Operation Helping Hands brought many families home
Her life wasn’t easy before Hurricane Katrina. Alos Taylor, now 84, had had a heart attack and was trying to keep her head above water raising a dozen great grandchildren on a fixed income.
The Sunday before Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, Taylor said her daughter Anna Garrison coaxed her and the children to leave their raised Irish Channel home where she had lived for decades – in fear the nearby Mississippi River might overflow – to stay in her home on Earhart Boulevard off Carrollton Avenue. By Monday morning Aug. 29, they learned it was a big mistake.
“We almost drowned,” Taylor said. “We had to be rescued by boat” and then were brought to the top of the Causeway overpass, where they remained for two days until a helicopter airlifted the family to Louis Armstrong International Airport. From there, they were flown to a shelter in Fort Polk, Arkansas.
A grandson in the military in Virginia Beach was contacted, and he transported some family members back to Virginia, where the Red Cross was helping evacuees.
After five months in an apartment provided by the Red Cross, Taylor said FEMA sent her back to New Orleans to her home, only to discover roof damage from the storm had caused water damage to her home and belongings. What wasn’t destroyed by the storm, looters had ransacked.
“I came back here and I had an empty house,” Taylor said. “They broke in and cleaned me out.”
She said she was denied Road Home money, causing her family to sleep on the floor for awhile until $13,000 in insurance money was used to replace lost furniture.
During a request for relief from the nonprofit Hope House in the Irish Channel, she was referred to Operation Helping Hands, a program of Catholic Charities New Orleans that helped repair storm-damaged homes.
“The first thing they did was bring food and blankets and give us a voucher to buy food,” she said. “Then, they fixed the house and put in central air conditioning,” she said. Operation Helping Hands painted her home’s exterior, repaired the roof and replaced broken windows.
“Miss Deborah was a big help,” she said of Operation Helping Hands’ supervisor Debbie Koehler. “I can’t express how good Catholic Charities was. They gave us clothes and food, and Miss Deborah even bought my breathing medicine. I never met anybody like that before. A lot of times I called her and I said we didn’t have anything to eat, and she said to come over (to her office) and get food vouchers.”
Not long after her house was completed, it was discovered that Chinese dry wall was used, and Operation Helping Hands swooped in and repaired it again. During the yearlong second renovation, Catholic Charities paid for the Taylors to rent an apartment on Delachaise Street, she said. The Bishop Perry Center also has helped her with food, school uniforms and school supplies for her great grandchildren.
Taylor, who was a cook technician for 40 years with the Orleans Parish School Board and an employee of Kingsley House for 35 years, is Catholic and says she often says novenas at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. Seven of her great grandchildren live with her – three attend St. Stephen School, and one is at St. Augustine. Several were affected deeply by the storm and go to counseling.
Taylor said she is thankful for the services of Operation Helping Hands.
“I think Catholic Charities is one of the best organization ever made,” Taylor said.
2,500 homes repaired
Kathey Anderson, another Operation Helping Hands client, said Hurricane Katrina completely knocked her Gentilly home in the 7th Ward right off its foundation.
“It was devastating,” she said. “It was one of the most horrific things, and I don’t want to go through it again.
She evacuated pre-storm first to Mississippi then Memphis to secure Red Cross assistance for family members. Her elderly mother was separated from her for a while until they saw her on TV standing next to former President Bill Clinton in Arkansas. She reunited her family only to die five months after the storm (and was buried in Memphis), Anderson said.
Before she died, they made a trip home to see their home devastated.
“She looked at me and cried for a while, and she made me promise that I would come back and rebuild the city and our home,” Anderson recalled.
After 14 months in Memphis, Anderson heard about Project Reconstruct, a program teaching individuals construction skills to rebuild homes their homes and signed up. She said she started working with AmeriCorps for Operation Helping Hands for two years and then a cook for five years with Catholic Charities.
She applied to have Operation Helping Hands rebuild her home from top to bottom, using a floating peer system designed by Louisiana State University. She said Operation Helping Hands helped her navigate the myriad of paperwork required for federal government rebuilding funds and to obtain an elevation grant.
“I couldn’t have done it without the volunteer help and Catholic Charities who donated more than $100,000 in materials.,” she said, including insulated windows and doors. “I couldn’t have afforded to rebuild my house. But it was more than rebuilding; it was the love that went with it.”
Her three-bedroom, two-bath home was finished in December 2008, allowing extended family to return to New Orleans.
Even now, 10 years after the storm, Taylor’s home is one of few houses in her neighborhood to be rebuilt. But her life is back on track; she is a banquet waitress at the Fair Grounds.
But, she said, working with Operation Helping Hands was an enlightening experience allowing her to meet people from throughout the world. Some volunteers who worked on her house have become her extended family and revisit every Mardi Gras for the Bacchus parade and a big helping of her red beans.
“They didn’t just rebuild the house, they rebuilt my family,” she said.