February 28, 2007

The lining is silver

Winnie Vaughan Wilmore and her husband Charles moved into their dream house in early August 2005. Their children, aged 22 to 46, had all grown up and moved away, and they were finally able to afford this home: a low light brown structure on Knight Drive in New Orleans' Gentilly district.

Dream house, all right. Three weeks after they moved in, a malevolent lady called Katrina sideswiped the city and sent water overflowing from the canals, leaving Gentilly and many other areas under six feet of the wet and muddy stuff for over a month. Winnie and Charles had got away in time -- their son it was who called to say "leave! It's going to be bad!" -- but only just. With 15-20 neighbours, they drove in a church bus from house to hotel to the space under bridges, looking for shelter from the storm. "We had no place to hide," Winnie says, tears overflowing from her eyes even today, a year-and-a-half since the storm.

They finally found shelter in Baker, a town that's "one hour and twenty minutes away the way we drive," says Winnie. "But the kids do it faster."

Meanwhile of course, the dream house was inundated.

Today, a year-and-a-half since the storm, a crew of Presbyterian church volunteers from Rochester, New York, is at work on Winnie's home, "gutting" it. Meaning stripping out the walls, the wiring, the siding, the insulation, the ... everything except the wooden beams that form a frame for the house. A large pile of debris out in front tells that story, supplemented by smaller piles here and there around the house. And all this gutting done by hand, by mostly 65-year-old retiree women come halfway across the country to lend those hands: Debra Murphy and Betsey Wheeler and Karen Pryor and several more.

Before I leave, filled with admiration as I always am by the spirit of these efforts, my friend Lanny Pratt, coordinating the work for the Prebyterian Church, beckons quietly. "Come in here," he says, "I want to show you something." We walk into Winnie and Charles' home, and sure enough, the beams are pretty much all that's left.

"The guy who sold them the house," he says, "he didn't tell them. See this?" Lanny points to beam after beam: even to my untrained eye, the wood is completely rotten, ready to collapse, nearly crumbling in my fingers. "The whole house was infested with termites. Matter of months, it would have fallen down."

It was a horrible disaster, Katrina. But the irony is that had it not happened, the Wilmore's dream house would have tumbled down around them. Because of Katrina, and thanks to the selfless efforts of so many, their dream house will now be a safe one too.

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