ESSAY- 80% solution: Swinging a hammer in New Orleans

Already, it felt like I'd pretty much used up the muscles in my right arm, and I'd only been swinging the hammer for three hours. We had five more hours until quitting time. 

Woody Allen said that 80 percent of success is showing up, but as I was wiping the sweat from my face with the sleeve of my t-shirt, I wasn't so sure.

It was this past September, and I was in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans, standing on the porch of a partially framed house, hammering nails into a sheet of plywood. I tried holding the hammer with my left hand, but the bent nails accumulating at my feet told me that was a bad idea.

Working next to me was Tina, a shy high school senior with a quick smile. Her home in the Lower Ninth Ward had been washed away two years ago when a levee burst as Hurricane Katrina hit. She found her house, twisted and broken, blocks away from where it belonged. 

I tried to imagine what it had been like for her family to have their home torn from its foundation, winding up as a pile of moldy debris in someone else's neighborhood. You're not where you belong– even your house isn't where it belongs. Talk about an over-the-rainbow nightmare.

But this was a Habitat for Humanity project, in a new neighborhood called Musician's Village, and Tina and her parents will be moving into one of these houses. Part of the deal with buying a Habitat house is the family puts in several hundred hours working on Habitat projects. (My husband and I were volunteering there for just one day.) 

As I resumed pounding nails into plywood using my reluctant right arm, my mind wandered, and I contemplated the skill and strength of people who do this sort of thing for a living. 

And then I recalled a piece of information I learned the last time I visited the Crescent City, but had totally forgotten until this moment.

During that previous trip, five months post-Katrina, we met a guy who was an inspector for the Small Business Administration, which was giving out disaster loans. He took us to the Lower Ninth Ward, where we saw countless houses that had been knocked off their foundations by the powerful gush of water from the broken levee. The houses ended up blocks away, heaped up against each other like Legos hosed off a sidewalk.

One thing the inspector had searched for was mudsill anchor straps, designed to secure a building to the foundation and prevent it from being separated from the foundation by violent wind or water. 

He told us that what he found all over the Lower Ninth were straps that had been attached to foundations– but, incredibly, had not been nailed onto the lower sills of the houses.

And now I had met someone who was, apparently, directly affected by that breathtaking error.

As we ripped out a plywood panel that we'd nailed securely onto the frame– but had positioned inside out– I wondered how much time the Habitat folks spend correcting mistakes made by well-intentioned volunteers. 

Eighty percent of success may involve showing up, but oh, that other 20 percent provides a lot of room for screwing up.

I tried to atone for our mistake by spacing the nails extra close around the window openings, minimizing the size of any gaps where the wind might reach in and try to pull the house apart.

Way beyond my ability to control it, wind blows, shoddy houses fall apart, people die. The best I can do is show up– and keep swinging.