Sunday, November 25

What has happened down here is the winds have changed Clouds roll in from the north and it started to rain

Rained real hard and rained for a real long time

Six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline

Louisiana, Louisiana

They're tryin' to wash us away

They're tryin' to wash us away

Louisiana, Louisiana

They're tryin' to wash us away

They're tryin' to wash us away

Louisiana, 1927 (words and music by Randy Newman, copyright 1972)

Day 1: Saturday, Sept. 29

NEW ORLEANS — The first thing that hits you about this city is the humidity. The kind that makes your clothes stick to your skin. The kind that makes the ink on your pen scatter when you start writing.

As I got off the airplane that had just landed at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, I thought, "I hope there's shade where we're going to work."

I was carrying a canvas bag filled with clothes and a black fall jacket. I clearly wasn't going to need the jacket.

The song I quoted at the beginning of this diary ran through my head a couple of times as we flew over Lake Pontchartrain, the body of water to the north of New Orleans. The song is about a 1927 storm that broke levees along the Mississippi River, killing at least 2,000 people and wiping out homes and businesses, not unlike Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005.

The passenger I followed off the plane was James "Sitzo" Sorrentino, director of facilities for the Hillcrest Educational Center in Pittsfield and one of 23 contractors spirited away to New Orleans by state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, a Democrat from Lenox.

Pignatelli had asked a volunteer group to come down to help a family rebuild its two-story brick home, which had been nearly destroyed when Katrina ripped through the city.

(I would help where I could, gathering building supplies, food for the crew, helping to clean up the site, sweeping floors, and keeping track of tools. I also would document the project.)

I had never met the family, headed by 51-year-old Stanley Stewart. I had been in his neighborhood, the Ninth Ward, briefly last year with other folks trying to help clean up in the wake of the hurricane.

I was interested in seeing how much progress had been made in the previous year, and I wanted to help the Stewarts, whose story of thundering water, a fear of death and ultimately a rescue had come to Pignatelli's attention through a mutual friend, Richard Lapchick, son of basketball Hall-of-Famer Joe Lapchick and the director of the business administration program at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

"I met Stanley (last year), and just about immediately wanted to try to do something to help," Pignatelli said. "Maybe we can't fix the whole Ninth Ward, but we can fix a little part of it."

Pignatelli, a former electrical contractor, began asking around, mostly talking to Berkshire County contractors he knew. Within a few months, he had a team willing to work for a week on Stewart's house.

"I think the interesting thing is that I don't really recall anyone turning me down," Pignatelli said.

He also began raising money. Rather than taking it from his campaign coffers, he asked for donations to the "Hope For Stanley" Fund.

"Basically, I asked people to send any money they might have sent to my re-election fund to the (Stanley) fund," said Pignatelli, who is up for re-election in November 2008.

He said the donations were private and were not transferred or otherwise funneled from any campaign account. The appeal raised $30,000 in donations and about $50,000 worth of materials for the work. All the donations and materials were from Berkshire donors, he said.

In 2006, the New Orleans I saw was a mess. Piles of garbage everywhere, except in the downtown district, which had been cleaned up fairly quickly after Katrina. The rest of the city wasn't as fortunate then.

Or now, as I would learn.

Sorrentino and I were part of Pignatelli's "first wave" of workers who would come to New Orleans throughout the week. A few months ago, Stewart's house was gutted by students from the University of Central Florida. A month or so ago, Pignatelli and a crew led by Donald Fitzgerald, a Berkshire contractor and a building inspector in Lenox, had put a new roof on the house.

The crew assembled this time would hopefully finish the house by Friday, Pignatelli said.

"This will be the Berkshire County version of 'Extreme Home Makeover,' " he said in a meeting of contractors on Sept. 14. "We're going to rebuild Stanley's house."

Fitzgerald explained why he wanted to help people he had never met.

"This is my village," he said, referring to the United States in a personal way. "I take care of my house first, then my town, then my state, then my country. If I can help this family, then I will."

On the first day, 18 Berkshire County residents piled into rented vehicles to make the 10-mile drive from the New Orleans airport.

The list was Richard Pepino, Michael Bona and David McDougall from Moran Mechanical Systems of Lee; brothers Andrew, Mark and Erik Schnopp of A.J. Schnopp Construction in Dalton; Fred Perkett, Dale Romeo and Scott Pignatelli from Pignatelli Electric of Lenox; Dan Sartori of Sartori Builders in West Stockbridge; Charlie Cardillo and Michael Rich of Charles Cardillo Plumbing and Heating in Pittsfield; David Smith of Maxymillian Inc. of Pittsfield; former Lenox Police Chief Timothy Face; and Fitzgerald, Sorrentino, Pignatelli and me.

Scott Pignatelli, Smitty's brother, said most crew members had at least 10 years of experience in their respective fields.

"This is the best of the best," he said.

Once our vehicles moved beyond the airport, the devastated houses began to appear. Mounds of garbage were stacked in front. One house had lost an entire side wall, and the roof sagged almost to the ground, with broken furniture still visible.

Another home had walls that bulged outward, like a giant balloon. Down the road, a brown Beagle lay on the porch of a house that had collapsed; only the porch and front door were intact.

Nearing Tricou Street in the Lower Ninth Ward, 60 to 70 percent of the homes were vacant, with 50 percent of them unlivable. On the street itself, Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers sat in front of some vacant homes, and rats darted in and out of a deserted meat-packing plant that smelled of rotting animal flesh.

Today was to be what Pignatelli called a "walk-through."We would unload a truckful of materials — all donated by Berkshire County businesses and sent down earlier in the week — and look at the Stewart house to let the contractors get their bearings.

"I just want to get to the site and let you guys see what needs to be done," Pignatelli said just before we got into our rented vehicles at the airport. "Sunday we will start the big push."

Stanley Stewart, a smiling, trim man with a pronounced limp, came out of the house to meet us. I learned later that he had polio as a child.

"How you doin'?" he said, shaking all of our hands. "Thanks for coming. God bless you."

We went inside the house, which was built 70 or 80 years ago and added onto in the 1940s, according to several guesses. Stewart had lived there for 32 years.

The house was a disaster.

"Son of a (expletive)," someone behind me said.

"It was a lot worse than what we thought we had to deal with," Sorrentino said later. "There was obviously going to be a lot of work to do. And that first day, we didn't know we could finish it in a week."

The walls in the front of the house were bowed. Some wood had rotted from water damage. The remaining beams didn't look strong enough to hold up the roof.

The contractors began looking at each other. There was no discussion. Fitzgerald, Face and the Schnopps just started working, and everyone else joined in.

There would be no "walk-through."

But the team wasn't adequately prepared. Andy Schnopp was doing framing work in water clogs. Perkett was working in deck shoes. Almost everyone was wearing sneakers instead of work boots because they had just come from the airport and weren't expecting to do any real labor that day.

After six hours, with everyone sweaty and dirty, we piled into our van and car and headed to our hotel in downtown New Orleans. After cleaning up, we got together for a debriefing. This would happen every night I was in the Crescent City.

The first conclusion everyone came to was that it was smart of us to begin working on our first day here. Second, even though we started earlier than expected, there was no guarantee that all this work could be done in a week.

Day 2: Sunday, Sept. 30

Before I left for New Orleans, I checked the Weather Channel for the temperature and humidity counts there. Yesterday it was 84 degrees, with 80 percent humidity. Today it will be 86, with 81 percent humidity.

Early in the day, Stanley Stewart tells me his story as we drive around the Ninth Ward in his truck to get water and doughnuts for the crew.

"At around 9 o'clock in the morning, it started to rain and the wind started to blow," he recalled. "By 9 a.m., the water level was 31/2 feet above the road. A few minutes later, it was 14 feet. Looking back, I think about how fast it all happened, and it's hard to believe. But it's true."

At the time, Stewart said he was unaware that the levees less than a mile from his house had burst. The heavy rain and rapidly rising water level terrified him and his family: his wife, Betty; his two daughters and two nieces; and other relatives who had come to his house to ride out the storm on Aug. 29, 2005.

"All you could do," he said, "was retreat upstairs."

But even that seemed futile. There is an open field across the street from Stewart's house. At about 9:20 a.m., with the water level over 14 feet, he said he saw a huge wall of water, perhaps 26 feet high, roaring across the field toward his home as more of the levee gave way to the south.

"At that point," he said, "it seemed like this was very possibly the last day on Earth."

The "tidal wave," as Stewart called it, slapped hard against his house, which was protected somewhat by its brick outer structure.

After a few hours, the rain and flooding ended. The rising water stopped inches short of his second floor. The first floor was completely under water. There was nowhere to go, really. People sat on their roofs and waited for help. Day turned into a dark, dark night. People signaled with flashlights and shouts that they were OK. Stewart could hear helicopters overhead.

The family was rescued by a New Orleans Fire Department boat the next day.

"The boat just floated over my fence," he said.

Stewart's family was taken to the New Orleans Convention Center. Within a few days, his loved ones were relocated to Birmingham, Ala. Stanley Stewart, however, stayed behind.

"There were senior citizens, elderly people, who needed help at the Convention Center," he said. "They had no one to get them a cup of water or some food. I stayed to help them."

Stewart was reunited with his family a few weeks later. They all returned to their soggy home and settled into a FEMA trailer on their land. A year after the storm, the family received a $10,000 check from FEMA to rebuild the home. The money was a 1/5th of the repair estimate.

Stewart grows silent for a moment.

"You have no idea how much strength it took, as a father and as a husband, to get through this. To say to your wife and kids, 'Don't worry, things will get better.' But to not really know that. To not know how things would turn out."

Day 3: Monday, Oct. 1

Faced with a self-imposed deadline, our crew arrives at 7 a.m. and works till about 5:30 p.m., with only short breaks.

Almost apologetically, Pepino comes to me in midmorning, his shirt soaked with sweat.

"Hey, man," he said. "Can you do me a favor? Next time you go to Home Depot, can you pick up some paper towels? The sweat gets in my eyes, and my shirt is so wet I can't find a dry spot to wipe them."

Then Pepino shows me his shirt: It is bright with perspiration. Paper towels go on my list.

Meanwhile, work has begun in earnest, as everyone has on work boots and work clothes. Rebuilding the framework of the house is the big job, but installing the heating and air-conditioning units and doing the rewiring also aren't easy tasks.

Douglas Trombley of Trombley Windows in Lee and brothers David and James Comalli of Comalli Electric in Lee arrive today to help out.

"A lot of these guys haven't worked together," Fitzgerald said. "But they're all such pros; they know what needs to be done. We've done a good job staying out of each other's way."

Fitzgerald is the de facto leader of this group, by virtue of his relentless sense of humor and work ethic. Stewart calls him "the Energizer bunny."

After work, Stewart's family and relatives serve up barbecued ribs and potato salad for everyone. Following that, Stewart tells his story to the rest of the crew.

It is as riveting to them as it was to me. Then Stewart asks all of us to join hands in a circle.

"Heavenly Father," he says, "bless these fine men for coming into this house and giving their valuable time and effort. And thank you for helping them find us. I ask you, Lord, to find these men, and their families, and their children, and their children's children, a special place in Your house for them, for we will be praying for them for the rest of our lives. Amen."

"Amen," we echo.

Next Sunday: The job is shut down.

To reach Derek Gentile: dgentile@berkshireeagle.com, (413) 528-3660.