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Birthplace: St. Louis, Missouri
Time in New Orleans at Interview: 1 year
New Orleans Post-Katrina Work: Coummunity Outreach Officer, Rebuilding Together New Orleans, Americorps VISTA
N.O.L.A. Oral History Project
Interview with: Amanda Murphy, November 08, 2009
Interviewers and Transcribers:
The interview with Amanda Murphy, a twenty-nine year old volunteer for AmeriCorps, was conducted via telephone on Sunday, November 08, 2009. The interviewers were April Braden and Peter Thoma, two graduate students participating in Dr. Christopher Manning’s graduate-level course, Oral History: Method and Practice. This interview is part of the N.O.L.A. Oral History Project.
At the time of this interview, Amanda Murphy was employed with Rebuilding Together in New Orleans, Louisiana for approximate three months. While her background as a historical preservationist lends her an appreciation for the preservation of the city’s homes, she is a community outreach officer who heralds her strong intent on helping people. Because she has spent a limited time in New Orleans in her current role, her previous work in New Orleans working for the American Red Cross shapes and influences her perspective on her current job. Her discovery and interaction with cases of contractor fraud and forced mortgage payoffs have a significant impact on Amanda, for she mentions these blights throughout the interview.
Though she grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, she maintains that New Orleans is a second home for her. She embraces the city’s unique character and welcoming citizens. She describes her job as difficult, yet rewarding. For her, it is a challenge to go out and find people to help, and still yet, it is hard to break the news to some needy homeowners that Rebuilding Together is unable to help them. However, she cherishes the opportunity to help others, as well as the ability to talk one-on-one with residents about their “Katrina stories.” Amanda Murphy exemplifies an individual committed to helping New Orleans and aiding those in need.
The editing of the transcriptions attempt to accurately capture the interview. However, because of significant repetition, “um,” “uh,” and “ah” were omitted. These were determined to create a more disjointed transcript. Words and phrases such as “like” and “you know” remain in the transcript, for they are deemed as verbal cues of thought. However, the interviewee often uses these words and phrases several times in a row. To facilitate readability, a dash (–) is used to separate repeated words and phrases, false starts, and a different direction in thought, creating a more transparent thought process and is truer to the interviewee’s conversational style. Brackets denote an interruption in dialog (such as laughter), and ellipses represent pauses. Finally, some grammatical licenses are taken, sentences may begin with conjunctions and run-ons are separated with commas. When possible, grammar errors are avoided.
0 – 5 Minutes Introductions, Life before Hurricane,
Employment and education status,
Connection to New Orleans,
Emotional effect of storm
5-10 Minutes The relationship between Rebuilding
Together and Historic Preservation,
Thoughts and reactions to Hurricane
coverage, Guilt over inability to
Volunteer immediately, American Red Cross’s “Operation Brothers
10-15 Minutes Notions of what effect Hurricane
Katrina would have on New Orleans,
Her motivations to volunteer, Why
Rebuilding Together is a good fit for
15-20 Minutes First and second trip back to New
Orleans, Reactions to state of
rebuilding the city
20-25 Minutes First three months with Rebuilding
Together, Discussion of program and
application process, Why
construction work might be more
25-30 Minutes Discussion of pitfalls at beginning of
her work at Rebuilding Together,
Improving her confidence at work,
Rebuilding Together’s interaction
with the community
30-35 Minutes Explanation of Road Home and its
effects on Rebuilding Together
35-40 Minutes Discussion of what the government
presence in the releasing of relief
funds, Contractor Fraud
40-45 Minutes Break
45-50 Minutes Re-introduction, Discussion of final
N.O.L.A Oral History Project,
Reception of interviewee in the
community, Outsider status,
Community’s response towards
delay in rebuilding process.
50-55 Minutes Favorite moments while
volunteering, Openness of New
Orleans culture, Enjoyment of
55-60 Minutes Challenges and frustrations of
reaching out to community members
to participate in Rebuilding
60-65 Minutes Theories why individuals are not
contacting Rebuilding Together for
help, Concerns of safety effecting
overall image of volunteer work
65-70 Minutes Checking to see how responsive a
neighborhood is to Rebuilding
Together’s presence for safety
reasons, What she has learned about
the people of New Orleans
70-75 Minutes The resilient nature of New Orleans,
Her thoughts on how New Orleans is
unlike any other American city, Elist
attitudes towards New Orleans Post-
75-80 Minutes What she has learned from her
volunteer experiences, Forced
80-85 Minutes What is left to be done in New
Orleans, The two mindsets of
Americans in regards to the
85- 92 Minutes Rebuilding Together’s future in New
Orleans, “Christmas in October” and
“October Build” programs, Finishing
out her Vista year, Plans for staying
in New Orleans after volunteering,
Organizational information about
Rebuilding Together, Goodbyes.
[April Braden]: Hi Amanda.
[Amanda Murphy]: Hi April, how are you?
[AB]: Good. How are you doing this morning?
[AM]: Not too bad. Not too bad.
[AB]: Well, as Doctor Manning mentioned, I do need to verify that you have read all of the approval forms.
[AM]: Yes. And I have read the forms and I agree, to what they say.
[AB]: Okay good. Well I am glad that we have your consent. So were you able to get a list of the questions as well?
[AM]: No, I wasn’t. I don’t know why, but the e-mail didn’t go through last night. So I didn’t get to look at the questions, but I am not worried about that. I might just take a little bit longer to answer questions.
[AB]: Well, if you feel that we are going to fast or if you need us to repeat ourselves feel free to ask us to do so.
[AB]: Alright. Well. We are going to begin talking about what was going on in your life before the hurricane.
[AM]: Let’s see, before the hurricane I was working for a company called Merits Travel. It’s a travel logistics company based out of St. Louis, Missouri. That’s where I am from originally. And I had been with them for about a year. And just to give a little bit of background about my relationship with New Orleans my first year out of college, 2003 through 2004, I was an AmeriCorp Vista for the American Red Cross in New Orleans. And I’d always loved the city of New Orleans but – just really, like, you know, felt – felt connected to it in a different way after I spent the year living here. I was offered a job with the Red Cross after my year of Vista service for a year, but I wanted to travel, so I took this job with a travel company.
In 2005, the Summer of 2005 … the way this travel job works, like after my first year working with them I was allowed to move anywhere in the country within a 60 mile radius of a major airport. And I was – I was seriously considering moving back to New Orleans. In fact, I was going to, – going to be sent on a trip to New Orleans that September I believe, yeah, like, just as the hurricane was hitting, so I was – I was planning to come back for a visit, you know. I was with this travel agency company and we travel around the country setting up meetings, so I was going to have meetings in New Orleans the week that Hurricane Katrina hit, or maybe the week just after that, and of course the trip got canceled. And so that’s – that’s what I was doing.
And … the storm really, really impacted my life, even though I don’t have family in New Orleans I had a lot of friends and – and I was planning at that time, or considering at that time, whether or not I should make my life at New Orleans again when the hurricane hit. And so it really – it really changed the path that I thought my life would go down. And for a while, and I thought it might be impossible for me to ever come back to ever live here again, and, that I’d have to come up with a new plan for myself. But, – let’s see that same year I decided – that’s when I decided to go back to graduate school because what I really wanted to do is come back to, you know, New Orleans and I wanted to find a way to be useful. So that’s why I went to graduate school.
[AB]: Okay. So I just have a clarifying question you said that in 2003/2004, after you graduated, you said you worked for AmeriCorp? And..
[AM]: I did, yes.
[AM]: And that’s what I am doing now.
[AB]: Okay. And when you graduated was that college or high school?
[AM]: It was college.
[AB]: Okay. And then you said again that you were now going back to graduate school currently or are you planning to go back?
[AM]: I -I went already.
[AM]: In 2006, I left the job with Merit and went to graduate school in Colorado State. And I got a – I got a position, I’m so sorry. I studied historic preservation and wanting to come back to have useful skills that could translate into something I could do in New Orleans.
[AM]: And historic preservation with the towns’ communities development and all those things.
[AB]: Cool. And so how does historic preservation relate to what you’re doing now with AmeriCorps?
[AM]: Well … Rebuilding Together in New Orleans is a program connected to the Preservation Resource Center. And the Preservation Resource Center is one of the premier organizations in New Orleans focused on - on historic preservation, teaching people about the benefits of historic preservation, the economic benefits, you know, the cultural benefits, and they have number of other programs including Operation Comeback, where the Preservation Resources Center acquires homes, fixes them up to historic preservation standards, and then sells them to people.
Rebuilding Together is also a program of the Preservation Resource Center but instead of – the focus is not as much on historic preservation as it is on – on, like, I don’t know if you call it “cultural preservation” but the point is to keep people in their neighborhoods, and to keep people in their own houses. So there are, I didn’t know how many people in New Orleans, thousands of people in New Orleans, who are still unable to move back into their homes that have been damaged by the storm. And Rebuilding Together, you know, has a very narrow focus on who we let into the program, but once we agree to help someone, we’ll use our resources to get them back in to their house.
[AB]: Okay. So we sort of touched on it already about your emotions during the hurricane, but I wondered if you could tell me more specifically what you thought of when you saw the coverage of the hurricane and the subsequent flooding.
[AM]: I – I was … because of the trip to New Orleans got canceled – it was a very strange job I had, basically, when I was when I wasn’t – like, it was a full-time job. Like, I was paid a salary but, when I wasn’t on a trip, I was free to do anything I wanted. And, so I was stuck in St. Louis watching the coverage. And I had – I had a few friends that I was in touch with in New Orleans that I was really trying to contact and to make sure they where okay. And at the same time, I was trying to contact the Red Cross to see if they needed me to come and volunteer with them. And, you know, sort of no feedback from either source, so I was really worried about everybody.
But it was – it was– it was really hard to watch. And, I think – I think what hurt so much about watching the coverage, is that I felt that I should like should be here, (here meaning cause I’m here in New Orleans now) but at that point I felt that I should be there. Because of my connection with the Red Cross like it was my job, I worked in the P.R. Department, to talk to people about why it was important to evacuate and about the dangers of hurricane season.
And, so, we also as a part of the Red Cross, were working on a plan, which never really got off the ground, it was I think – I think the first year I was there called “Operations Brothers Keeper.” And it was this little budget attempt to come up with a plan to get people without access to get transportation out of New Orleans. And it sort of sat around on the Red Crosses’ – you know, they just didn’t seem to be any money in it. Everyone realized how important it was but finding funding for the project, I think that was the problem. I was never in charge of “Operation Brothers Keeper,” but it was something that we talked about. I had a lot of other AmeriCorps members through friends and it was something we brought home with us after work and would sit around at the bar and talk about how we’re going to get people out of town in the event of a hurricane, and it doesn’t seem very obvious about how we can get people out.
And I have completely lost track of the question I was supposed to answer for you.
[AB]: [laughter] , well you are doing a good job of it. The question was what did you think of when you saw the coverage of the hurricane and the subsequent floodings? And, maybe you could touch on a little bit more of what you saw in the television or that sort of thing.
[AM]: I mean, I just remember, … I would – I would spend a lot of time, you know, watching the news, watching CNN and The Weather Channel. And I think that the week before the hurricane, we really thought that it wouldn’t be anything. The week or two before, I had – I had been doing a trip in Atlanta. And then I think the hurricane hit Florida first, and it was a small hurricane. And it just seem like it was going to teeter out, and so we weren’t particularly worried about it. It seemed more of a nuisance than anything else. And – and, you know, like, coming to grips, like a day or two before Hurricane Katrina hit with the idea that it’s gunna – it’s gunna really – it’s gunna really bring damage to New Orleans.
And again like I said, there was some guilt. I felt that should, since I worked for the Red Cross, and because I lived in New Orleans before, and I should’ve been there, you know, that I should be down in New Orleans helping out some how. And– and, like, I didn’t get to go, you know, immediately after the hurricane for various reasons. I had – I had a job, it was hard finding an organization which even – even the Red Cross who knew me, that would, you know, say, “Yes Amanda. Come on down we need your help.”
[AB]: Mm hum.
[AM]: Because I guess in the aftermath, you know, you had to be here for people to recognize that you were, you know, really going the extra mile to come and volunteer. I don’t know I haven’t really – I never really figured out why– why they didn’t call me back. Except that they were probably incredibly busy. And so it was – it was hard – it was hard knowing too that if I had stayed with the Red Cross that I would be helping out. You know, it was only a year before the storm that I left New Orleans, so I still felt very, very connected to the city, very concerned about the way things were going. And even though I’m not a native New Orleaninan, New Orleans always felt like my city and – and so I was very concerned about whether or not my city would – would last, you know, we would be able to come back after the storm. Because I was also pretty familiar with the, you know, the state and the quality of a lot – a lot of homes. Especially in working class neighborhoods. And I– I knew how bad things were before the storm, you know, with generational neglect,
[AB]: Hum ss-
[AM]: So it just seemed like it would make, with just things like major change to the city if it could even come back…
[AM]: So of course a city of a million people with, you know, a cultural richness like New Orleans people find a way to get back and I can help that.
[AB]: Yeah… so we’ve definitely already touched on your experiences with your previously volunteering was part of the motivation for why you wanted to come back and volunteer in New Orleans, but I wondered if you could point to any specific examples of about what motivated you to give your assistance to the flooding victims.
[AM]: Well let’s see, well I didn’t – I didn’t – like I said I didn’t get back to New Orleans to come and be useful until … this August, so August of 2009. And I think– that was – was a couple of weeks before, – before the four year anniversary of the storm, so it took me quite some time to get here. A couple of things, it really after – after graduate school I was looking for any sort of reason to come back to New Orleans. You know, so in a lot of ways, like, any job would do as long as it was something that I thought interesting. And, so when this job came up I really wasn’t looking forward to being a Vista again because the pay is pretty low and, you know, it’s a one year promise of something to do. And instead of like a, you know, a full-time job that will last till – in instead of a real job. You know what I mean.
[AM]: But – but, like when this job came up with Rebuilding Together New Orleans it seemed like it would be a good fit for me. Because it was out of the Preservation Resource Center, which, you know, interests me because of my interest in historic preservation, but then it was also working with the flood victims. And I know that this city is never really going to come back unless, you know, we invest in – in , you know, in our in our people here. And – and in a lot of people are just still struggling.
[AB]: Mm hum
[AM]: There are a lot of incidents of contractor fraud. so basically most the people that I have talked to today, four years after the storm, the reason they haven’t fixed up their house yet is because, you know, something – something’s gone wrong with their plan. And it seems like a lot of people in – in New Orleans have experienced contractor fraud. Have you have you heard about – are you familiar with contractor fraud?
[AB]: Somewhat, but I think we’re actually going to come more towards that towards the – the end of the interview.
[AM]: Okay, sure
[AB]: So we can cross that bridge when we get there. I wondered, , if you could talk a little bit more about what you expected to see when you first arrived in New Orleans to volunteer …after the flood.
[AM]: I – I had – I made a couple – like I said, it had – it been four years after the storm by the time I moved back here, but I’d come back a couple of times. I had another trip with – with Merit, my travel company in – it was in must have been August or late July of 2006, and so that was my first time back in New Orleans after the storm. And we stayed at the Hilton Riverside so we were downtown and we really didn’t venture further than like the C.B.D.  and the French Quarter. I was really surprised and impressed by – by how much – how familiar everything felt so it – it still felt and looked like New Orleans to me, so that sort of gave me hope. I was like, “well, I know that these were probably the first neighborhood that – that people are going to because invest money in. This is where all, you know, the economic development comes from for the city.” But, you know, like I said, it felt familiar, it didn’t feel like a different city for me at that point.
And then before I considering seriously moving back to New Orleans, I – I drove down here from – from St. Louis in – oh in about six months ago, five or six months ago. Just – just to look at New Orleans from beyond the – the tourist attractions, and, you know, drive through the neighborhoods that I knew of, Uptown and Mid City, and just to make sure that – that it still – it was still recognizable to me, it was still the same kind of city. And it was. And so then when I – when I took this job it felt really like I was coming back to a city that I knew and loved already recognized. But –since – since then there are a lot of neighborhoods that have not – have not fared as well like the Uptown neighborhoods and the Mid City neighborhoods. And, then there’s a lot going on too that you can’t really tell from the exterior of the house, that the interior of the house is still uninhabitable.
[AB]: So when you arrived in New Orleans, after you made the decision to come back, were your expectations met about where New Orleans’s would be in the rebuilding stage? How did they compare/contrast to you’d previously thought.
[AM]: Well … when I – when I moved to New Orleans because – because I had taken these couple of trips to look at things, I was really expecting that you know, most – most problems with New Orleans’ housing was generational neglect and the fact that the house had been, you know, falling down for decades. And – and you see a lot of that, and even the homeowners we talk to, there’s generational neglect a lot. You know, with flood damage and the wood damage on top of that, so it’s sort of this – you know, these two things coming together to make a house uninhabitable. But I mean especially in neighborhoods, like, in some neighborhoods had it worst than others like–like– like Gentily and neighborhoods in the Lower Ninth Ward that we work with like Holy Cross, you –it like– it was – it was the first time when I went out on visits that I really saw, like, you know, these houses before the storm were quite habitable and seeing that, and we’ve talk to the homeowners their house was flooded to the roof, and it seeing that kind of damage what that can do.
But the houses that I have seen, like, I said four years after the storm, some – some have been left, a lot has been – a lot have been gutted, you know, they just have the studs now – and but – and then, you know, the other strange thing is seeing houses that have been – that have been elevated on these like concrete piers. So that a house that was once on a slab, is now 10 feet in the air on these concrete piers. And, you know, all of these little like, ranch style homes up on concrete pier, and it just looks very … very weird [laughter] and, you know, kinda looks at least inappropriate, but you do what you gotta do to make sure that you can weather a hurricane again.
[AB]: Yeah … doesn’t really add to the historic preservation of the city though when they’re up on concrete slabs like that. [laughter]
[AM]: Yeah, but it – it’s kinda funny.
[AB]: Yeah. So I wondered if you could tell me about what kind of work you did when you started volunteering there, after Hurricane Katrina?
[AM]: So – so that the work that I doing now with Rebuilding Together?
[AM]: I am a community outreach officer. And so it’s my job – Rebuilding Together, what we do is we – we identify homeowners who are gunna fit within our program. We have seven neighborhoods that we work in. And we work with low income home owners who have – who are either single parents, disabled, over sixty years old, or first responders, or like the primary caregiver of someone who’s, you know, elderly or – or disabled. And so it’s my job to – to identify people who are going to fit into our program and go through the application process with them. You know, take a look at their house, and then if I think it’s a good project, send our construction manager out there. And if everyone agrees then that it’s still a good project, we work up a budget. And then me and my boss try to find funding for the project.
So, you know, I’m – I’m the one who’s like, talking to, you know, talking to –to people and – and trying to find out whether or not, you know, sort of walking them – taking them by the hand and walking them through the process of getting into Rebuilding Together New Orleans. So I’m – I’m not the guy out there, you know, hammering nails putting stuff up. And sometimes I wonder if [laugher] if that might have been a more fulfilling job. I’m not qualified in the least to go and build one of these houses; it’s not where my skill set. But it can be very frustrating talking to people. I talk to people before who, you know, were – were just outside of our – our neighborhoods and so we couldn’t work on their houses – so a few blocks away from our targeted neighborhood. And I’ve talked to people before who, for one reason or another, didn’t qualify and it didn’t mean that they were, you know, … unworthy of assistance, and they weren’t in need, it’s just that Rebuilding Together for different reasons, couldn’t, because of funding reasons, couldn’t, you know, like – we have mission statements we gotta go by that, we, you know, we – we couldn’t work on their house.
And so I talk to people, and call them, and tell them, you know. And even though most of the time, when I initially talk to someone we talk for an hour and I ask them, you know, every – all these personal questions. You know, not just about like how much do you make every year, or how much you make a month, and what’s your social security number, and stuff like that. But also stuff like, you know, why, you know, what’s been so difficult getting back into your house, and what, you know, what hardships have you undergone because of Katrina? And, you know, so all this stuff comes up. And I feel like I get to know them. And they feel like – like, you know, like, here I am asking all these personal questions about them, you know? And so there’s this bond at that point and – and then telling them, “I’m sorry we – we can’t – we can’t – can’t help you,” you know, it’s – it’s really hard.
[AB]: So you mentioned you think sometimes that working in the construction sector might be a little bit more fulfilling. I wonder if you could expand on that?
[AM]: Sure. I think what I mean by that is that … you know, when – when – when you’re doing something hands on you can see from the beginning of the day to the end of the day your progress. You know, if you start out the day, you know, sheet rocking a house, and, you know, your house is sheet rocked by the end of the day, then you can be like, you know, “Yeah, okay I did that.” You know, that is what I did to contribute to getting someone back in their home. And for me, [laughter] you know, though – because sometimes – there’s a lot of people who lost their jobs, you know, spend the day trying to track down documents to make sure you got the correct documentation for someone so that we can prove that this person is the person they say they are. And, you know, I dunno, it can be it can be very frustrating. And so we don’t always get to see that progress from, like 8 AM in the morning to 5 o’clock at night of what we’ve done during the day.
[AB]: Yeah, so I know you kind of implied that your work really hasn’t changed that much since you started doing this – your second go round with Vista, but what kind of work done more recently, like, how’s that changed from when you first came down a couple months ago?
[AM]: I would say in – in the – it’s been about three months now that I have been – I’ve – I’ve certainly learned a lot, you know. Because when we – when we first got here, considering that there were four community outreach officers who are doing roughly the same job, just work in different neighborhoods, like – like – we – we were really – there were a lot of – lot of questions. There were a lot of – we were constantly running back and forth to – to our boss, “Can – do we do this? Can we do it, you know, do we work on someone who has this problem?” And so just sort of learning the ropes and feeling confident talking to a person on the phone and saying, “No, I’m sorry but because of this we …,” you know, “you’re not going to be a good fit for our program,” or, you know, or saying like, “Because of this, you are going to be a good fit for our program.” Just constantly developing the confidence of knowing what I’m talking about. And figuring out what information we need to collect from people to, you know, to keep the make the process as smooth as possible.
[AB]: Mm hum
[AM]: But what questions to ask up front to find out like, “No, this person is not going to be a good candidate,” lets, you know, “let’s not continue this sort of momentum.” Because the longer you spend talking to someone, the longer you keep them in queue, the – the more they expect to be a part of the program. You know, if doing an intake with someone then three weeks later to call them and tell them that “We can’t help you.” You know, it’s much worse than talking to someone, and then half way through the application process, like, saying, you know, “I’m sorry, but because of this we can’t help you.” In that way, you know, it sort of –it doesn’t drag things out longer. And people have been waiting to get back to their homes for quite some time as this point.
[AB]: Yeah. I just have a couple of more questions for you, and then we are going to take a small break for you, and Pete will ask you some questions. But I am still a little bit confused as to the exact process of how someone comes to your organization asking for help, and I wondered if you could give us maybe a check list of what happens when someone approaches you.
[AM]: Yeah. D – Do you mean – you mean … like, how we find people or how people find us?
[AB]: Both. I thought it was people approaching the organization asking for help.
[AM]: Yeah. That’s – that’s usually the way it works. We do – like we do try to make sure that people in our neighborhood understand and know about – about Rebuilding Together. We’ve done a number of, like, canvassing events where we, you know, go door to door and hand out fliers and broachers and tell people [inaudible] “We’re here to help.” “If you qualify, we’ll help you.” But, so, people hear from a variety of sources. They, you know, they read a brochure, their church tells them about it, their friend tells them about it, and – and they give us a call, either that, or all the Community Outreach Officers hold – hold office hours in the field.
So, like, my main office is in the Preservation Resources Center slash Rebuilding Together building on Tchoupitoulas in the warehouse district. But then I also spend a couple of hours every week working with the Grace Episcopal Church on Canal Street, and I work in the Mid City neighborhood, and that’s in the heart of the Mid City, and – and so people hear from a variety of sources that, you know, “Amanda Murphy’s the Mid City Community Outreach Officer and if you want to learn more about Rebuilding Together that you should give a phone call or stop by her office hours.”
And most of the time it’s over the phone. You know, then I will explain, like, what Rebuilding Together does, you know, who we help and – and if I think they’re someone I can help, then I will ask them if they have – if they have, you know, a half an hour or hour to do an intake, which is basically an application, with me. And so that’s – that’s pretty much the process.
And also we – we do – other organizations that do similar work to us, but who can’t help people for whatever reason, will also refer them to us. That, you know, there – there is like a sort of informal process of well, you know, that Rebuilding Together can’t help but Phoenix of New Orleans might help or Common Ground, you know, Catholic Charities all these other organizations might be able to help. And we do – we do offer like, people who – who we can’t assist, we have put together like a resource guide of all the non-profit organizations in New Orleans who are helping people through various need, you know, not through building, but other, like, shelter needs, and other resources. You know, sort of like a, “We can’t help you, there are always other organizations that can help, so don’t lose hope.” You know, we never wanna, like, to turn people away and make them believe that there is no hope, that there is nothing that can be done for them.
[AB]: Okay, so you discussed a little bit how you guys interact with other volunteer agencies, but how do you think your organization fits into the larger relief efforts by the state and federal government?
[AM]: … I’m not – I’m sure to answer that question. Like I said, since I have only been working with Rebuilding Together for three months, I’m not sure… how all the different organizations are connected, and what – what – what we promise, like, government we will do. Can you – can you clarify that a little bit?
[AB]: Yeah, sure. Basically what we’re curious about is do you think that your organization works well to pick up the slack where other, the state and federal organizations, have left off? Do you think it’s pretty cooperative, or does your organization focus on something completely different from say the state or federal government?
[AM]: Well, we … I’m not exactly sure, I don’t think the state and federal government really gets involved in like – like helping people rebuild their houses, other than financially. Have you heard of the Road Home program? I would imagine you probably have.
[AB]: I’ve heard of it, but I can’t say that I’m very knowledgeable in it.
[AM]: Yes, pretty much most of the most of the homeowners have received some kind of money from Road Home. Road Home – what from what I understand, and I’m still not – not exactly sure about this, but they were sort a financial, they filled in a financial gap between – between, like, the insurance payouts that people received and like the actual cost of rebuilding their house. And so – so people would get – it’s one of the lenders we ask about. We ask, you know, “Well let’s talk about the benefits you received after the storm. How much do you get from your homeowners insurance? How much do you get from flood insurance? How much do you get from FEMA? And how much do you get from Road Home?” And Road Home gave out a significant amount of money to a lot of people, so – so from what I understand that’s – that’s how –that’s how – how the government is assisting people by giving them these grants to – to cover the cost of – of construction, and I think that – that worked for a lot of people but then there are also a lot of people who – who, you know, because of contracting fraud or whatever reason, ran out money before their project was completed.
[AM]: So that’s, that’s where Rebuilding Together is stepping in, but like I said we’ve gotta, because there’s so many people in need it’s a very specific target that we that we can reach – so we can’t help everybody who’s still not in their house after the storm.
[AB]: Yeah. So how does your experience as a volunteer lead you to think about how relief effort should be coordinated between the national government, state, and local governments and volunteer organizations?
[AM]: Let me think about that for a second…
[AB]: Take your time.
[AM]: I – I wish the government had been ... and I’m not quite sure how this would’ve worked, but I wish they had been a little bit more hands on about how they – how they assisted people. Because giving someone a check for 100,000 dollars is – is gr-great, but then, you know, they… they’re a lot of people seemed to not have known how to spend that money. Like I said, a lot of people like were tricked by contractors who just, you know, came in and said yeah “Yeah.” You know, from what I understand the reason why contractor fraud was so rampant was because there was so many people in need that, like, the line for a reputable contractor was so long that if someone called, you know, came by your house and said like, “Hey, I can fix your house, you know, I’m really busy, but if you give me cash, like, today, I will go out and buy the materials and start work on your house.” And, you know, maybe in some cases that worked out, but in a lot cases it didn’t. And so, you know, these people, you know, we’re elderly people and – or just people who after the storm they had to trust somebody, they had to believe that nobody else, you know, no one would run away with their money, [laughter] you know…
[AB]: Mm hum.
[AM]: Because they were victims of one of the worst natural disasters in history that, you know, people were coming down here have a good heart about it. And so they said, “Okay I – I’ll write you check out of my Road Home money for fifteen thousand dollars,” or whatever it is they took from them. And then a lot of contractors too like, you know, it wasn’t that they took the check and left, it was that, you know, they got halfway through the process and gave up. You know, they – they because most from what I understand, most contractor payments are done like in three portions, the first portion, and then halfway through the project second portion, and then at the end of the project when everything is complete the third portion. So it seems like a lot of – a lot of contractors strung people out for the first two portions and then left before completing the thing. So… I have [laughter] lost track of what we were talking about.
[AB]: No you’re doing a good job. We were talking about how you think that the relief efforts should have been coordinated and pretty much you’re saying there should have been a stronger physical presence of some governing body.
[AM]: That’s – that’s –what – what it seems like to me. You know, it just seemed like there just wasn’t a lot of, I don’t know … it just – it seems really unfortunate that so much contractor fraud happened. And it becomes such a, you know, when we talk to people pretty much when we speak a majority of people talked about like, well, you know, what was, did your Road Home money gone? Because we need to find that out for our funders, you know, it’s contractor fraud that just comes up a lot of the time, and lot of people didn’t even heard of it – because, you know, they – they – it was so common, you know, it happened to so many people they thought, and then reporting it never seemed to actually catch the guy either. And so, you know, it is just so frustrating listening to people who’ve been through the most traumatic event in their lives and then to have someone steal from them.
[AB]: Mm hum
[AM]: Because of that traumatic event it – it just’s horrifying. And, you know, and then see all these houses that are half complete in neighborhoods and then you think, like, you know, if someone had been I – I don’t know – I don’t know where that could have been done …. If there are enough people in the government to make sure that these things wouldn’t have happened – but it just seems like – like, you know, there’s still a mess four years after the storm and so many people are – are unable to live in their homes because of that.
[AM]: So I’m not sure, you know, I don’t want to point fingers, I don’t want to say, “Well, I know for sure that the government should’ve done this.” Because I don’t. I don’t know how I would’ve run it. And I don’t know what I would have done differently. I just know that there is a mess here. And that it – it’s, you know, much worse than – than I realized, you know, seeing it from my home in St. Louis, you kinda have to be here and see it to understand what’s going on.
[AB]: Yeah. Well at this time we’re going to take a little break. So we’re gunna hang up with you, we’ll call you back. I dunno, if you wanna go get a drink of water and go do whatever you’re going to do.
[AB]: Alright, well we will call you back in probably about five minutes.
[AM]: Okay that sounds great!
[AB]: Thank You
[AM]: Talk to you soon.
[five minutes pass]
[AM]: Hello again.
[Peter Thoma]: Hi Amanda, it’s Peter.
[AM]: Hi Peter, how are you?
[PT]: I’m doing fine. Before we start up again, I was just wondering if you had any questions at this time or if you wanted to elaborate on anything we previously interviewed you about.
[AM]: I – Hmm – I am curious to know, like do you have a timeline yet set for- for when this… when this work is gonna be done? This… when the first, like, publication or website stuff is gonna come up? Sorta curious, you know, like…
[PT]: Doctor Manning previously stated in class that he was looking at around 2015 – the ten year anniversary of – .
[PT]: So, that’s what he’s indicated to us.
[AM]: Okay. Okay, so it’s gonna be quite some time between… between now and – and publication.
[AB]: Yeah, there’s, I think he said that he’s about halfway through on how many interviews he needs to collect.
[AM]: Sure, ah huh.
[AM]: That’s fine. Well that’s… that’s the only thing I was thinking about in my five minutes.
[AM]: You know, my break.
[AM]: But that’s it.
[AM]: If there’s anything you would, I guess, well, you know, you’ll ask me… When you start asking questions I’ll start elaborating on things.
[PT]: Okay. I guess then we’ll just dive right in.
[PT]: With the people that you help, how have you been received ... by them? And also, how have you been received by New – New Orleans?
[AM]: I– I think that overall reception has been very positive. There is…let’s see… well, when- especially like, when I went canvassing I think we were in Saint Roch. There were – every different person that we talked to noticed a couple of things about us. They asked – they all asked us where we were from, and, I think that most people believed that we were just in town for the weekend to volunteer. But, I mean, at the same time, like, they – they noticed that we weren’t local, but, they weren’t – you know, there was never any like, “Well, you don’t know what’s going on here because you’re not local.”
And I noticed too, about myself, every time we talked to people, I let them know that you know, even though I’ve only been here for about three months this time, that I lived in New Orleans before, and that, like, I plan on living in New Orleans indefinitely. You know, that this is not something, you know, a short term – a short term project, that I consider New Orleans home. And maybe that – that just – I guess what I feel I need to do to, you know, to express my – my credibility, and – and my, you know, my right to talk to people about stuff like this. But, no I – I think that, you know, things have been – have been very positive. You know, there – there’s always, like, one person who wanted more done to their house than we were able to do for them, but for the most part, people are, you know, they’re – they’re happy to be back home, and, you know, they’re happy to – to receive some assistance. And also, too, I think it’s important, you know, all through, stress the point of – of not considering ourselves a charity. That this is just something that needs to be done and that it should have been done a long time ago. And, you know, that this is not – this is not accepting charity by – by working with Rebuilding Together. It’s just, you know, it’s accepting some assistance because, you know, it’s – it’s important to get people back into their home.
[PT]: Is there any perceived, like, feeling that it took too long for them to get assistance?
[AM]: I – most of the people I talk to now, because what I try to do, when I – when I talk to them, is let them know that if Rebuilding Together can work on their house, it’s going to take some time. Because it is a long process, between, you know, the initial application, and, you know, actually working on someone’s house. Because, you know, a lot of times we have to raise thousands of dollars or, you know, find – find funding, or, you know, just make sure that – there’s a long process involved in making sure that – all the, you know, like, proving that they own their house, you know, making sure they’ve got their deed. You know, just going through with a construction manager and making sure he thinks that it’s a project we can work on – this is not a house about to fall down that sort of thing.
And so, what I – what I try to do is tell people, like, you know, that this is going to be a long process. You know, it might take months. You know, if – if we accept you, it might take months between – between now and when we start working on your house. And most people say, “honey,” and they all call me ‘honey,’ you know, “I’ve been waiting for four years to get back into my house. I can wait a few more months.” So, it’s just sort of this, like, acceptance that it is – it’s just – it taking – so much longer than anyone realized to get back home after – after the storm, that, you know, waiting a few more months is okay.
And I think that – I think that too, a lot of people and their – and their stories, you know, when I – when I talk to them, I ask them their Katrina stories; they say they packed clothes for three days after Katrina. They were expecting, like any other hurricane evacuation, that they’d be away from home for about three or four days, come back home, and, you know, clean up the mess, and start over. And, you know, realizing that, you know, much later, that it was gunna take months for them to be allowed to come home, and then, when they got home, you know, that their house was uninhabitable. So, like – everyone knows that, you know, it’s just a very, very long and involved process between Hurricane Katrina and getting home.
[PT]: Okay as a volunteer, do you have any favorite moments while you’re out and talking to the residents?
[AM]: Let me think about that … I – I did have a homeowner that we’re – we’re working with now. I – I needed her to come in and visit me during my office hours to just to sign some additional paperwork that we, you know – that we, you know, like that the – we just have these standards for which type of paperwork we needed so we needed her to come in and sign stuff. And it was – it was a pretty slow day for my office hours and she just came and sat with me and we talked for about an hour and a half, and she told me her whole Katrina story.
And , she just was a very good story-teller and it was the first time I met her, and I was a little bit, you know – I was – she’d been working with the other community outreach officer that I replaced, because, you know, it’s just that every year we – we hire a new set of Vistas. And so, I wasn’t sure if she would, you know, like, she would think like, “Well who’s this – who’s this new kid coming in and wanting more paperwork from me?” But she was very nice and she was really excited that we were gonna – we were just gonna start work on her house. And like I said, she just told me her whole Katrina story, and – and she was one of the first homeowners that I sat down with and, you know, and had a chance to talk to. And, I was just, like, entranced by – by this story. It was very traumatic and, you know, there was rescuing people with a boat and – and getting them to safety and – and, you know, she was talking to me for like an hour, and – and, you know, it was very emotional for both of us, and, so she was like the first person who would, you know, was devastated by Katrina that I had a chance to sit down and talk to one-on-one and ask questions from her, and, you know, and just really – Cause the emotions were so very, very raw, and – and then, you know, that in couple of – you know, at that point, a couple weeks later we’d be – we’d, you know, be putting the finishing touches on her house, and then she’d be, you know, her house would be good as new, or, you know, as good as before at least. And – and so, it was just – I mean – it was it was a really good moment – it was one of my first moments talking to somebody, and – and, you know, I – I sat down and talked to her, and I was like, “I, you know, I – I hope that, you know, you’ve considered writing this down and keeping it for your family because it’s a story of survival.” And, you know, I was, like – I was telling her, like, you know, “Imagine how exciting it would be if your grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, or great-great-grandchildren to find this story one day, and – and know how the family survived Katrina. You know, and that they – they did it, you know, through helping their neighbors and etcetera. And, so, I just – it was very uplifting for me, and I hope that – that she writes it down. So, we’ll see if she does.
[PT]: Have you found that other residents have been as open about their stories, and have similar stories?
[AM]: I would say that… Have – have you ever been to New Orleans? Do you know New Orleanian culture at all?
[PT]: I – I have never been in New – New Orleans.
[AM]: Oh, you have to come some time.
[AM]: But, like, that’s – it – it seems to me like that’s part of the fabric of – of New Orleanian culture, like, this connection with family and neighborhoods, and then, like, this – this just – cause I – I grew up in the Midwest, and – and people in the Midwest are very, very nice and, but they – they don’t – they don’t, like, pry and they don’t really tell people stories about their lives. And I think it’s just because they don’t wanna be rude and they don’t wanna take up someone else’s time. But in New Orleans, it’s sort of part of the culture. Like, you know, I – like, you’ll – you’ll go to a bar, and you’ll make, like, six new friends, [laughter] and they’ll all tell you about, like, who they are, where they come from, you know, their life story. And – and it just seems like – like sharing stories and – and telling people about, you know, personal things is just kinda part of New Orleanian culture, and I would say that a lot of – a lot of residents are very, very open with their story. And, you know, and I think that that it’s probably cathartic in away, when you’re talking to, you know, somebody who’s offering to help you with your house and, you know, they’re asking, like, “Well, tell us – tell us your Katrina story. Tell us why you need – why you need help.” And, so, I think that it’s, you know, they – they appreciate having someone to listen to them, and I think that it helps to talk about it. And I think too, there’s just sort of this openness, you know, like, “I’m gonna tell you why, you know, why New Orleans is the way it is,” or “I’m gonna tell you why why I’m in the situation that I’m in.” And I do think that a lot of people are very open with their story and are very willing to share. And everybody else would be just sort of, like, this – this student, like, – a student need for me to learn, you know, cause I wasn’t here and because I’m not local. I really don’t understand how it is, and so, like they’re – they’re gonna teach me. And then also too, a lot of our – our homeowners are, you know, they’re – they’re over sixty, and I’m twenty-nine, and so, there’s probably this assumption of, like, “Yup, I’m gonna teach these kids a thing or two,” as well. And – but I – I appreciate that as I – I love being invited into someone’s story, and being told someone’s – someone’s story because it’s riveting to me and it really reiterates why I’m here for me.
[PT]: Okay. Were – were there any times where it was really tough or challenging to, – Well, to rephrase, were there any tough or challenging times for you, so far, while you’ve been down there?
[AM]: Yes. Absolutely. There’s been a lot of – of challenging times, and there was a lot of frustration about, like, what – what I’m supposed to be doing. Also there’s been some frustration over, like reaching homeowners in this city. You know, it’s, ah, it seems like – it seemed to me the other community outreach officers were getting – you know, their phone was just ringing off the hook with homeowners calling everyday. And, I don’t know, you know, you know, why but, like, I – I haven’t had that – that same success. And so, like, right now, you know, my boss, and then we work with a Mid City neighborhood organization too, we’re all trying to find a, you know, like, get together and say, “Alright, we need to do something else because clearly there are people who live in this neighborhood who are in need and, for some reason, they’re not contacting us, or we haven’t contacted them. We’ve gotta find a way.” And so, we sorta reached that point where we – we’re all agreeing that some, you know, we – we need to find a way to get in touch with people.
For awhile, like, you know, there was just sort of this assumption, like, “Well, you know, like we – we did October Build.” that’s – that’s a, like, big project for two weekends out of the month. You know, we – we were working on houses and making over head banners up, and so – And we also were canvassing. We sent, you know, we gave out about five hundred fliers in Mid-City. And there was this, like, assumption that, “Okay as soon as October Build is over, we’re – we’re gonna be ringing off the hook,” or, you know, “He’s not aware of what we’re doing, and so they – we need to – so this is gonna make them aware.” And then I mean October Build did bring in some – some new candidates but, you know, there’s – there’s still – And so, it’s frustrating thinking that, like, “There’s people in need and one reason or another, I’m – I’m not reaching them, and that my – it’s my job, to reach them.” And that – you know, like, I feel like I’m holding up the show by not reaching them.
You know, you’ve got – got big plans to get – to get out a lot homes done this year. And so there – that has been – has been very frustrating, but like I said, we’re working together. We’re trying to, like, come up with new, creative ways to – to reach people in this city. That, plus I’m – I’m also helping one of the other community outreach officers working Saint Roch. And Saint Roch is – really needs a lot of help, and we’ve been getting a lot of – of applicants in Saint Roch.
And so that just sort of – knowing that, you know, that there – there are people I can talk to, and that I can get them through the process feels really good. You know, that I feel, like, “Okay, I’m doing my job, and why am I here if I’m not contacting homeowners and letting everyone down.” Letting my boss down. Letting, you know, the neighborhood down, etcetera. So that’s been frustrating.
And then, it’s also – it’s really, really hard to tell someone that they – that we can’t help them. And like I said, there are – there are so many reasons why – why we can’t and, you know, it’s – there are funding reasons, you know, we – there are just so many people in New Orleans who are in need, that we’ve gotta, like, you know, draw some lines as to who we can and can’t help. and it’s, you know, it’s very hard and – cause a lot of people then, you know, they’re like, “Well, you know, you’ve – Where am I supposed to go?” you know, “Who do I turn to if – if you can’t help me.” And, you know, I don’t – I don’t always have answers for them. And I mean, we – we send, like, we send letters, but I – I also try to – I feel like, you know, it’s – it’s my duty to tell them in person, you know, or over the phone, you know, talk to them and say, like, you know, “We – I’m sorry, but we can’t help you.” And I’ve – I’ve got a few of those calls to make next week. Ah, so that’s – that’s really hard because I think it’s something that I need to do verbally just to – to give them closure, in that way. And, you know, a lot of times, like, I haven’t been – I haven’t been yelled at but I’ve – I’ve certainly, like, heard the disappointment in their voice by – by talking to them over the phone, so it’s – it’s a really hard thing to have to do, but necessary because then we’re not – we’re not giving anyone false hope. We’re sending them in a different direction, you know, so that they can try something else instead of hoping that we’re gonna be able to help them. And that way too, we’ve – I have more time – we all have more time to – to work with homeowners that we can help. So that’s – that’s where the frustration comes in.
[PT]: Alright – Alright. Do you have any theories as to why there are some people out there that are not really trying to contact you?
[AM]: I think that … well … one can’t help people who don’t own their own home. And so there are a lot of people who rent and, you know, who probably have been living in the same property before and after the storm who, you know, who were – who were just stuck there. We – we can’t – we can’t help them fix-up that house because we – we want to talk to homeowners and – and get them – get them taken care of first before we move on to the next group. There is a lot of that. So if you live in a rental property that’s been damaged by the hurricane, you know, we can’t help those people. And, too, I think a lot of people have been disappointed by, you know, like, government assistance and by – by contractors who told them, “Yes – yes – yes, we’re gonna be able to help you.” And then, you know, took their money or disappointed them for one reason or another. That there’s this assumption that, “Yeah, here another organization that’s saying that they can help. I don’t really wanna, you know, I’m not sure if I really wanna get involved with that.” Because, you know, even though, like, we’re – we’re a non-profit, totally different from either the government or a contractor, you know, there’s just sorta this assumption of like, “Yeah, really? You’re gonna help us too?”
And I think – I think there’s pride. I think a lot of people are, you know, they’re proud, and – and they’ve been back for – they’ve been in need for four years. They don’t wanna – they just wanna live on with – with what they’ve got and they’re like, “Well, what I’ve got is habitable. I’ve got it to a – a certain condition. It’s not great, but I’m just sick of asking for help. I’m sick of, you know, being in need and being, like, you know, having my hands out, asking people to assist me.” So, I think it’s – it’s really important we all try talk to people to let them know that, like, this is not – not, you know, this – this is just something that needs to be done. It’s gonna benefit everybody if, you know, if your house is back in shape.
And just this assumption that, like, you know, that I – there’s always this – I always am afraid, and I think we’re all always afraid of, like, you know, feeling too great about ourselves, like, “We, you know, we help people get back into their homes which is so wonderful, and what we do is just, you know, is really valuable to someone else,” and, you know, just, there is this high thinking that, “I’m – I’m a great person because I do what I do.” Well, for once – but, like, it’s – it’s kinda – it’s kinda like a – a double-edged sword because, like, you know, there’s somewhat disappointment that, like, I have to, like, at the end of the day I – I – I have to tell myself that. That, like, you know, even though there’s frustration and it’s difficult and, you know, as a – as a just a – I think, you know, I’m not making the salary that I would like to make and that sort of thing, but at the end of the day, I tell myself, like, “What I do is – is helping rebuild New Orleans,” and, you know, that’s – that’s really important to me. I feel like I’m making a difference in – in the city. But at the same time, you don’t want that to come across when you’re talking to people over the phone because – or a person or any of the homeowners. You don’t want them to think that, like, you know, you’re helping them because it makes you feel better about yourself.
[PT]: Alright … Were there any – were there ever any times when you worried about your safety for any reason? I know you’ve only been there for a few months, but have there –
[AM]: Well, yeah. When I – when I decided to move here, I – I knew that New Orleans has always been a dangerous city. And when I lived here the first time, I, you know, I was – I was aware cause, I – I moved down here as a – as a single woman living by myself, and so, I was very choosy about, like, where I would live. I didn’t want to – there’s always I think this fear that, you know, as – as a volunteer, you might be a liability to what you’re trying – to, who you’re trying to help. Like, you know, something – I knew that – cause I was living in a dangerous neighborhood if something bad happens to me, like, my family, my friends, you know, would always think, “New Orleans is just so dangerous. Look at Amanda. She went down to go and help out and, you know, look what happened.” So, I’ve – I’ve, you know, I’m very picky about where – where I was gonna live. I wanted to make sure that I was comfortable and that I was, you know, safe and secure as I would be somewhere else. And, like, we – we do go into some – some rough neighborhoods. I mean we work in some really rough neighborhoods. [laughter] And, there – there is like this – and so we – we always try not to go alone. We try to go, like, you know, two or three people together when we’re visiting people. And just – just to make sure we don’t become liabilities to the people we’re trying to help, and to the idea of, you know, volunteering and – and helping people out.
[PT]: Has there ever been anything specifically that has happened, or have you heard stories from others?
[AM]: There – there are some people in some of the neighborhoods where we work that don’t want strangers in the neighborhood, and I – I’ve heard of instances where that it’s become known to – to, you know, to our own people. And so, what we – what we try to do is we – when we look at a neighborhood, we make sure that before we send a crew out there, before we send, you know, volunteers to go work on the house, that it’s gonna be a neighborhood that’s gonna welcome us. So we – we take that – we take that into consideration. And, like, you know, neighborhood means, like, you know, that – that – that block or that community because, you know, there are parts of – of every neighborhood where we work that are rougher than others. So, we just make sure that, you know, we take a look at the house in the neighborhood, that it’s – this neighborhood that’s used to the rebuilding effort, and that – that wants us to be there before we – cause, again we – we don’t – we don’t want we don’t want people to look at this program – we don’t want volunteers to come in and – and be in danger. We don’t want – eh, we don’t want anyone to get hurt and then, you know, put their friends and family to say, “Look at – you know, look what happened. Our friend volunteered in New Orleans and look what happened to him. So, you know, New Orleans is a dangerous, bad place.” That would really ruin the – the whole spirit of what we’re trying to do.
[PT]: Mm hmm
[AM]: And there too, you know, the – the homeowner we’re trying to help.
[PT]: I know you’ve – you’ve mentioned previously that you lived in New Orleans. From your time spent volunteering, what do you feel like you’ve learned about the people of New – New Orleans?
[AM]: Let’s see – what – I – I’ve certainly learned a lot. Like – like New Orleans is – is, like, one of my – my favorite subjects, and it’s – it’s so funny how my friends and I will sit around and talk about how great New Orleans is, and it’s also, while recognizing how many problems the city has, so I think that the – the people and the culture here is – is really a – a big part of that I think it’s one of the – the few places that still clings to and – and some places do but, you know, like, embraces, you know, a culture that’s unique to the area. Like, the, you know, it’s different from the way – it developed differently from the way most American cities did. And – and this – like I said before New Orleanians are – are really good storytellers. They’re really welcome and open – open to – to – to other people you know, even – even strangers – even people outside of New Orleans.
At the same time, I also realize that, like, no matter how long I live here I’m not a New Orleanian, and people will probably always recognize that I wasn’t born and raised in New Orleans cause, you know, it’s – it’s – it creates a different kind of person, you know, depending on where you’re born and raised. I think that New Orleanians are really – are really resilient and I think too there’s this – this – they’re – they’re very – they’re very conservative in a lot of ways that, like their they don’t like – they don’t like change, and I think that’s why – I think that’s why New Orleans is – is gonna come back because New Orleanians don’t wanna – don’t wanna go and try to – to live somewhere else. They want to stay in their neighborhood, not, you know, some other neighborhood. They wanna, you know, they wanna have their whole family back in the neighborhood. They want things to be the way they were because that’s what they were raised in and that’s what they like. And I think that – that sort of, like, you know, resistance to change is what makes – is what makes New Orleans so – so unique, in that, like, you know, resistance to change means they like things to stay the way they are. I mean, the culture is gonna continue to be the way it is. Does that make sense?
[PT]: Yes – yes… If we look at a wider picture, has your experience and the things you’ve seen while down in New Orleans affected how you think about America?
[AM]: You know, I haven’t really thought about – about my experience here in a – in a – in a nationwide context as much. Because New Orleans is so different from the rest of America that it feels like – I – I – I – I, you know, we always joke that New Orleans is not part of America. That it’s – it’s own separate entity and it’s just where, like the exception to a lot of – a lot of rules of what – what America is like. Honestly, I haven’t – I haven’t really – I haven’t really given it much thought. Like, I guess – I guess some things can be said, like, what the rest of America thinks about New Orleans.
You know, before I moved to New Orleans, like, you know, even – even if I was talking about moving to New Orleans a lot – a lot of people in St. Louis and Colorado said, “Oh yeah Is it – is it possible to live there? Wasn’t the city destroyed?” And this was, you know, 2000 – 2009, like, over the Summer or 2008 just sort of this assumption that, like, “New Orleans is dead and, you know, it’s – it’s really not worth rebuilding.” A lot of people have told me, like, “Oh, I don’t know why anyone – We should let that city go. We should let, you know, South Louisiana go.”
And that’s the logical way to – to think about it. There’s plenty of room in the rest of the country for people to live, you know, outside of a flood-zone, but that – that’s really not fair, and that’s really not, like, you know. There – there are a lot of places within New Orleans that are – that are safe and outside of the flood-zone. So, like, to say, “Well, just scrap it and – and move somewhere else,” is – is – is – is silly and, you know, just really not very culturally sensitive, it’s very elitist. I think there’s a lot of confusion, you know, – problem – the rest of America about – about what’s going on in New Orleans, and, you know, I – I come back, and it looks to me the way it always did. It feels the way it did. Like, the same bands are still playing at the same bars. You know, I’m going to the same coffee shops and restaurants were I – where I went before the storm. Excuse me for a second. (addresses a dog in the background) My dog is being rude.
[AM]: So, you know, for me, it feels like – like it always did. And I think that, like I said, there’s sort of this – this – this New Orleanian, like, dislike of change, you know, like, “God damn it, it’s – we’re gonna – we’re gonna reopen. We’re gonna keep things the way they are cause that’s the way we like it. That’s what we know,” sort of – sort of attitude. But I don’t think that most of – of the U.S. understands. I mean, you know, that’s – I’m not saying New Orleans is back and totally fine now. Of course that’s not completely true, but, like a lot of it is – is back and the way it always was.
[PT]: Okay. How have you changed through this experience… if at all?
[AM]: Well – I would say that a lot of – I anticipated a lot of things before I chose to move to New Orleans. I knew that – or, I – I believed that I was going to come back and, you know, feel at home again in New Orleans, and I do. I – I believed that, you know, it was gonna be, like, challenging, yet rewarding, you know, challenging, yet rewarding experience for me. I knew this.
How was I – how was I changed? I’ve certainly learned a lot about, like about what’s – what’s going on in New Orleans, and I’ve certainly learned that, like, you know – like I – I – that it’s more than just generational neglect that’s keeping people out of their houses. I’ve – I – I didn’t realize that contractor fraud and that forced mortgage payoffs were such a problem for people, and so rampant. And I – I felt like, you know, after the storm it’s like, I – I that, you know, the rest of the – the U.S. is ineligible. Coming down to help with – would be more welcoming and would have made sure that, you know, like I said, there would be some sort of oversight to make sure that people weren’t, you know, ripped off on a regular basis by our contractors or – or the mortgage companies. A lot of forced mortgage payoffs – are you familiar with that term?
[PT]: I am not.
[AM]: Okay after the storm too a lot of people received … grant money from Road Home, or from FEMA, or from their insurance companies, and you know, if they – they still had a mortgage, before they could use that money they had to – they had to, like, send the check, pass the check through – through their – their bank, like their mortgage company to say, like, “Hey, Road Home gave me money or the insurance company gave me money to fix-up my house I need your – your signature, your approval to – to get this work done. And, I know that I have a mortgage still, but, you know, I’m gonna put this money into rebuilding that house so that it’s something that, you know, continues to be a place where I can live. And, you know, we’ll just continue the usual. Continue paying my mortgage payments, and then I’m gonna use this money to fix-up the house.”
And you know, that was – but then, on – on a number of occasions, the mortgage company kept these checks, while, you know, they were suppose to just sign the check, you know, for $80,000 or $70,000, whatever it was, and then send it back to the homeowner so that the homeowner can use it to pay for the contractor, etcetera. Though on a number of occasions the – the mortgage companies kept that check, and, you know, and said, “Alright, you owe us, you know – You’ve got $80,000 you – you know, your mortgage is, you know, $79,000. We’re just gonna – we’re just gonna keep this money. Consider your mortgage paid off. You don’t have to make any more payments to the mortgage company, but you also don’t have any money left from your insurance settlement.” So people were left with, you know, ah, like, they – their house was paid off, which is good, but then they also had no money to rebuild. So – so that happened a lot too. So people were, you know, were expecting this – this huge sum of money to, you know, get their construction efforts underway and then their mortgage company took it. That’s what a forced mortgage payoff is. So, like, so there was – there was a lot of that going on too.
But, we’re – the question was, like, how has this change me?
[AM]: Okay, sorry. I go off on tangents.
[PT]: That’s okay.
[AM]: I – I mean, I – I guess I just learned a lot about – about – I don’t know – I don’t know if it’s really, like – like, changing all that much yet. Like I said, a lot – a lot of what I expected to happen has happened, and I’ve only been doing this now for about three months, so I’ve still got – I’ve still got a lot of, you know, of time left between now and the end of my – my volunteer year to, you know, to learn some things, and – and to make some – some personal developments. So I don’t – I don’t think I’ve really, like, reached that stage. Except that, you know, it – it took me a long – a long time to really feel comfortable with what I’m doing and but I’ve definitely reached the point in my – in my Vista year where I feel – I feel really content. I feel really satisfied with – with the work that I’ve been given. And I feel like this is something I can handle and this is something that, like, I wanna do.
[PT]: Alright in your opinion, what remains to be done for New Orleans?
[AM]: Oh my gosh, a lot. Like, well there – it does seem like in a lot of neighborhoods there’s at least one house on every block that, you know, that needs – needs to be, like, completely rebuilt. So, like – like rebuilding the housing stock so that, you know, people have their homes back and also rebuilding the housing stock so that people have something to rent. That’s definitely a problem. A lot of rental properties have been destroyed. Landlords have not had the money to – to rebuild those, and so the cost of rent in New Orleans has just skyrocketed so, you know, it’s – it’s still very expensive – it’s very expensive to live here. And what you’re paying for is certainly not, you know, what you’d be getting, you know, somewhere else. I’m not – I’m not sure, like, the percentage of – of what rent costs now and then what it used to cost, so I would say that, like, a – like a thousand dollars for a one-bedroom apartment is not – not unreasonable rent price in New Orleans. And that’s not necessarily gonna be – bring you anything, like, really spectacular, or in a really safe neighborhood. So – so, like, you know, getting people safe and affordable housing is really important.
Also just a lot of – a lot of the – the infrastructure isn’t back. A lot of – a lot of the, like, grocery stores aren’t back. A lot of the healthcare clinics aren’t back. You know, so getting people access to, you know, things that they need. And – and I don’t – I don’t know. There’s – there’s always been, though, a lot that New Orleans needed to have, and so I think people, you know – not that their okay with it cause, you know, people are not okay with this. But it’s not something that – that they, you know, they’re like, you know, “This is awful, this is ridiculous. We need to fix this problem now.” You know, just – just this sort of go with the flow attitude, and I think that’s also kinda traditional to New Orleanian culture of, you know, like, “Well, it is what it is.” So, you know, like, that’s – that’s what we’ve got to live with and how – I don’t know how to fix it. We’ll – we’ll deal with it the way it is.” So there’s – there’s certainly a lot that needs to be done for New Orleans but, you know, we can only do one thing at a time, and so we focus on one thing at a time and it’s my job to focus on – on rebuilding houses that are already standing for the homeowners that – that own them now.
[PT]: Do you think most Americans underestimate how much there needs to be done yet?
[AM]: I think that there’s – I think that, like there are two camps. I think people are really – some people are really overestimating what needs to be done because, like I said some people I talk to believe that New Orleans is just like – it’s, you know, post-apocalyptic city
[AM]: It’s like, it’s completely uninhabitable. And, you know, that – that it’s just, you know, it’s an absolute mess, and, you know, that’s certainly not true. You know, people have electricity and running water, and, you know, like, a lot of people are back in their homes and – and you’d never know that a hurricane had devastated the city four years ago in some parts of New Orleans. But there – there is too I think the assumption that, like, well, you know, so there’s – there’s that one camp that believes New Orleans is never coming back and being inhabitable again.
And then, there’s this other camp that says, like, “Well it’s been four years. How – how is it possible that, you know, that we spent – ” I don’t know how much money went into the rebuilding effort in New Orleans, like, from the government and from non-profit, but, you know, all the money that’s been raised to help New Orleans. You know, it’s been four years since the storm, and, you know, I think people are, like, “What is going – what are you talking about? How can – how can things still be – still be bad four years after the storm? It’s been, like, four years. We’ve spent, you know, millions of dollars. What’s the hold up? What are you – what’s going on down there that it’s not fixed yet?” And so, I think that – again, I – I think that people need to, like, there’s – New Orleans is just so different from the rest of the country for so many reasons that I don’t think that most Americans can really, you know, under – understand what’s going on down here. I think that, like – like volunteering and – and, like, meeting the people of New Orleans you sorta have to, you know, you should really invest in – in, you know, figuring out what’s – what’s going on to really understand it. And then there’s – there’s – there’s ignorance in the rest of the U.S. about what’s going on down here.
[PT]: Okay. What do you think the future holds for your organization’s work in New Orleans?
[AM]: That’s a good question. Ah, I think that Rebuilding Together is going to play a very important role in – in getting the city up and running. I think we’ve been – been working on – on that since – since the storms, and I think that our executive director has some – some big plans for – for the role that we’re gonna – we’re gonna continue to play. I – like I said, I think it – I think it’s very positive. I think that – that what we do is – is – I’m – I’m very – I’m very proud to be a part of it. I’m very proud to be able to tell people about – about what I do and who I work for. I – I don’t know, and I’m not – I’m not, like, embedded enough into the organization to really, like, see, you know, the – the long term plan of Rebuilding Together.
You know, like, I – I – I know that that, you know, as – as the word gets out that – that we do a good job on one house, you know, people/neighbors see that they want this for themselves or they, you know, they know their – their grandmother, you know, needs her house still fixed-up and I think that word of mouth really – really gets the word out about what Rebuilding Together does. But in terms of, like, where it’s going and what we’re gonna do next, other than, like, continue to, you know, build houses one at a time I’m not sure – I’m not sure if it’s going to, like, you know, change and branch off into something different or if our mission is gonna change.
I know that, like before the storm the mission of Rebuilding Together was – was just to, you know, ev – every year in October – it was called, like, “Christmas in October ,” that was the original name of – of our program, we got a lot of local volunteers together to – to work on houses that are just so – just, you know, in need of repair for various reasons, you know, just, like, not good houses for – for the people who live there. And so, like, “Christmas in October” was a really big build, and – and we would get, like, you know, hundreds of volunteers together, and – and work on rebuilding those houses, and that was – that was our main focus, and that was what we did all year. And, now, like, “October Build” – we’re not calling “Christmas in October” any more, it’s called “October Build” – is still, you know, a really important part giving local volunteers, but then, since we’ve expanded you know, and I think that we’re one of the biggest and – and the most active Rebuilding Together organization in the – in the country.
Rebuilding – Rebuilding Together is a national organization, and we’re just, you know, one branch in it. It’s – and, so instead of having, like, you know, sending all of our gear focused on collecting – getting volunteers together and finding homeowners for October Build, now we do that all year round. Like, October Build is one portion of it and then we get, you know, volunteer groups from all over the country who want to come and work on stuff, and now we’re focused mostly on – on storm damaged houses and not houses that have been damaged through generational neglect. So, you know, we’ve – we’ve made a major difference in our – in our mission. Our focus, you know, in the – in the four years since Katrina, so I’m sure that we are gonna continue to – to find a way to, like, that service to the city.
[PT]: Alright we’re down to our last and our final question here.
[AM]: Okay, Mm Hum.
[PT]: Ah, it’s a pretty open ended question. What is next for you? I know you’ve said that you’ve been there for three months and that you have signed on for a year.
[AM]: Like –
[PT]: What’s –
[AM]: After a year of service?
[PT]: Well, after a year of service, or maybe if you are going to change or alter what you’re doing there right now?
[AM]: Well, I – I know for sure that I – I want to stay in New Orleans – that I will probably make New Orleans my permanent home. So that’s – that’s definitely in the plan. I would – I would love to find a way to, you know, to – to work a little bit closer with historic preservation than I’m working right now. Like I said, what I do is – is part of the historic preservation movement in that it’s about community development, but it’s not, you know, it’s – it’s indirect interest in – in historic preservation. Cause that’s – that’s what – that’s what interests me the most, you know, and especially, like I – I love New Orleanian architecture. I’d love to find a way, to like, you know, to make that my – my everyday job. You know, I’ve also considered teaching because I’ve, you know as a historic preservationist, I’m also very interested in history in general and moving into that.
I’ll probably always work for non-profit, for government, because I – I like thinking that that what I – what I do, you know, is – is meaningful. But I really like I – I don’t know the – the recession – I – I graduated from graduate school, you know, a few months before – before the recession hit, and so, a lot of the jobs that I was interested in weren’t available. You know, there – there just wasn’t funding for those jobs, and so I – certainly, like I said before, like, I’m not expecting to work for Vista again. And I, you know, I – I – I didn’t – I’ve learned that – not to expect, like, you know, make any serious plans, like, “I’m gonna do exactly this.” You know, you never know where – where life is gonna take you. But like I said, I’m – it’s taken me a long time, and I’m really, really pretty sure that I’m gonna stay in New Orleans because I wanna continue helping out because this is where I feel I need to be.
[AB]: Okay I just have one more question.
[AB]: Where can I go to find out more about Rebuilding Together?
[AM]: Let’s see. Well, Rebuilding Together New Orleans, we just launched our new website, and it’s www.rtno.org. And I’m not sure what the national website is, but I’m sure if you just google Rebuilding Together it will, you know, it will lead you to, like, the national website. they’re – they’re based out of Washington, D.C., and there are Rebuilding Together chapters, like, all over the U.S., just like there are Habitat for Humanity or Red Cross chapters. So I’m sure, like, the website would be – would be the – the best way to start, and then, you know, from there I’m sure there’s like, you know, who you should contact people, as well.
[PT]: Okay, well thank you very much for giving us your time and your input. We really appreciate it.
[AB]: Do you have any other questions that you might want to ask us now that the interview is over?
[AM]: Ahh, no I don’t think so.
[PT]: Okay, well, I – I’m sure I can speak for Doctor Manning and say that he also appreciates your time and your input.
[AM]: My – my pleasure.
[AM]: Glad to help out.
[AB]: Thank you very much Amanda.
[PT]: We wish you luck.
[AM]: You have a good day.
[AB]: You too. Bye.
 AmeriCorp Vista (Volunteers In Service to America) is a federally funded organization which engage in direct service activities.
 C.B.D. or Central Business District.
 Tchouplitoulas street is located in New Orleans, in the East Riverside district near the Mississippi River.
 Phoenix of New Orleans is a non-profit organization that supports the residents of Lower Mid City to rebuild homes.
 Common Ground Relief is a non-profit organization which provides relief and rebuilding for people affected by Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans area.
 Catholic Charities is better known as Operation Helping Hands in New Orleans. They also help people rebuild their homes.
 Neighborhood of New Orleans especially hit hard by Hurricane Katrina.