Tyvek off the same way it went on.  I took a Leatherman tool and slit the suit up the side and let it drop to the ground.  Then I unceremoniously pitched it onto pile number one, quietly thanking it for protecting my life.

As we drove away, the GPS lady spouting directions once again, I still wondered about Bri.

Thousands evacuated before the storm.  Thousands more ran away from the levee breaks and flooding.  Thousands have never come back, nor will they.

New Orleans is a shell of its former self.  Right now -- only 18 months after the storm -- pain and suffering marinate this place.  I think in ten years or so, it will be back to normal.  I don't know what it will look like then, but I'm sure it will be wonderful.

When that happens, I hope Bri can come back, along with her sibling and everyone else who used to live in this place with her.  Then they can swap stories over steaming bowls of gumbo, or maybe some coffee so strong it'll melt your fillings at Cafe du Monde.  They'll talk about the how bad things were in '05, and how great things will be.

I don't know Bri.  But I sure hope she made it.

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.