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.
ACORN has gutted about 2000 homes in New Orleans, all at no charge. Before we started, a representative briefed us about what to expect during our tasks: We might encounter rodents or other critters in the houses. It was likely we would come across guns. And we should keep closed any refrigerator we found, as opening it would let out a stench so bad that the site would need to be abandoned for at least a week until the smell dissipated.
After donning Tyvek suits and gas masks to help protect us from mold and other contaminants, we entered Melissa’s small brick house. Inside it was dark and dank. Water had moved the furniture, upending a sofa and breaking a table in two. With no particular plan of action, all two dozen-plus of us began emptying the house of its contents, from toys and videos to washing machines and mattresses. In our protective gear, we looked like space aliens. It was hard to tell the men from the women, let alone identify particular individuals. The anonymity was liberating.
As I hauled the possessions to the curb, I began forming a picture of Melissa in my mind. I admired the care with which she had decorated her home. Each room had its own bright color scheme—orange for the kitchen, green for the children’s room, and red for the master bedroom. The latter also had a frieze of Asian prints along the top of one of the walls. That touch, along with a big round paper lampshade in the home office, made me think Melissa had a taste for the exotic.
A lot of the furnishings looked as if they were from the 1950s or ’60s, including a Sputnik-style light fixture I would have liked to own; these clues led me to believe that she was an older woman who had lived in this house a long time. I supposed that the children were her grandchildren. In her bedroom closet were several wigs and a collection of girdles that I couldn’t imagine belonging to anyone under the age of 65.
Once the house had been cleared, the next step was pulling down the walls. This involved swinging a crowbar to make a hole, then using the hook to tear off the boards. As the planks fell, the stink started to ooze out. Eighteen months after the flood, the studs were still damp, and some had started to rot.
After we had removed most of the walls, a man showed up who said he was Melissa’s father. He quickly demolished the fantasy I had created about her. She was in her 30s and now living in another state with her two children. She had been a civil servant in New Orleans. When the water had begun to rise, she got a boat, put her children in it, and paddled off to safety. People tried to hijack the boat, but she kept them at bay with her licensed gun.
After telling us about Melissa, her father took a few items from the pile—a piece of art by one of the children and some photos—and said goodbye.
The final step of the gutting, and perhaps the most time-consuming one, was removing each and every nail from the studs. This was necessary so that if and when Melissa rebuilds, drywall can be put up quickly and easily. It was quiet, solitary work, and gave me time to ponder the future of the owner and her house. Her return depended on a long list of factors, including whether she could get her job back, how much money the government would provide to help rebuild her house, and whether the city would seize all property in the Lower Ninth Ward by exercising the right of eminent domain.
Not long after we left New Orleans, the city council voted to rebuild the Ninth Ward, which was good news. Still, according to ACORN, Melissa does not know if she and her family will return. I found it difficult to put in all those hours and days of effort without being assured that there would be a happy ending. But in retrospect, it was a valuable lesson in finding meaning in work and process, without knowing what the outcome might be. —Style Provocateur