Imagine… Just Imagine

Gilbert Kleiner, FSA – Executive Director, Beth El Congregation, Baltimore, MD
Vice President, NAASE

Did you ever see a demolished building as a pile of rubble?

Have you ever seen a building site cleared to the foundation?

Take a moment and imagine these two images.

Now, imagine the street where you live and every home is either the pile of rubble or a cleared site.

Now, imagine your neighborhood in total destruction with only three or four homes left standing without major damage.

Welcome to the Mississippi Gulf Coast of Harrison County.

According to the May 17, 2006 issue of USA Today, “68% of the houses are damaged or 48,651 homes.” This happens to be the day that the NAASE executive directors are set to volunteer with a group called Hands On Network, a non-profit company where volunteers are coordinated to assist residents rebuild their shattered lives.

Fifteen executives and one Rabbi are here at Katrina’s Ground Zero in Gulfport/Biloxi, Mississippi as NAASE’s Tikun Olum (Saving the World) Team. We arrive at “Hands On”, fill out the paper work, meet Charlie our crew chief and off we go to our job site for the day. Charlie arrived three months ago from California as a volunteer and is now a crew leader. He is 22 years old and in college but decided to skip the spring semester and make a difference.

We drive west on Route 90 along the gulf coast, where majestic homes once stood. I was here in August and I didn’t recognize the area. There were no houses near the road, no hotels, no gas stations, just ruins of a world before Katrina.

We make a right turn off Route 90, and come to a Stop sign, but there is nothing there to the left or right, just block after block of foundations or slabs where homes stood. People lived here with a beautiful gulf view; they raised families and crossed the highway to the beach and water. The beach is closed, they found a house in the gulf about a month ago and the debris has made it unsafe to go into the water. According to Harry Silverman, USCJ Regional director, “Several months ago the beach looked like Normandy on D-Day, craters, holes and rubble everywhere.” Now it is roped off to keep people away from the gulf.

In the third block in we see what is left of homes, a wrecked car and wave runner on the left in front of a home Number 1 in the block where we are headed.

We arrive at our worksite for the day, Number 9. It is quiet, very quiet, very few birds, only one squirrel and no dogs or cats. The only people you see is the family in number 5 working on their house. Number 7 is GONE, just an empty lot where it once stood. Number 3 is also gone, and you can see the beach from our worksite. You could not see the beach on August 28, 2005 because of all of the homes and trees.

9:00AM – We unload and begin the job of debris removal, the floors, the walls everything down to the studs and exterior walls. Ladders, crowbars of all sizes, hammers and tools of all types to use for demolition of a home where a family had lived for 30 years until Katrina. It was nice rancher, modest but comfortable, it had a above ground pool, a 20 x 20 patio and a hot tub, all gone just outlines in the ground.

Everyone puts on gloves, masks, safety glasses and hats. Long sleeve shirts and jeans are best but heavy work boots are also essential. The work is hot and slow, Charlie directs, answers questions, shows this group of pencil pushers how to do demolition. Charlie is “THE MAN”.

Glenn, Rob, Sandy, Bob and I start in the family room where there was a fire place. Tear out the drywall, sub-wall, shelves, doors, doorframes, remove the insulation and nails, move to the powder room and perform the same but now we have a tile floor to remove. Sandy sweeps up the mess that Bob and I make while Glen and Mike and Rob remove it to the front yard by wheelbarrow. Glen also removes the nails that Bob and I skip.

Progress is slow, insulation is everywhere, and there is a lot to demolish, 30 years of a home.

11:45AM – We break before we start the next major section. We go outside, get a drink and find a place to sit on the ground. A white pickup arrives and out comes Roger, the owner of the remains of number 9.

Roger walks up to our group and introduces himself, he proceeds to tearfully thank us and tell us the story of his family. This was a beautiful place to retire after 30 years of military service, after raising a son and daughter, after almost paying off the mortgage, after adding new a new kitchen with new appliances, after making plans for a future.

The future did not include Katrina and now having to start over with almost nothing but a ridiculous offer from his insurance company. Nothing is left in his home; another faith based group was here before us to begin the debris removal that we were to finish today. Roger was not familiar with Jewish people until he met us. His gratitude was genuine and unwavering when we spoke, we are all the same, trying to do our best for our family and our faith.

It seemed a little odd that someone would be grateful to us for demolishing their home.

12:30PM – Lunch, conversation and break are over and back to work. We still have a lot to do to get this job done. Once we are finished the mold abatement crew comes in to clean and get the house ready for rebuilding. The debris pile out front is growing, flooring, shelves, insulation, floor tile, wood, drywall, and more. We dismantle the gas furnace and carry it outside. More nails to pull more drywall and floor to carry outside. The work continues and around 2:30PM Roger returns, this time he brings a photo of his family and we all get a chance to see who we are working for today.

3:30PM – We wrap up our day, we have demolished the interior of Roger’s home. We pose for a group photo with Roger and Charlie and our “Hands On Volunteer” poster, the front yard debris pile is now about 25 feet wide and 6 feet high.

It seems a little odd to be proud of tearing out the interior of someone’s home.

Two team members were sent to get tetanus shots for cuts, everyone has a few bruises and a sore something but we performed a small part of Tikun Olum today. Roger is one step closer to starting over and a group of executive directors and one rabbi were there to help.

One house done out of 48,651. There is still so much to do and it will take years. Volunteers are still needed to assist. Tikun Olum… one house at a time.

For information on volunteer opportunities go to Hands On Network, there is still so much to be done.

You may wish to read how simple but resolute actions inspire others… how caring has never gone out of style… and how a team of NAASE Executives and Friends made a difference in our time! Read the original article fro the Washington Jewish Week: Broadway to Biloxi.

Yasher koach to each of them and to all others less visible, who perfom the holy work of tikkun olam.