Muck and Guts
I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived in St. Thomas. If you read my first blog, you know my first night was less than desirable. But thankfully, $37 for a box fan and an extension cord at K-Mart did the trick. I have slept like a baby since then (eight hour days full of hard labor will do that to you).
My first two days were spent at the youth academy where I hung drywall. Surprisingly enough, this wasn’t my first time doing it. A few years ago, my friend Annie and I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity and got a crash course in hanging drywall in the basement of a new home in Minneapolis. It was terribly hilarious. I’m fairly certain someone came in on Monday and redid our work.
You could say my time hanging drywall in St. Thomas was just as ridiculous. There were lots of re-dos, lots of swear words and lots of lessons in measuring twice, cutting once. I ended both days with sore shoulders, covered in white dust.
When I got back to camp, the job assignment board had me on a different project for Thursday -- a double whammy muck and gut.
Muck and guts are hard work. Lots of heavy lifting, cleaning, demo. You basically go into the home and depending on the assessment, take out everything that’s been damaged by water. You remove the debris and get the home set up for the rebuild.
Our first home was up in the hills, overlooking Charlotte Amalie. Mohammed is 71 years-old and has lived on his property his entire life. His sister and brother live in the homes across the small court yard, a giant mango tree separately their entrances.
Mohammed is a Vietnam vet, serving two tours -- his second time volunteering to go overseas. After returning from the war, he studied mechanical and architectural drawing in Queens before moving back to St. Thomas to build his family’s home.
The hill behind his home made the work more difficult than we had counted on, many of the random objects intertwined into the overgrown trees that hadn’t been properly trimmed in years. Besides the GE street light that had come down during the storm, we found a car engine, an exercise bike, the front bumper of a car (with the license plate) and about 1,000 pounds of galvanized steel.
We did two trips to the dump, the back of Mohammed’s conversion van packed full of debris. When we got back to his home, he insisted we come in for lunch. The five of us -- James from New York, Charlie from London, Hugo and Emeryk from France and me -- sat in his living room as he told us about his time in Vietnam. He was, as he called it, “one of the lucky ones”.
At one point, I snuck off with our dirty plates and washed them quietly in his sink. He insisted on feeding us but there was no way I was leaving our dishes behind.
Before we took off, he made one more request of us -- we follow him down to his family’s smoothie stand for a drink.
Mohammed and his wife Pam set up shop in a parking lot of tents every day there is a cruise ship in town. Which is nearly every single day of tourist season. Thursday afternoon, the market was busy -- five ships were docked in St. Thomas that day. Tourists from around the world bought punny t-shirts and little knickknacks as we trudged through the heat in our dirty clothes and work boots.
We stood out like a sore thumb.
Locals on the island are becoming more familiar with the work All Hands & Hearts is doing. Mohammed learned about the organization and its mission after his daughter received help on her home (which is just up the block from her parents). As the bigger projects wrap up (school, daycare centers, etc.), All Hands & Hearts is able to accommodate more and more home projects. Which is how we found ourselves at Mohammed’s home bright and early Thursday morning.
It’s also how All Hands & Hearts met Antonio. Antonio is a firefighter here in St. Thomas. After Hurricane Irma came in and took of his roof and blew out his windows, Hurricane Maria dumped just enough water inside to make sure his family wouldn’t be living in it anytime soon.
They took what they could and walked away. For 14 months, the home sat. Until Antonio learned about the work happening with All Hands & Hearts volunteers and applied for assistance.
A team came out and walked through the home for an assessment. It was a true muck and gut, taking out the kitchen, the flooring, the closets and all of the debris.
High up on a hill overlooking the north side of the island, we got to work -- pulling out waterlogged mattresses and dirt-soaked clothing. The tempered glass in the sliding glass doors were blown out, sending small pieces of rose-colored glass throughout the entire home.
Maggots and cockroaches moved in as soon as Antonio’s family left. The water pulled up all of the tile throughout the home. Walking through the home, I felt so overwhelmed by the work set out in front of us. And if I was overwhelmed, I can only imagine how this family felt walking through their home after the storms.
Everything you’ve spent your life working for, sitting in front of you destroyed. Covered in dirt. Soaking wet. Moldy. And you aren’t the only victim. Your neighbors’ roofs are gone, the wind swirling through every available window knocking every single thing to the ground. The island you call home has no power, its only hospital not able to help its own residents. Residents on the mainland fighting over how to help you, deciding if they even want to.
Ninety percent of the buildings on the island were damaged by the storms. Scientists are even considering adding a new category after Hurricane Irma’s winds -- which were logged at 175 to 180 miles an hour. The homes on the top of the hills took the biggest hits but the valleys were dealt a huge blow by the barometric pressure.
Perspective is a crazy thing. After demoing the kitchen, I started pulling debris from the master bedroom. Everything needed to be thrown away. Clothes, insurance policies, a bedside bible. Everything was ruined.
Until I found Antonio’s will. Hidden in a drawer, it was some how untouched. As we finished up clearing out the house, we set it aside for him. That and a Polo dress shirt that we deemed to nice to throw away.
It was a loaded day. But it was exactly what I wanted when I decided to come down to St. Thomas. I wanted to do something, to make a difference, to really feel like I was making a difference. I got back to base on a full-blown high. It was a downright magical day.
I’m hopeful there are more of those days in front of me. I know there will be days filled with painting or more drywall, things that feel less important or substantial. Those days matter. It’s tedious work, stuff that has to get done for daycares to open or for families to move back into their homes. But I won’t lie, if I found out I was on muck and guts for the rest of my trip, I would be perfectly content.
My heart is so full from just four days working here. And you’ll be shocked to know, time away from the American news cycle is doing wonders for my soul. This is exactly the ‘vacation’ I needed.