Pitt Law in New Orleans: ACORN team report

Gordon Goldsmith [University of Pittsburgh School of Law 2L, in New Orleans]: "Greetings from the Bayou and the ACORN team, consisting of Hannah Burke, Gordon Goldsmith, Robert Lionel Hawkins, Marni Richman and Pete Vitelli, all 2L and 3L law students from the University of Pittsburgh. ACORN, the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, is a national non-profit program designed to assist low-income families in a variety of ways. For additional information on ACORN, please visit www.acorn.org.

Our enthusiastic team of five has just completed the second day of a five-day program aimed to facilitate the renovation process for houses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Work days begin at 8am at the local ACORN office, located one mile south of the French Quarter. Dozens of students and local volunteers arrive, ready to be dispatched to different neighborhoods of New Orleans. The ACORN caravan hits each spot, dropping off an assortment of equipment consisting of hazardous-material "suits", work-gloves, goggles, protective facial masks, shovels, crow-bars, hammers and various other construction items. Each house receives anywhere from 5-20 workers depending on the size of the project.

The informational packets that each disaster relief volunteer received included instructions on obtaining tetnis shots, and it only took a few seconds upon entrance of our first house to realize why. The dilapidated exterior of the houses tell only part of the story. Inside each house this week, we've been greeted to the overwhleming stench of rotting fecal matter, six-month old food, a cadre of spoiled beverages, soggy, dirty old clothing, and crumbling walls "decorated" with mold markings.

The primary goal of an ACORN team is to clear the entire house of items (making sure to keep any salvageable items that may still have sentimental or monetary value to the owner) and then gut the interior of the house. Gutting consists of tearing down dry-wall and sheet rock, basically stripping the house to its foundational core.

The importance of the haz-mat suit and other materials is quickly made apparent. An indescribable amount of thick dust swirls as walls are hammered down. Rusty old nails jut precariously out of splintered ply-wood. Large shards of plaster cascade from above, flying several feet in all directions at all times and threatening both workers and scurrying rats and mice alike.

By the conclusion of the work day, which usually ends at 3pm, each worker is completely covered in dirt, filth and sweat. The haz-mat suit can be thanked for its protective purposes, but scolded for its ability to trap body heat within the suit. Suffice to say, it gets very, very hot by the end of the day. Goggles are virtually worthless thanks to a day's worth of dirt and sweat. The interior of the protective nose masks have transformed from pristine white to charcoal black. And you really don't want to know the results of a blown nose.

While the physical toll on the body is obvious, the mental impact of tearing down someone's (former) dwelling is just as palpable. It's as if each extracted nail represents a further nail in the coffin of someone's home. We have been fortunate enought to encounter some of the home-owners of the houses we've gutted, and their mixture of emotions is evident. To some, the house-gutting signifies the beginning of the recovery and rebuilding process. To others, seeing the house literally come apart from the seams serves as another overwhelmingly painful reminder of the hurricane's destruction.

As "rewarding" as it has been to help people re-build their property (hard to call tearing down one's house as "rewarding), our interactions with community members of New Orleans have been just as enriching and eye-opening. The anti-Bush/FEMA sentiment is strong. People cannot understand why miles upon miles of property are in the same condition as they were in September. Interestingly enough, President Bush, flanked by a quarter-mile long line of protective agents, drove past our job-site on Wednesday. However, he was hard to see and "appreciate" as his Ford SUV sped past at nearly 50 miles per hour.

Some locals have claimed Katrina has actually helped the city, as some previously run-down areas (especially the Ninth Ward) are now forced to re-build, creating ample economic and real estate opportunities for those willing to take a chance on an as-of-now levee-less city. Others tearfully lament the fact that all of their friends and possessions are long gone. Everyone CAN agree on the fact that New Orleans is different somehow, though only time will tell how the differences will affect the city in the long run.

Wrapping it up, I urge anyone considering lending a helping hand down here to jump on the opportunity. Volunteers are generally well-received, greeted with warm southern hospitatlity and the spirit of a city seeking re-birth. This truly is one of America's more unique and interesting cities, perhaps due to the lingering European influence and Katrina's aftermath. It is going to take years before this city truly rebuilds and the the area needs any helping hand it can receive."

 

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