One aspect of modern living that is easy to forget is that we still have to deal with the natural world and the ravaging curve balls that it can throw our way. A grim example of this in recent years has been Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the Gulf Coast of North America in 2005, leaving many residents in the area in a desperate situation.
One such example of desperate situations is Sadie Hébert and her husband Jason, who bought a house in 2003 in a ‘park-like setting’ in scenic Saucier, Mississippi. But, when the Katrina hit, it caused untold damage to the area, and to the house.
The resulting effect was a long list of projects, and materials, to gather together and to address. A big part of this effort was the founding of a blog, Katrina SOS, with the appropriate tagline “the aftermath was far worse than the storm”.
I talked to Sadie via email, to find out about this extreme example of a major house renovation that tested the limits of budget, resolve, and hope. But, what came out of a grim situation was a call to solve her problems in the context of solving a wider problem experienced by everyone touched by the disaster, and to call attention to the plight of many people in their same situation.
Here’s the interview.
BuildDirect: First of all, thanks for talking with us, Sadie. Your situation must have felt extremely overwhelming in the aftermath of the storm. What were some of the ways you got passed that?
Sadie Hébert: Immediately afterwards we were all in survival mode, in a way that was unimaginable. I’ve been through hurricanes before. It is a normal part of life here, an expected hazard akin to wildfires in California. However, Katrina was completely different. The entire area was in a collective state of shock and there was no getting past it at first. Everything moved in slow motion and everyone was waiting on something, such as debris removal, building permits, FEMA trailers, code office inspections, insurance payments, etc. There was so much to do and not enough people to do it. And the people that were “doing it” were also affected.
BD: A disaster of this magnitude, as you mention on your blog, isn’t as significant as what it leaves behind. How did you prioritize what needed to be done, given how long that list was?
SH: We decided early on that we were going to rebuild as green as possible. However, we also discovered early on that the word “green” is very ambiguous and if you look at every aspect of a product, you can always find something that is not green. So we determined that for us, being green would mean to use natural materials, eliminate as much VOCs as possible, and reduce household energy usage. In addition, because my youngest son suffers from respiratory problems and we didn’t want to relive the whole FEMA camper formaldehyde fiasco, we deemed indoor air quality to be top priority. Therefore, choosing a material that may not be green in some respects, such as Portland cement, may still be an option.
We also take the approach that we would rather be without than settle for something less desirable. For instance, I will continue to live with my bare subfloors before putting down something like sheet vinyl or synthetic carpet. Don’t get me wrong, we are not picky people and this is not a matter of wanting something more expensive because that is not the case. We are just concerned with what products are made of because, again, indoor air quality is of upmost importance.
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As far as the construction process, in most respects, what needed to be done prioritized itself because certain things had to be done prior to others. For example, house plans had to be finalized before trusses could be built, HVAC lines had to be run before insulation could be sprayed, drywall had to be finished before mini-splits could be installed, etc. However, the workflow is a bit more haphazard lately because we have so many parallel projects and we’re living in the work area.
SH: I think that everything has been harder than I expected. There are so many decisions to make when you’re building yourself and the amount of research that goes into something like this far surpasses the hours of labor.
I never would have thought that we could build a house ourselves because really, who does that? I thought that my hubby was crazy when he said that he wanted to build it himself (later I realized that “he” actually implied “we”). But we were scared to hire a contractor because there were so many crooks here at the time. The deciding factor was seeing a guy that we hired to install a concrete slab under the house, and was considering hiring for the rebuild, on the news because he skipped town with a bunch of money.
When we got to a point in the construction where Jason and I were unable to do it ourselves, we hired a guy that totally screwed everything up; everything he did had to be redone and even damages his crew made to existing construction had to be fixed. And believe me, we did our homework and the guy was highly recommend. It was very tough to see this happen after all of our planning and hard work.
The absolute hardest thing of all was living in a house without heat or insulation last winter. As a parent, it is heartbreaking to know that your kids are cold. It made me very angry that we were forced to move into a house in such condition; that someone could do this to us.
BD: In the face of this disaster, one of the things you turned to was a blog, and social media. What inspired that idea, and how has it evolved?
SH: When all else failed, we figured that it was worth a shot because if a guy can turn a single red paperclip into a house then anything is possible. Being a web development instructor, this is where I feel the most comfortable.
Initially, I was hoping for help dealing with FEMA, and the fraudulent contractor but, although that is at a standstill, we received much more; friendship and restored faith in humanity. Through Heritage UMC , we’ve had 11 different volunteer groups work on the house since last November and one group even came twice. We’ve had products donated from Mike Hines, owner of Homepath Products, and Wendy Hanes at Builder Resources . These are a couple of people that we’ve never met before, people that we connected with on Twitter, people that asked us if they could help.
We also applied for and received decking materials from 84 Lumber and a couple of friends helped us with appliances and wiring. It is amazing that these people and organizations helped us and this is something that has forever changed the way we feel. I know that not everyone is in a position to help financially but you have no idea how much a kind word or two means to us. We need encouragement. We need to know that we’re not alone.
BD: You’ve created a page that goes over some important points of how to deal with a major rebuild after a disaster, which is a great resource for other people facing what you’ve faced. It seems that your situation started off as a cry for help, and yet as things went along, it seemed like your story was becoming an answer to that cry for other people. When did that transition occur?
SH: I was very angry at the end of 2009; angry at the system that failed us. We hit so many roadblocks after all of the work we did. We haven’t been eligible for grants because we make too much money. We’re both community college instructors, which in this State means that we make about the same as a high school teacher. However, as I mentioned above, the help that we received over the past year has really changed things.
A lot of content comes from our own experiences, like when I broke my ribs going down a ladder in 2008. Our backgrounds are not in anything construction-related so we had a lot to learn and some things you just cannot learn from books. I try to take advantage of other people’s experience and ask a lot of questions. Most people are more than happy to share and I’ve even had quite a few long, meaningful conversations in Home Depot. I find that it’s the little things that make the most impact and that’s what I try to pass on to others.
Several of the volunteer groups brought inexperienced people along to teach on the job. I feel good knowing that what they learned here will be put to use on other homes in the future. Sure, we end up with some imperfections along the way but I wouldn’t change a thing because (they are) a reminder of that person.
BD: What are some of the most important lessons you’ve taken from your situation and the Katrina SOS project?
SH: Do not be ashamed or embarrassed to ask for help when you need it. We waited over four years after Katrina before we asked for help and should not have done so. Also, don’t be judgmental of others asking for help because you do not know their situation. All too often, the middle-class have nowhere to turn.
Do your own research before making decisions. In some ways, I feel that our lack of expertise was an asset because we did not know the way things are usually done. For example, we used OVE framing techniques, which allowed us to eliminate a lot of waste because with studs placed 24″ apart, drywall and sheathing fit perfectly. Another advantage is that more insulation can fit in the wall cavity. My point is that we did not think outside the box because we didn’t know what was in the box to begin with.
BD: What for you represents success with this project? What’s the finish line for you?
SH: I feel that the entire process has consisted of mini-successes and accomplishments. The finish line for me will be when I can come home from work and just kick back in my living room knowing that there’s nothing that HAS to be done. It will be nice to relax for a change.
Thanks so much, Sadie.
To date, Sadie and Jason are still working away to restore their property, as well as engaging legal counsel on a number of issues related to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. To contribute to their efforts, click to make a donation to Katrina SOS via Paypal.
Also, you can review this list of outstanding items and services that remain to be addressed.