Today was our first work day and it was a full, rewarding one. We woke up in the 7:00am hour, had a breakfast of cereal, oatmeal, and English muffins and made up our sack lunches and packed them in the cooler. Since we already made our work teams the night before, we were able to head out to our three work destinations by 9:00am or so without much hassle.
Everyone in our group had designated work areas today save for Connie O. and me. Connie moved from site to site, running to get supplies and make sure groups had whatever support they needed, including a run or two to the hospital (more on that later). Meanwhile, I had the freedom to drive downtown to post the blog, go get supplies for sites at Home Depot and Everything’s $1, and video tape at each of the sites for documented posterity (yes, I got my hands dirty, too, mostly from sanding drywall). By going to each site, I write about what I saw a little easier.
I first traveled to Mack’s house with the work crew, Kent, Pat, Alex, Sam, Jacob B., Holly, Katie, and Olivia. The night before, UMCOR liaison Melissa told our group that Mack was truly a character and storyteller, someone we’d have a blast meeting. She was right on the money. Mack regaled us with tales of his thirty years as an iron worker, preached precariously up on eighty-two stories up, as well as what his home and yard were like during and immediately after the flood. He pointed to the garage and said the back wall was gone, floating in the backyard between the garage and the house. Next to it was a giant, waterlogged carpet that had been pulled from someone’s home like an orange peel. It had swirled around in the water until it folded on itself into a carpet crepe. There’s still plenty of debris in his backyard: broken down bicycles, spiky boards of wood, aerosol cans and an extra transmission on top of his tarp-covered car. The detail that stuck out the most was when Mack pointed to his roof and asked the group to look at the third row of shingles – that was where the water had risen after the river overflowed into territory somewhere in the thirty-odd feet deep. Sure enough, there was the water line, staining his shingles. The water had covered his entire first floor and now there was nothing left in it.
The first floor had skeleton studs separating the rooms but no walls to speak of save the cement brick walls serving as the home’s exterior (under new vinyl siding Mack installed on his own a few weeks back). It was this brick that the group set to coating with thick latex-based paint that would serve as water sealant. The work was not for the impatient or for those not willing to experiment with different approaches. One person would roll a thick layer of paint on the brick while another used a stiff-bristled brush to do touch-ups, dotting paint into the tiny holes and crevasses in the cement. Eventually, the group found the best tool was not a brush but a dishwashing scrub stick, its thick, sturdy bristles perfect for getting paint into the tiny blank holes like brushing one’s teeth. Other highlights from Mack’s house include wearing full body disposable painters suits (it was not the kind of paint one gets on their skin and comes off easily, much less clothing) and mixing the $150 5-gallon drums of paint by rolling them back and forth between two people as if playing a game of Kick the Can with something much bigger and heavier.
At Josh’s house, our largest group consisting of Ron, Barney, Loretta, Victoria, Kelsey, Jenna, Jacob S., Brett, and Jordan tackled drywall duties. They weren’t alone; MUMC’s Eric, Nathan, and Nick showed up, too, after getting on the road from Minnesota in the 5:00am hour. They did correction work from previous volunteer groups, including a lot of sanding from drywall mudding. I picked up a few 1” x 2” wood planks at Home Depot so they could cut struts to put behind new sheetrock with fellas like Jordan, Nick, and Nathan on measure-cut-and-drill duty. The group also did a lot of their own mudding and then sanding. The sanding was time-consuming and masks were more than necessary. Jenna sanded so much that there were streaks of dust between her eyes and painter’s mask like some sort of crazy make-up job (I was thinking David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust character myself). They also had a chance to meet Josh, the home owner, and learn that while the main floor where they were doing their work was still uninhabitable, he and his family had living space both upstairs and in the basement. However, it wasn’t until October, 2008 that they were able to get into even that space. Keep in mind, the flood was in June, 2008. That’s a long time to go without a place to call home.
The third work place, just blocks from the first two, was the Piano Store. What was likely a home that was once converted into a piano store, it didn’t look like either, anymore. There was already a crew at work when Bobbi, Jerry, Matt, Marcus, Kaitlin, Maddie, Jack, and Jake arrived and there was another that came to work later that day, too. The work was literally demolishing the inside of the house. The group donned worksuits like the painting crew at Mack’s plus masks as they hammered, crowbarred, and generally ripped the insides out of the moldy, smelly building, piece by piece. The pieces went into a dumpster so large that workers had to be on ladders to get up into it. While the other two work places weren’t too hampered by the downpour of rain we received about an hour into the job, the Piano Store crew had to spend time in the rain gathering up debris for the aforementioned monstrosity of a dumpster. The group was not only rewarded with working in the rain but received our casualties of the day. First Kaitlin, then Jack stepped on a nail. Connie and Loretta took Kaitlin to the ER for infection treatment and antibiotics (Jack, too, when his turn came later). Parents received the obligatory informational phone calls and after a chat with the doctor, they were able to return to work with ease.
We ceased working as 4:00pm approached and we returned to the church to grab our gear and make our way to the high school field house for showers. We came back to the church hungry for a meal of pasta whipped up by Connie and two more group members who showed up just in time to help cook, Bob and Louann. Meal time was fairly silent as tired folks simply chowed down on the grub. Plus, we didn’t have much time to tarry; we’d nabbed tickets for the Cedar Rapids Kernels minor league baseball game against the Fort Wayne Tincaps. The game had some good action and the between-innings entertainment featuring Bird Zerk and his mascot family had us all laughing. I tracked the game on a scorecard and looking at it, I can tell you the Kernels defense was great but offense not so much and they lost, 5-2.
Back at church, we debriefed as a large group, each work crew filling each other in on what they did that day. We set up new teams for our work places on Saturday (we’re returning to Josh and Mack’s houses, skipping the Piano Store, and picking up Sharon’s house). Then it was lights out (and cell phones out) and everyone’s in bed but me. But before I go, I want to write to you about one more thing I witnessed today.
Getting back to the work we did today, I had several observations all over the neighborhood. A lot of homes with “No Trespassing” signs and “Limited Entry” signs, put up by local and state government, keeping both strangers and homeowners out of the houses until more work could be done to make them habitable. There was one home I saw where a woman had spray painted a message on the blue vinyl siding exterior that was something to the effect of: “Lucky Me. I’m moving out and I had wonderful neighbors. God bless you all!” I’ll edit with the full message tomorrow, but such a message struck me as both uniquely beautiful and sadly tragic at the same time. But there was something else around the neighborhood, too. Many intersections had large flower pots on the boulevards, each with unique plants and flowers in bloom. They all carried a sign with a simple message: “Cultivate Hope.” I’d like to think the work we’re doing can cultivate hope even a little bit this week.
And we’re not the only ones out here this week. We’ve met groups from Ohio, Missouri, Kansas, and more – all here in Iowa working to cultivate hope. That’s some mighty find work you have us doing, God.
P.S. As promised, here are a few photos for you. We didn’t have cameras at all of the work sites but here are snapshots from Josh’s house and the Kernels game courtesy of Kelsey: