Tim Harmon’s New Orleans saga
When Tim Harmon sold his business, Tim and Avi’s Salvage, at Christmas 2005, he looked forward to dedicating himself to serving as a volunteer. “I’d been working in Indianapolis since I was in the 10th grade,” Harmon says. “I thought, Africa’s kind of the ultimate experience.”
Harmon established connections with a couple of aid groups working on the African continent and was preparing for what he expected to be a life-changing move when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, radically altering Harmon’s plans.
In March 2006, Harmon made the first of a series of trips to help restore New Orleans’ devastated Ninth Ward. “Once we pulled into the Ninth Ward,” Harmon says, “I thought, ‘There’s no reason to go to Africa. There are Third World conditions here.’”
The Ninth Ward was the most poverty-stricken section of New Orleans. Located along the Mississippi River, it was filled with housing dating back to the early 1900s. Flooding there was 12 feet deep, reaching the gutter level of most homes. That March, six months after the storm, everything was covered with an inch of mold.
Harmon and 550 other volunteers lived in a tent pitched in a church parking lot. By day they broke into groups of 10, donning hazmat suits, rubber gloves and respirators, and began the task of gutting houses throughout the neighborhood. “It didn’t take much expertise or money,” says Harmon, who was able to offer his services as a skilled plumber. He and the other volunteers were able to gut 50 houses a day. “It was a great experience.”
Harmon returned to New Orleans in June. This time there were 250 volunteers available to work. Harmon was assigned to a group restoring a house, “one house out of thousands.” He and his fellow volunteers worked for a week, getting most of the rehab job done, before their funds ran out.
In September, Harmon went to New Orleans again. “Now there were 30 or 40 volunteers. Of those, no skilled labor. But New Orleans is in a position where they really need skilled labor to rebuild those houses,” Harmon says. “When I went down the third time it was actually more discouraging than the first time. If there were 10,000 carpenters, plumbers, electricians working seven days a week, it would take 10 years to get things restored.”
Harmon is concerned that the city’s leaders have developed other plans for the Ninth Ward, plans that don’t necessarily include the people who once owned houses there. “New Orleans and Mayor Ray Nagin are out there, of course, trying to convince everyone that things are OK. Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, are open. There are football games. That’s all good for tourism. But that says nothing about the neighborhoods. It says nothing about the people.”
Harmon points out that the Ninth Ward includes extensive waterfront property that is attractive for redevelopment and that homeowners, many of whom have been forced to live in communities far outside New Orleans, have been ordered to secure their property and begin restoration or the city will take it through eminent domain.
Meanwhile, the dwindling numbers of volunteers available to assist in the rebuilding effort have increased Harmon’s sense of urgency about the situation. “Public awareness and enthusiasm have dropped to nothing.”
But Harmon hasn’t given up. The last time he was in New Orleans, he made a casting of a New Orleans water meter cap. The cap features the Crescent City moon and stars; Harmon is able to reproduce them in the form of plaster of Paris copies that are suitable for hanging. The meter caps are for sale for $35 at Yats Cajun-Creole restaurants located on Massachusetts Avenue and College Avenue. Harmon will donate 100 percent of the proceeds to the New Orleans rebuilding effort.
“There’s always plenty to do in the world,” Harmon says. “You can go out on East 10th Street or Haughville and work. But New Orleans is a special case, I think. It’s a national treasure and it’s unusual for the United States to have these kinds of conditions, this kind of natural disaster. So it’s something we really need to rebuild and save.”
To contact Tim Harmon, e-mail email@example.com.