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.
The job is bigger than all of us.
We broke into two separate teams this week -- the Wreckers and the Rockers. The Wreckers, like me, gutted houses. All week, the Rockers hung drywall, also known as sheet-rock or wallboard.
By Friday, the Rockers had hung enough of the 12-foot, 76-pound sheets to cover every wall in a 2,000 square-foot house. Even the ceilings, bathrooms and closets. Even the tiny space that was supposed to be the hall linen closet. It barely looked like the size of a washcloth to me. It was precise, calculating, demanding, dusty work.
The Mud Hens -- not the baseball team -- were a sub-set of the Rockers. They spread joint compound on the miles and miles of joints between the sheets. People call the joint compound "mud," so we branded them with the only logical knickname a crew from Toledo could have.
The Rockers had a relatively happy job. Sure, our people made every project happy with the playful banter, camaraderie and bunker mentality that hard work with good friends always breeds. But they were in construction, not destruction.
For Karen, the owner of the house, it was the final stages of healing from Katrina's wrath. Her parents raised her in those halls, eating in that kitchen, playing in that yard. She was not about to stand by and let Katrina snatch it away.
We Wreckers, on the other hand, wallowed in the filth and muck and mold and dirt. We wore funny white Tyvek suits and hard hats and talked about things like black mold and the smell.
I tried to think of the best way to describe the smell this week. I can't.
We knew from experience that if you took your crowbar and gave a piece of furniture a solid rap as if you were swinging for a home run, it probably would fall apart at your feet. The witches' brew of Katrina's flood waters did most of the work. You were just helping it along, and the smaller pieces were easier to punt to the curb.
We could disconnect a sink in 3 minutes, down from our time of 15 minutes earlier in the week. Sometimes you don't have to use a pipe wrench when bolt-cutters will do.
We knew the mandatory four piles to separate the wreckage, a macabre curbside ballet to make sure the electronics kept their transistors to themselves and the soaked rotten insulation didn't try to cozy up to the dishwasher.
For some, we removed the last few things before a team of Rockers could come in. For others, we were the very first step in cleanup that hadn't started since the last of the floodwaters dried up more than a year ago.
For them, there aren't enough Band-Aids in an average Walgreen's to cover the festering wound that Katrina inflicted.
On our last day, the Rockers asked for some help so they could finish their job. Some of them had been going to that house for five days straight and they wanted to get it done. I spent my last half-day of work screwing drywall panels to the studs instead of wallowing in muck. Construction instead of destruction. I was a little happier.
I say half-day because they don't want you to work more than 4½ days in a week. Eastbank Storm Station has a mandatory rest period for all the volunteers who come through. It's just better that way -- a physical and mental health break.
The teams decide when and how they take their break. Some rest early in the week. We took ours by knocking off at noon on Friday.
We finished 99 and 44/100ths percent of the drywall, packed our tools and ladders, took a final group photo, and said goodbye to Karen, whose house the Rockers had rocked.
For the remainder of Friday, we delivered some quilts, handmade by the ladies of Epworth, to the cancer patients at Children's Hospital. We ate dinner together. We walked around the French Quarter.
Small reward for a week of hard work. A victory lap of sorts after crossing the finish line.
As I drove the van of content, well-fed volunteers back to our quarters for our last night on air mattresses, I realized we had finished, but the work had not. Storm recovery for New Orleans is like an Olympic 4x100 meter relay. We took the baton from the thousands of volunteers that have served at Eastbank so far, ran a few steps in the long race, and passed the baton to the next crew.
Despite all our running, New Orleans is still only 100 meters into the race. The city will continue running long after we load the vans for the airport.
The job is bigger than all of us.
I know New Orleans will cross the finish line and win Olympic gold some day. Just not today.
I can't wait to come back and take a real victory lap when it does.
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.