Friday, June 02, 2006


Drove in on the spillway, had no idea that Lake Pontchartrain is so huge. I guess I have no scale reference while looking at maps.

I got off the highway at Carrolton Street to interview Eddie Bernard. I was shocked at how much debris was still on the streets. Eddie later told me that they are still doing free trash pickup until June 30th and a lot of folks are just returning now and gutting their properties.

Eddie was fantastic. He was so generous with his time and stories…in the first 20 minutes I was overwhelmed. He was one of the first 5000 folks back after Katrina one month afterwards. He and his wife Angela spent that first month in Rochester, NY where he had gone to school at RIT. Before Katrina, he ran a glass kiln building business he’d built up over 10 years with upwards of 13 employees. He and several employees camped out in Rochester, he and his wife sharing a twin sized air mattress.

When they came back, their 2nd story apartment hadn’t been flooded, but his warehouse had 3 ft of water (above the 3 foot loading dock). He is still in the process of refurbishing the offices, redoing electrical, cleaning rust off of machine parts and stock steel. He said when he returned it smelled like ‘low tide.’ The dry walled office spaces were infested with mold, giving off an incredible stench. He said the there was no breeze, that everything seemed stagnant, even sound. There was an absence of the white noise of a city, no cars, no machinery, only the occasional generator noise. There is a large newspaper distribution warehouse kitty corner to his studio that had sustained significant damage. He described working in the studio with the only noise being the occasional creaking and flapping of the metal roofing on the warehouse and his own roof.

He told me about a beached yacht in the neighborhood. Rescue boats had been abandoned as the flood receded all over the city, all kinds of boats. He would go to the boat for respite and a beer while working on his space because it was the only space not covered in the mud and sludge left behind. I saw some trailers and boats on what looked like the top of a parking garage and asked if they were also left behind. He told me that the owner of the garage was leasing the space to FEMA, and that those were temporary houses, a mishmash of small yachts and trailers. He described other entrepreneurial ventures that had happened since the flood. He described a guy doing on the spot car tire repairs for $15 each. When cars were first able to drive around, the tires were constantly being punctured by debris. Folks took tires (and other parts, such as truck beds) off of abandoned cars, but punctured wheels on a daily basis. Another guy had bought up some property before the storm with the intention of building a tract of small houses. His land is now a FEMA trailer park , with the originally intended building going up across the street. Eddie himself almost went into to business using his leased studio warehouse as a local distribution center for re construction materials.

Eddie and Angela had bought a double lot with a shotgun duplex house in the neighborhood before the storm with the intention of demolishing the house and potentially rebuilding the business there. The business had been successful and they decided to invest their money in real estate equity in the area. Rather than demolish the house, he is now renovating it with the help of 3 men from El Salvador that he met who were camping out near his warehouse. They turned out to be excellent carpenters and house framers, formerly employed by a contractor. They are still living in tents behind the local supermarket under an awning. When the house is habitable, they’ll move into it. Because they have eliminated the contractor/middle man, Eddie is able to pay them much more than they would’ve earned while paying much less than he would’ve paid a contractor (compounded by the fact that the availability of contractors and materials was severely impacted). These guys came to the table with construction experience and expertise; Eddie has CADCAM skills from his business and was able to generate plans for a permit that an architect friend signed off on. The permit process is another story…

The house was termite ridden and damaged by a fire next door. There was a beehive behind the drywall between two studs, stretching from the floor to the ceiling. Eddie showed me some amazing termite nests they found there. It reminded me of the BLDGblog post about casting ant architecture. The more we talked about this, the more relationships I began to draw between the spontaneous, instinctual, organic architectures and what is happening in the neighborhood. Towards the end of my visit, Eddie was expressing some doubt about the process…why rebuild and use more resources to do so? Is the potential of new hurricanes and new flooding going to doom the city and waste all of these efforts again? After making a disclaimer about triteness, I told him it seems natural. He agreed.

He is a native of the Gulf Coast; his wife is 6th generation New Orleans Creole. A month after the storm they came back and after some discussion decided to stay and rebuild. He expressed some anger about the canal levees and their neglect before the storm. His business had been ten years in the making with a loyal and local group of employees he had trained. He told me that the flooding rendered 40 years of collective productivity moot. At the same time he feels strong responsibility and love towards the city. He pointed out that when outsiders casually state that New Orleaners should just accept and move on, rebuild their lives in a new area, they are missing the vital point. It is an irreplaceable city, experience, lifestyle and culture.


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