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Pensacola with a purpose: an ASB diary

Part One: the journey, and day one on the job

Part One of a five-part series.

Cast of characters: Kendrick Sledge, CAS’09 (coordinator), Matt Fleming, CAS’06 (coordinator), Katie Ennis, COM’08, Dan Leach St.-Germain, CAS’08, Stephanie Shimada, CAS/COM ’07, Karen Benabou CAS, Hayley Sher CAS ’09, Rosemary Egar CAS’09, Evan Goodman CAS’08, Rebekka Nodhturft CAS’08, Amy Schweikert CAS’09, Beth Hewes SED’08.

Saturday, March 4: Heading south

It is cold. The 13 of us look one another over on a sunny Saturday morning in the parking lot of the Fuller Building. Our group, along with 19 other groups, loads a week’s worth of clothing, bedding, and entertainment into the 15-passenger van that will be our home until sometime Sunday afternoon. We are driving 1,400 miles, to Pensacola, Fla., for Alternative Spring Break. There, we will volunteer with Rebuilding Northwest Florida (RNF) to repair homes damaged by 2004’s Hurricane Ivan. We will spend the next 28 hours in very close quarters.

“The van,” ASB veteran Dom Reuter says two days before the trip, “is like a pressure cooker for friendship.” No one doubts the pressure cooker part.
By 10:15, each person’s role is clear: Matt Fleming, a senior with ASB experience and one of our trip coordinators, jokes about mixing up people’s names and lays out the rules against bringing fast-food into the van.

Kendrick Sledge, a freshman and the other coordinator, has already been nicknamed “Mom”; she is carrying a bag of snacks. Katie Ennis is hauling a tripod and camera equipment to make a project for her film class; Stephanie Shimada arrives breathless, with all her possessions for the week in a paper shopping bag. “She’s our hero,” Kendrick says approvingly; we are already struggling to fit everyone’s duffels and sleeping bags and pillows into the van.

By 10:30 we are driving west on the Mass Pike, and we don’t stop until we hit a rest area on the Jersey side of New York. A few miles on, we begin to doze, and suddenly Katie yells, “Fire!” and we stare out the window at a pickup truck engulfed in six-foot flames.
We stop for dinner in Maryland, where Evan Goodman’s parents treat us to a meal at the Towson Diner. We are grateful.

Sunday, March 5: Arriving in Pensacola

 At 5 a.m., when I pull off the highway in Charlotte to switch shifts, we watch a transvestite prostitute climb in a pickup truck at a gas station. At 8, we stop at a Waffle House in Georgia for breakfast, and Kendrick, a North Carolina native, lectures us on the proper way to eat grits; Evan ignores her advice and pours syrup on his. Matt insists on playing “Sweet Home Alabama” as we cross the border into that state.

One time-zone change later, we hit Pensacola; it’s one in the afternoon. We find our way to our lodging at the Mallory House Apartments, across the street from the Baptist Hospital. Kendrick leads a brigade to Wal-Mart with a mission to feed 13 people, including one with an allergy to nuts, one with sensitivity to lactose, and two vegetarians, for the next seven days on something under $300. She returns two hours later, having spent $250. She is triumphant.

We have a quick dinner of macaroni and hot dogs, and 36 hours after leaving Boston — most of them without sleep — everyone is ready for bed. ASB officially begins tomorrow morning at orientation at RNF headquarters.

Monday, March 6: Pamela’s place

At the Monday morning RNF orientation session, we learn that the organization was founded barely a month after Hurricane Ivan hit and since then has helped more than 700 families repair their homes or find new ones. Our site coordinator’s name is Daryl Ready, and he leads us to Terry Doran’s house.

Terry waited out the storm on September 16, 2004, in his three-bedroom bungalow in Pensacola. He’d been through hurricanes before, having lived in the city since 1982, and it seemed he’d get through this one, too, until the tar-and-gravel roof blew off and water began pouring through the ceilings.
Since then, Terry, 48, and his 10-year-old daughter, Pamela, have been living in a FEMA trailer next door to their house. They get by on his Navy pension and disability for diabetes, hearing loss, and bad knees. In 10 days, he says, he will find out if FEMA will give them an extension to continue using the trailer for free or if they will begin charging him rent. If that’s the case, he’ll have to seal off a section of the house and move back in. This is complicated, because he is going to Arkansas for a cardiac catheterization procedure next month, but he can’t afford to pay the additional rent and keep Pamela in private school. Terry looks at the floor. “It’s just one of those things,” he says.

Terry’s home is one of the 150,000 destroyed by Ivan, which blasted the Gulf Coast with 130 m.p.h. winds and caused $13 billion worth of damage in the United States.

Daryl hands out dust masks and safety glasses before giving us our instructions for the day: rip out the ceilings in three bedrooms and the bathroom, demolish the wall between the kitchen and the living room, dismantle the wooden porch ceiling. It sounds easy, Daryl warns, but “this guy’s got a lot of stuff in his house. There’s nowhere else to put it.”

The house has the half-destroyed, half-lived-in look that signals a natural disaster: the living room is fully fitted out with furniture and decorated with a buck’s head on the wall, but everything is covered with a fine film of plaster dust. Clothes hangers draped in Mardi Gras beads — souvenirs from Terry’s eight visits to New Orleans and several local parades — hang in the front closet. There are coffee cups on the kitchen shelf, but the room is crammed with salvaged tables and chairs, and filled with construction debris. Before we can knock the ceilings down, we must clean out the three bedrooms, which still have clothes hanging in the closet and posters on the wall. Pamela’s door is decorated with a drawing titled “Keep Out Spirit,” which refers to the cat, and a sign saying “Please Knok.”

We divide into teams. Dan and Katie tackle the bathroom ceiling and are quickly shrouded in plaster dust. Several others attack the wall between the kitchen and the living room with gusto. Kendrick, Beth Hewes, and I begin moving furniture out of Pamela’s room, carefully lifting the case of Beanie Baby bears off the wall and tucking a sheet of plastic over the loft bed. The white trailer that Terry and Pamela live in is parked at the side of the house, a few feet from her bedroom window.

“This is just so crazy to me,” Beth whispers as we work. “It’s been over a year.”

Everyone quickly settles into a rhythm. It takes 20 to 40 minutes to knock a ceiling down; the process is helped by crowbars and hampered by air-conditioning vents. The gravel from the roof has settled above the plaster, and as sections fall debris tumbles down onto us. Dan narrowly escapes a falling piece of sheetrock and a few minutes later gets nailed in the shoulder by a hunk of plaster. Karen Benabou gets something, plaster dust or fiberglass, in her eye, and Terry drives to the commissary to fetch eyedrops.

By lunchtime, which we eat sitting on the curb, we’ve taken down all four ceilings and the wall. Plaster dust is in our ears, in our hair, on our lips. Evan has accumulated a small mound of it on either side of his nose. We wipe off our hands and sit down for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, chips, and fruit. Terry brings out bags of chocolate chip cookies.

After we clean up, the final task is taking down the porch ceiling. Matt and Dan begin carefully removing each board with a crowbar; Amy, who has built houses for a community service project in Jamaica, and Katie begin smashing away at the wood with a hammer. Their method, everyone agrees, is more effective. We stack the boards by the door, in case Terry wants to use them again.

The work is finished by 2, and Daryl tells us that the next site isn’t ready for volunteers yet, so the rest of the day is ours. Everyone agrees that it should be spent on the beach, so we shake the plaster dust out of our hair, change into bathing suits, and head for Pensacola Beach, which is crowded with regular spring breakers, who, judging by the empty beer bottles next to them, have been baking in the sun for quite some time. We ignore them and pile into the water for a game of football. Tomorrow, Daryl says, “we’re going to be repairing a trailer or tearing a trailer down.”

Read Part Two