Fewer volunteers, continued need as pressure grows to gut New Orleans homes

Published 7:26 pm Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Marva Mitchell was one room away from completing her years-long transformation of a blighted property into her dream home when Hurricane Katrina struck.

Left with a ruined house full of destroyed belongings, the 70-year-old was at a loss over how — or whether — she could start over. Then a team of volunteers helped her take the first step, gutting and cleaning the damage.

“It really helped me spiritually,” Mitchell said. “It tells you people’s hearts, to have perfect strangers of all ages come and say, ‘How can I help? What can I do?’”

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Knowing there were thousands like her across the city who needed help gutting homes, Mitchell became a volunteer herself, joining a group that brings volunteer gutters to the city.

“This is not a job for the faint-hearted, I can tell you,” she said. “It’s long, tedious work.”

A rush of volunteers came to New Orleans in the months after the storm hit, in August 2005, and countless more since. Many organizations have reported sharp declines in recent months.

That’s happened just as pressure from the city mounts for homeowners to gut their homes: If they don’t have them cleaned by now or put on a waiting list to be cleaned, they could face possible property seizures or demolition.

The waiting lists for free gutting service offered by a dozen nonprofit groups are months-long.

“We try and give priority to the elderly and people with special medical needs, but we’re not turning anyone away,” said Mitchell, who works for Louisiana United Methodist Storm Recovery, which has more than 1,000 homeowners signed up.

It could take years to get to all of them, she said.

Organizers attribute the decline in volunteers to dwindling news coverage, the start of the school year, the hot Louisiana summer and the threat of hurricane season, among other factors.

“August was horrible. Nobody was here,” said Amanda Marais, a 33-year-old volunteer for Hands On Network, who arrived in New Orleans from Capetown, South Africa, on Aug. 1.

Even in September, Marais said, the church where Hands On volunteers are housed was only half full. Sleeping quarters nearby had rows of wooden bunks for up to 100 volunteers, but only about 40 to 45 were occupied.

“If it’s out of the news, it’s out of people’s minds,” said Rick Clay, a volunteer from Lebanon, Penn., who has come to New Orleans three times since February.

Working with the United Church of Christ, Clay has brought hundreds of volunteers to the city, but admits that recruiting can be difficult.

“There’s never a great time to sign up for a mission trip,” he said. “It’s never convenient.”

Sometimes fear can be a factor, he said. “This is a scary thing for people to do, whether you’ve been here before or not. Some people just don’t think they can handle it emotionally.”

New Orleans residents who have been helped by volunteers, however, say it was crucial. Jermaine Williams, who returned to her job at Xavier University in March while her husband works in Dallas, said she doesn’t know how she would have started rebuilding her home without them.

“It’s like a burden had been lifted from my shoulders,” she said.

Volunteers say the experience has given them a lot as well: new friends, new skills, the satisfaction of having helped people in need and — in some cases — an introduction to a city they may not have known before. Many say they have been bewitched by New Orleans.

“A ‘thank you’ down here is not like a ‘thank you’ anywhere else,” said Marais, who plans to stay for at least six months. “People want to sit down and talk to you, eat a meal with you. One lady came out to a job with gallons of Powerade and fried chicken.”

At another job site, a homeowner showed up with a large box of boiled shrimp and spicy dipping sauce.

“They’re bringing you food and kissing you even though you’re disgusting and full of dirt. It’s amazing,” said volunteer Caliopie Georgiadis, 36, from Brooklyn, N.Y.

Gutting is among the most labor-intensive volunteer work in New Orleans. It involves pulling out smelly, flood-damaged furniture and appliances, ripping up moldy carpet and flooring, then stripping, grinding and priming flood-damaged beams so new drywall can be hung.

“I’ve never been so dirty, disgusting and sweaty in all my life,” said Marais, who’s helped gut several homes in the two months she’s been here.

“It’s the most gratifying job I’ve ever done.”