As Home’s senior decorating editor, I spend many hours looking at furnishings, thinking about what goes well together, and selecting the best of the best for the magazine. So it was a disturbing but moving experience for me to walk into the house of a stranger, whom I will call Melissa, and throw out all the things that made her dwelling a home.
This happened two months ago, when I was in New Orleans to assist with the post-Katrina cleanup. Even though it had been a year and a half since the hurricane had caused the city’s levees to breach, much remained to be done. Our 50-person group of volunteers was there working with the national non-profit Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN); during our five-day stay we tackled a variety of projects. I chose to help gut houses that had been damaged by the flood.
Gutting houses doesn’t provide the satisfaction that building them does, but it is a necessary first step for those who hope to return and rebuild; it also must be done in order to avoid having a home and property deemed abandoned by city officials. In the hardest-hit zones, such as Melissa’s Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, many of the former residents—having relocated to far-flung places—cannot afford to make the trip back to do the work themselves. And while water, electricity, and gas services have been restored to numerous areas, few stores and businesses have reopened, making it difficult for those without cars to access groceries and other staples.