Lathe and Plaster and Rusted Nails
October 22, 2006
Welcome to 2428 St. Roch Avenue, New Orleans.
Ms. Veronica Carey owns this camelback home, where she's lived since 1988. Before the storm, she shared her home with three grandchildren and a disabled cousin. She's 76. When Katrina hit, Ms. Carey evacuated with her family; she hasn't been back.
With no insurance and no FEMA money, how can she?
Well, Rebuilding Together is helping put her house back together. When the project manager called Ms. Carey to tell her that work was starting on her property, she said, "How much is that going to run me?" When the project manager told her that it was free, Ms. Carey broke down and cried.
We worked on the house on Thursday, tearing out waterlogged and rotten lathe, pounding the plaster out of the ceiling, and ripping out nails and screws to smooth the studs for new sheetrock. Not only that, we cut down the overgrown yard, giving the Blessed Mother a little room to breathe there in the front yard.
The house is much bigger than it looks from this picture. It has a two-story addition on the rear, which is why it's called a camelback house. The front room is large and airy, with a big heat vent in the middle of the floor.
The kitchen is at the rear of the first floor. A set of steps leads up to the second floor, where there are three large bedrooms and a bathroom, and down to the basement, which now is gutted to the studs. There's a bathroom down there too.
The house took on nine feet of water. The shed in the back yard was overturned by the storm; the water line was visible as a pale yellow strip. Kathy points it out in this picture. Because the house was mostly built with lathe and plaster instead of sheetrock, it hasn't yet been completely gutted. The plaster had mostly been torn down, but we had to complete the job. I'm hinky on ladders, so I didn't do that demolition job. Instead, I used my newly developed nail-pulling skills to rip nails and screws out the studs in the basement. At first, I couldn't get the screws out with my trusty prybar, but a switch to the claw hammer gave me the leverage I needed to yank the rusted screws from the ceiling joists. I was a pulling beast! Unfortunately, the unrusted screws -- a legacy of a newer application of sheetrock on the ceiling -- were uncooperative. They'll require a power drill, so a new crew will take care of that.
The construction supervisor was initially hopeful that the lathe could be saved, but once he inspected it he changed his mind. We didn't have enough time to pull it all down, but we did pull down this wet and rotten stuff in the kitchen. This job worked better with the prybar.
The St. Roch neighborhood is spooky. It seems more deserted than Treme, but maybe that's because Orleans Street is more of a major thoroughfare whereas St. Roch Avenue is a neighborhood street. There were fewer people around, just the occasional trashpicker and a couple of National Guard soldiers in a camouflage Hummer.
And hundreds of destroyed homes. A few had FEMA trailers out front, but most did not. It almost seemed like an extension of the nearby cemetery, grey and lonesome and hopeless.
This was a depressing job. It seemed so overwhelming -- we'd sweep everything clean and it looked okay. but then we'd work and work and work and it would be horrible again. And we'd sweep it all clean again, pushing plaster snot and lathe remnants down the stairs and onto a shovel, dump it in the trashcan, pour it on the junk pile.
But "clean" is relative, let me tell you. We'd look around and say, "This looks good now! This is nice and clean!" and suddenly realize that no, it's not good or clean. It's awful, it's smelly, it's got wasp nests under the eaves and mold under the remaining plaster and fine dust everywhere.
I have to hold on to the hope that little by little, lathe by lathe and nail by nail, the house will be readied for its rebirth. Sheetrock will take the place of the rotted lathe and plaster, the lights will be hooked up and the gas turned back on, the linoleum and hardwood floors will shine. New appliances will be installed and the toilets will flush and the air conditioners will hum to life.
And then Ms. Carey can come back home.