“At FedEx, we are committed to helping rebuild the affected communities devastated by past hurricane seasons through our support of the United Way program. We thank you for all your hard work.”
-FedEx Corporation sign positioned at the front of the Hands On Meeting Room
All throughout history are instances where wise people stand up and note that there is no progress without conflict. You need a catalyst, something that makes things not as easy for everyone, an inciting incident to flesh out exactly who is going to stay afloat when the water gets choppy. Progress is Darwinian in a way; those component parts that are not malleable enough to withstand conflict are discarded. Those that are stick around until the next iteration tests them.
Despite the transition the camp itself retained much of its grassroots feel. Our tents stayed and our nightly campfire burned on (with wooden pallets and gasoline replacing MRE boxes for slump-busting wet wood and getting things started.) The red tape was there, but it was minimal. Considering that our financing source had gone from millionaire entrepreneurs to an established non-profit, the lack of affect I observed upon my return was pleasantly surprising.
Change was always just around the bend. One day Erin strolled up to Suz and I as we were unloading mold tools, hands in her back pockets, that same slow meander walk and that same half smile on her face.
“So did you two hear that MTV is coming next week?”
“Whaaaat? Why?” Suzanne cried with her silly face.
“What the hell is StormCorps?” I asked adamantly. Erin shrugged. And then like that she turned and walked back across the parking lot toward the front entrance.
StormCorps was an MTV volunteer group thing wherein the channel recruited 150 teenagers, who were really, REALLY excited about helping out with the hurricane relief, carted them down to a real live volunteer camp followed by dozens of cameras, and made a television show out of it. MTV wins because it’s a little reality television for good. Hands On Network wins because MTV gives them a little bit of money beyond housing costs and a little publicity to boot. Stipends and college groups aside, the arrival of StormCorps officially began the era of corporate sponsorship at camp. The first day that StormCorps started, MTV threw everyone a little barbeque across Pass Road. Food was food, and for the most part we were all amused by the baby blue shirts and the fancy catering that came in on trucks. Then the corporate leader of the project stood up on a chair next to one of the trucks and started giving a speech on how great this was all going to be, partnerships and working together. And then he launched into this whole deal on FedEx and their history of responding to disasters and how as an additional partner, we were fortunate to have them doing what they had done. A lone voice interrupted from my right.
“Yeah? FedEx has done a lot?”
The guy paused and looked. Mark was standing with his arms crossed between Rohde and I, with his eyes sparkling and a big “fuck you” smile on his face.
“I’ve been down here for awhile. I haven’t seen any FedEx anywhere. How about you? Have you done any work yet?”
The corporate guy looked a little taken aback, but tried to regain his composure.
“It has been a lot of behind the scenes work for sure, but the appreciation that we all have for what you are all doing is…”
“Yeah? Appreciation? How can you appreciate something you’ve never seen or done?”
I put my hand on Mark’s shoulder and he shook it off.
“I’ll see you on my crew tomorrow then, buddy. Right? 7 am, parking lot. Be there. We’re tearing out floors. It’ll be fun.”
“You bet.” The corporate guy said almost indistinguishably to himself in a low voice. Mark laughed and stalked away from the crowd of two hundred or so headed toward base camp. Rohde chuckled to himself and followed. I paused for a second, then jogged away from the crowd to join my friends.
The principal issue that emerged over and over again that week concerned a pure lack of understanding of field conduct and standards. For example, JP came back furious Monday evening. A camera crew had come into his house and started filming the Tyvek and respirator-clad crew without (a) announcing themselves or (b) wearing any sort of protective equipment. From a managerial point of view, it was infuriating to imagine these city-dwelling others prancing amongst the hot streets of Mississippi to make a television show about relief and recovery, and not have the common sense to consider simple issues like safety. Another great example was the whole “FedEx loves Hands On” deal, in which these FedEx trucks drove around to the sites where the StormCorps kids were working to bring them sustenance. Except instead of water or granola, they showed up with pallets of sodas and candy nobody wanted after having been in the hot house and knowing they were going back into the hot house. Things like this revealed an utter ignorance and lack of rudimentary research in what the corporate sponsors were trying to do, and it absolutely killed me.
I can’t remember what exactly passed over the next few days, but by Wednesday the general discord that Mark had ignited had spread through to a number of the other long-termers. Whether it was warranted or not, MTV packed up and announced that Thursday they were off to the Dauphin Island area south of Mobile Bay to finish up their service. That Wednesday night Miami Mike met a StormCorps girl named Adriel and stayed up all night drinking and talking with her. In the morning he cooked her breakfast on the golf course. A couple days later, a number of us took a van drive out to their new camp to smooth the scene and smile and nod. I made sure to grab Mike a spot in the van, so he came along with Carrie, Suzanne, Falcon, Erin, myself, and others to see Adriel. Soon after this, Mike left camp for good to go up to New York for a job, but he didn’t stop talking to Adriel. She followed him up there, eventually. That was a good thing.
Around this time, Nick approached me about an idea he’d been shuffling around in his head. N8 had good connections to the Biloxi Housing Authority and was on a first name basis with the head of the organization, Bobby, as well as his chief architect. Right around the time of the storm, the BHA had been in the middle of a large Hope VI housing build in the middle of East Biloxi behind Nichols Elementary School. Approximately half of the development was complete on the south side of a creek that split the development; the houses on the north side had been in various stages of construction. The city wanted to get the houses that had already been completed (and some even furnished and occupied by families) repaired and available for occupancy as soon as possible, but did not have the budget for mold remediation. That was where we came in, Nick explained as we sat on the couches near the door to the back field.
“So you want us to demold some houses in good condition? That sounds straight forward.”
The Catholic shook his head and continued. His idea was this: for the last four months we had been consulting anyone we could talk with, trying to get to the bottom of the question of mold remediation (and affordable, volunteer-driven mold remediation at that.) And now the housing authority wanted us to remediate 51 distinct buildings, all built exactly three years ago with the same materials. Nick wanted to do an academic study and test different methods of mold remediation. He wanted to in the least prove that our method worked and that bleach and water didn’t. He’d done some research and had also found a method that LSU had been shopping, as well as an experimental no-touch fogging method from a Canadian company. The Housing Authority had been open to giving us a time window in which to do something like this. Then whatever method worked best we would replicate in homes that were unsuccessful. We’d split these 51 houses into 4 experimental groups and a control, we’d take mold samples and air traps and mail our pre- and post- tests off to an environmental microbiology laboratory. I nodded. This was exciting. We were smart enough to do this right. Nick agreed, said the two of us would take lead. I think in my head at the time I already knew Nick well enough to know that he was more of an “ideas” guy and less of an “implementation” guy, but I didn’t care. I knew as soon as I said yes that this was going to become my project, but it was the best possible project I could imagine.
We talked to Erin. She was totally on-board— Hands On Gulf Coast had just recently received a substantial grant from the Outback Steakhouse-Bonefish Grill restaurant company, and she thought we could cover the costs using that money. It did not hurt at all that we were talking about a low-income community— funders would love it. Nick had also been talking to a professor at Southern Miss that specialized in community health, so we had an academic involved to legitimize the experiment and bring it to peer review. With a preliminary go, our team was at the BHA offices talking with Bobby to finalize a work agreement. I brought Suzanne to provide mold expertise support as well as Mark and Mike to discuss the interiors prep that we needed to do. In order for the results of this theoretical experiment to be as legit as possible, we needed to homogenize all of the houses, tear out all the floors, get every little piece of drywall, etc. The homes were all two-story, but the flood line at its highest was at 8 or 9 feet. We would just seal off the second floor and remediate the parts of the home that had been flooded.
The project was going to be massive, but the prospects of having solid results on mold remediation efficacy drove forward my excitement. Erin had already quoted us for a $100,000 budget, which was more than enough for the costs of the equipment we would need. This was enough work to throw an entire summer into. Nick and I got in contact with some local IAQ experts and wrote up contracts with them to basically ensure that they would teach me how to use all the equipment, and check on the progress of the testing procedures every few weeks. We drew up a contract with the Southern Miss professor to write up the study for peer review once we had collected the results, giving me Project Investigator credit and Hands On Network funding credit. A few days later, the $600 weather tracking machine we’d purchased arrived. AmeriCorps Nora was my driver that day, and the two of us went out to Hope VI that afternoon. I climbed out of a window of a centralized house in the neighborhood, got to the top of a roof twenty or twenty-five feet in the air, and installed the monitoring mechanism. We would track everything, get as much data as possible on temperature, humidity, anything that could potentially affect remediation, and then sort out what was important and what was not a bit later. The next day, Rohde and Mark showed up with big boy crowbars and started the task of going from house to house and clearing everything from the first floors.
Hope VI was already burning in my core a little. This could be important, and this was the answer to everything that had always plagued me about mold remediation. I took the mantle on and not reluctantly, but rather determinedly. I started standing up at the dinner meetings and giving an elevator speech each night on how important the Hope VI project was— that in fact, any volunteer that got on a Hope VI crew would be part of history. This was the biggest in-field mold remediation experiment in the history of the world (to our knowledge, and we had done months of research on the whole thing.) When else would you have 51 different houses to test? That doesn’t happen in the real world, but it was happening right here and we were going to find the answers that the community so desperately needed. We would get the numbers to fill in the blanks, and this was going to be good. Dan would then yell “Yeah, Doctor G!” and I’d sit back down between Harlow and Mark with a nod.
* * *
Ryan was still running crews now and then, but had lost a bit of interest in the gamut. Tarp crew had been his thing, and now that we were done with tarps. He was absolutely capable of contributing and working, and knew a thing or two about any crew going out. But in a strange way, I think he was a little lost. Ryan was always more concerned with fun projects than organization. I think he even took a couple days off without telling anyone in March just so he could collect scrap wood and build a tree platform in the back of the field. We caught up every night and we joked about how the Portland plan had collapsed, and drank whiskey and beer and all, but it’s hard to remember exactly what he was committed to in that interim in which he came back to HOGC in March.
One night in March, an AmeriCorps ran into the main building and found me. Ryan was drunk but was going on an airport run, and everyone around knew he was drunk, and he probably shouldn’t be driving. I dropped what I was doing and ran out the backdoor into the field. I knew he had been excited about picking up Laura, but drunk driving was not something that was going to end well in any way. I sprinted across the field toward the 4-Runner dusting up the field. Ryan slowed down and waved. I ran up to the door.
“Dude, you can’t do an airport run if you’re drunk.”
“Will are you talking about? I’m just going to pick up Laura.”
“Some AmeriCorps kids just ran up to me and said they thought you’d been drinking. So if they’re running up to me, they’re going to run up to everyone else, and Cora or Janos or Erin is going to find out and it’s going to be bad.”
“Leave me alone, Guillermo.” Ryan spun his tires hard and the car lunged out from the dirt into the asphalt part of the lot. In a few moments he was turning onto Pass Road and gone. I ran my hands through my hair and turned to the door. Cora was standing there with her arms crossed, shaking her head.
I ran to the back of the field to find Mark and Rohde and tell them what happened. Rohde just laughed, like always. Mark didn’t look up.
“Sounds like a 86 situation to me.”
“Should we try to get him?”
“I mean, if he’s driving to the airport, he’s going to go to the airport. Chasing him down isn’t going to do anything. He’ll be fine, he wasn’t that drunk.”
“Dude, they’ll kick him out.”
“Yeah. They probably will.”
The hours passed. Cora approached me at dinner and asked me about it. I told her the story. She asked if I’d seen him drinking, and I told her I hadn’t. She sighed.
“I know you guys are good friends.”
“You’re a leader here now, Guillermo.”
“Erin knows. Do you want to talk to him or do you want us to?”
I thrust my hands in my pockets and thought for a second.
“What’s the timeline?”
“Out by noon tomorrow.”
“God damn it…yeah, let me talk to him.”
“OK.” She paused. “I know this is probably hard for you—“
“Cora, it’s fine.”
Waiting for Ryan to come back was awful. I sat not at the fire, but directly behind the building, sipping water out of an oversized plastic cup with “Frullati” imprinted on it. Around 8:30 or so, the blue jeep returned and parked in the far back of the field. I walked toward it slowly, and saw Ryan and Laura get out.
“Guillermo, you remember Laura, right?” I smiled and gave Laura a big hug and welcomed her back. She was a St. Lawerence grad like Josh Potter and Bethany, she was a poet/writer, had a car with a library for a trunk, etc. She smiled and asked where she should go. Pitch a tent, grab a spot upstairs, whatever works for you. She nodded and Ryan went to walk with her.
“Actually man, can we take a walk?”
Ryan paused. Laura lingered, then spoke.
“I’ll go inside and say hi to people, that’s fine. Pub later?”
We both nodded, and Laura left the two of us alone in the dark of the field.
“So what’s up man?” He looked at me with slightly glassy eyes and slightly raised eyebrows. I smiled and looked down.
“Some AmeriCorps kids saw that you’d been drinking before you did the airport run—“
“Dude, I don’t know why you were freaking out on me when I was leaving. I had like three beers.”
“Yeah, I know. I mean, I know you’re probably good. You know this isn’t me. Word got past me to Cora and Erin. From these federal government kids.”
He looked down and smiled to himself.
“So what? I can’t drive anymore? I don’t care, here.” Ryan threw his keys in the dirt. I ignored it and kept looking at him.
“They say you gotta be out by tomorrow at noon.”
Ryan stared at me inquisitively and it was a terrible look to take in. He shook his head.
“I thought you were my friend, Guillermo.”
“I am, dude. That has nothing to do with this. It’s out of my hands.”
He smiled and shook his head. “I knew you’d side with them eventually, big staff member. I need you to say it, take responsibility for what you are saying. Say it. Ryan, I’m kicking you out of Hands On for doing an airport run after drinking a few beers. When everyone here drinks a few beers and drives all the time. When there are no fucking rules anywhere. But here you are, telling me that that’s how it is.”
I bit my lip a bit but stood my ground.
“I’m not here to tell you about drinking and driving, or tell you the rules are black and white just for you. I’m just telling you exactly what happened, and that I wanted to be the one to tell you as opposed to Erin or fucking Caleb.”
Ryan stalked away from me toward the building. I chased after. He opened the back door and marched up the stairs to the loft he’d been sleeping in, the same one that he and TC had constructed before I’d even first arrived. He picked up his clothes and started throwing them into his bag, muttering to himself all the while.
“I was here before any of these people. This is fucking stupid.” He muttered over and over again as he quickly disassembled his shit. I put my hand on his shoulder.
“Don’t touch me.”
“Dude, I’m not the bad guy here. This is a shitty situation. I don’t deny that. I’ll take the morning off tomorrow and help you figure this out, you don’t have to talk to anybody but me.”
Ryan paused and looked out over the main floor of base from his loft. There were a few people mulling here and there, but dinner was over and everyone was principally getting settled down for the night. If there was anyone clandestinely observing the interaction between the two of us, I didn’t notice it. He looked out and then turned to me.
I reached my hand out and he took it for a shake.
“Take care of this stuff tomorrow. Let’s go grab some beers at the Pub. On me. What do you say?”
Ryan shrugged. “Alright. Let me go find Laura.”
A few minutes later, the three of us were walking down the cracked sidewalk adjacent to the golf course on Pass Road, on the quarter-mile that separates the Pub from HOGC. Laura asked what we had been talking about. Before I could say anything, Ryan spoke up and said he hadn’t mentioned it, but he was actually planning on moving west tomorrow to help TC, Kristen, and Sara set up Hands On New Orleans and also scout out what Common Ground, Camp Hope, and some other groups were up to. Laura nodded, and like that the conversation transitioned into HONO, New Orleans (which compared to Biloxi sometimes seemed like an absolute impossibility for recovery,) and old friends. I called Mark and John and got some of the guys out to meet us, and we had a good normal night of jukebox, whiskey, and Budweisers. The next morning I let Suz and Beth go out early and hung around to talk Ryan through the motions. At one point I escaped to the office to grab a second with Erin.
“Hey, so Ryan’s going to be out of here by noon.” She nodded. “If it’s all the same with you, just trust me on this. I’ll get things sorted out for him, none of y’all have to talk to him.”
Bicycle Ben came with and the three of us drove down to the Biloxi Greyhound terminal. Ryan said he’d be in touch, got on the bus, and left. Ben was quietly opinionated about the whole thing. This was bullshit. Fucking administration. I nodded, we lit cigarettes, and went back to camp.
Ryan ended up at Common Ground, which I’d known was a super-hippie, super gritty operation based out of a flooded out church. I’d heard good things, but didn’t know a lot about it. HONO wasn’t really an option as much as a conversation piece for talking through tomorrow and the future. He was always close with Kristen though, and TC was around too, so it was good to know he had friends in the area. Common Ground took him, and he stayed there for awhile.