Monday, January 19, 2009

Day 6: Friday, January 16, 2009

Early this morning a small group of us woke up and headed up the street from India House Hostel to help out a new friend, Jean, who we met at the hostel. Jean, is staying in the same building as we are and during an evening of conversation, our teacher Cynthia found out that Jean and her husband are Katrina survivors. They evacuated to North Carolina during the storm and have been there ever since. Jean, who is eighty years old, recently returned to New Orleans in order to evaluate the state of their home and go through their personal belongings. Her husband, who suffers from Alzheimer’s is currently living in a nursing home in North Carolina while Jean is staying at India House, temporarily. Faced with the task of sorting through the destruction all on her own, our class volunteered to help out.

Jean and her husband lived in a small house one block from the hostel for almost twenty years. Both artists and art teachers, there house was filled with personal art, photographs, slides, and stacks of academic and artistic work. While the house was spared from too much water damage, the wind damage was extensive.

After ducking under a piece of plywood partially covering the door, we saw exactly how powerful a hurricane can be. At this point there is no electricity, no running water and several of the windows are broken. The first floor was almost entirely gutted except for a table, an old armoire, and piles of good dishes. Standing in the front room, we could see through to the entire house as the damage to the floors and walls had been so great that the drywall and flooring had been entirely removed. At one spot near the staircase we could see all the way through the floor to the sun shining beneath the house.

Heading up the narrow staircase paper was stuck to the stairs as if glued to the floor. The three rooms upstairs, the two studios and a spare room were in complete shambles. To see this couple’s life scattered about covered in dirt, mold, and water damage was truly heartbreaking. It is one thing to hear about the destruction and devastation and it is another to stand inside of a house, next to its owner, and see exactly how the storm affects these individual’s lives.

The five of us who got there early began working in the two studios. The storm had broken the windows in both of them and ripped a hole in the ceiling of Jean’s studio. In a moment of irony, standing in her husband’s studio, we witnessed both the devastation that nature can cause and the beauty that it can create as a delicate green vine wove is way through the broken window into the ravaged studio.

In both studio’s the wind had blown everything that had been stacked on the tables and desks onto the floor. As we walked into Jean’s studio we literally waded through a foot of scattered paper, art, files, and photographs completely hiding the floor beneath. The worst of the damage was near the broken windows and under the hole in the ceiling where water had destroyed anything lying nearby including some of their art and several books. Near the bookcase, cockroaches had taken up residence in the dust and mold.

Because Jean was returning to North Carolina soon, she could not take everything with her. Despite the emotions we were feeling, we were forced to throw away years and years of their lives in the form of mail, letters, files, academic materials, clothes, and art supplies. We did our best to salvage any artwork, photos, slides, paintbrushes and keepsakes that survived the storm. The most important find of the day was Jean and her husband’s birth certificates buried beneath the rubble on the desk.

While cleaning out the studios we realized that art was more than a hobby for Jean and her husband—it was their life. While we were able to salvage a pile of their work that had been farthest from the window, much of it was damaged in the storm. It was extremely difficult to accept that so much of their beautiful artwork was damaged beyond repair. Knowing that we had to throw so much away made the gravity of the situation really sink in.

After six hours of hard work we were able to clear out the three rooms upstairs and pack up all the dishes in the front room. Originally, we had planned on putting all of the garbage bags and boxes in the fairly large kitchen. However, within two hours the bags and boxes were spilling out into the hallway and we were forced to put all of the cardboard in the bathroom and stack as many garbage bags as we could into the kitchen.

After returning from the bank, Jean was so appreciative and touched by the hard work of our group. Despite the tears in her eyes, her youthful spirit shone through when at our astonishment at finding out her age she exclaimed, “Well, you know, eighty is the new sixty!”
We were truly honored to have met Jean and to be able to help her in whatever way we can. While the work was dirty and difficult, and while we will return in the morning to help sort out the salvageable goods, the hard work truly lies ahead for Jean while she goes through her and her husband’s life slide by slide, photo by photo, artwork by artwork and figures out how to start anew.

After a long day of working we all met at Snug Harbor, a jazz club on Frenchman Street to watch Jazz legend Ellis Marsalis and his quartet play. The club was warm and intimate and we all enjoyed the chance to take in some true New Orleans music culture.

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