1.27.2011

Update from the Boss! - 5th Year of PNOLA

In the Beginning...

While of course I wasn't a part of PNOLA at the beginning, I did work very closely with Paul and Ryan from day 1 through being in charge of SAFER (a different rebuild group that basically did the same thing...so much so that we merged in 2008 to eliminate duplicate effort). I remember the first day when Paul organized a large group of LSU students who, to my knowledge, were the very first organized volunteers to work in Lower Mid-City. At that time (Spring 2006), I had organized close to 1000 volunteers from Tulane over the course of a few months to help gut homes, mostly in the 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish. Paul, Ryan, and I...along with our close friends and earliest AmeriCorps members...can't help but tell war stories about the grossest refrigerator (for me it was the walk in cooler at the school with 1600 pints of spoiled milk...with the deep freeze full of rotten crab meat in a close second place), the most dangerous thing we did before we knew about insurance (used 16 volunteers to demolish an entire house with hand tools and a chain saw...and tossed all of the debris into a huge bon fire since we couldn't get the parish to come pick it up for us), or how good we got at gutting (Dave and I used to have competitions to see who could rip down an entire sheet of drywall intact...I ended up victorious by getting an entire sheet plus a good bit of another, all in one effort). While SAFER and PNOLA didn't gut a lot of houses compared to many of our partners (we both learned very early on that our role would be to be at the forefront of training and supervising volunteers in rebuilding, before anyone else had really even thought it through), that first year after the storm will always be the strangest and most memorable of my life. I never tried to explain it to family or friends from back in Virginia, I simply said "I only believe it actually happened because most of my stained and ratty clothing still shows the evidence." It amazes me to this day that a group of hungover college kids could fit twice as many people as there were seat belts into a civic, strap a wheelbarrow to the back of it, and gut a house and that from there we have grown into an organization that has saved homeowners millions of dollars. Don't worry, we have insurance now ;)

Where we stand...

I didn't realize how amazing and tragic the destruction of Lower Mid-City (psych...I'm not even talking about the storm here, I'm referencing the demolition to make way for the LSU-VA Hospital) has been until I read Brad V.'s blog (click the link, you'll thank me later) where he basically captured the dismantling of a neighborhood on a time-scale. Our office is 2 blocks from ground zero and it still didn't hit me til I read the blog. Wally, Bobbi and Kevin, Frank, Gayle, Ruth, and all of the other neighborhood people who supported PNOLA all lost their houses...that definitely hit me right away but mainly because I felt for them individually. Beyond that, the wide scale loss is best captured here. There is hope, though, as most of the neighborhood escaped the bulldozers and remains an opportunity to save what we failed to save inside the hospital footprint. With such a terrible loss in the name of progress we must see this as an opportunity to make it "worth it." PNOLA's stance on the hospital, since we discovered we were powerless to stop it, was to attempt mitigate the impact it had on folks inside the footprint and to maximize the benefit it could have for those outside of the footprint.

Moving Forward...

Now that the hospital is underway, it i only a matter of time until it is open and doctors, nurses, etc. begin to see our neighborhood as a place they'd like to live. Until that happens, we have a countdown that marks the time we have left to help the CURRENT and STILL DISPLACED residents of Lower Mid-City firmly establish a foothold in the neighborhood so that they won't also be forced out. This is PNOLA's mission, which has always been inspired by the daily show of grit by the neighbors we hope to serve. When the land value in the neighborhood rises along with the creation of the hospital and other developments, we aim for that to benefit those who are already here, making the sacrifice of those who have already been forced to leave "worth it." We welcome the developments and new-comers, as they are necessary for the quality of life here to improve, but we welcome them as supplements and not as replacements.

And so, it's been 5 years. We hope to continue to be useful for our neighbors and have a strong strategic plan aimed in doing so. It is clear to me that our importance is not waning so many years since the storm, but has come to a head as the remainder of our neighborhood hangs in the balance. It is time, more now than ever, for those who care about what we have done and Lower Mid-City as a whole to step up and save the spirit of our neighborhood and the spirit of our city. While evacuated in Lake Charles, LA the week after the storm, mindlessly watching Wolf Blitzer tell me stuff I didn't want to hear (but couldn't stop myself from listening), my friend Jonathan and I discussed with his parents the future of New Orleans. Feel free to comment on what first inspired you to get involved, in whatever capacity you have.

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