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Dispatch from New Orleans: The sweet sound of progress

Local contractor Michael Gomez sprays down concrete while his crew mixes and pours it into pier footings along the periphery of the rear, bargeboard section of the house.

By Ariane Wiltse

Oh, what beautiful music power tools make — the steady hum of a compressor crooning like a late-night jazz singer in a smoky haunt, the staccato beat of a nail gun, the trumpet of a power saw. At last, the ubiquitous sounds of New Orleans’ recovery have come home.

After eight months spent prepping and planning — of chopping down the 15-foot-high jungle that consumed the yard, gutting 1,800 square feet of house to the studs, finagling insurance coverage that costs less than a mortgage, scouting for a reasonably priced yet highly recommended contractor and fighting with City Hall for a building permit — I finally broke ground on rebuilding my house. Can I get a hallelujah?

Now that I’ve come this far, I hope to get the house structurally secure and waterproof before the scary part of hurricane season arrives in August. It’s ambitious but oh so necessary.

Starting from the ground up, Michael Gomez and his crew are shoring and leveling the original 1830s back section of the house, which is made of bargeboards (see a definition of bargeboards).

Structurally, it’s a wreck. Most of the sills have gone soft from decades of water rot and feasting Formosans. Others are cobbled together from mix-matched pieces of lumber. Several lack lap joints. Sill ends sit precariously on ancient, crumbling brick piers. Walls lean. Floor joists float several inches from the sills. And the ends of the structure aren’t square.

It’s a big, nasty and complicated job. I figured it best to let the experts tackle it. By the time they finish, they will have replaced about 60 feet of sills, rebuilt two dozen concrete block and steel-reinforced piers and racked the walls into their proper place.

As Mike and his crew work, they also are teaching me and a couple friends I’ve hired for the summer how to finish the sill and pier work on the main portion of the house.

The author's friends Sam (on ladder) and Beau construct a temporary wall to secure sagging ceiling joists in preparation for jacking up and leveling the main portion of the house.

Although the back of the house is in the worst shape, many of the sills and piers along the relatively newer front section also need replacing. And because I don’t have the budget to hire a contractor to complete the job, I’ve hired friends to help. Furthermore, because I have only two friends available to work, one with a good bit of experience, the other with zilch, my dad and a cousin arrive later this week to help us jack up the house, cut out the old sills, fit new ones, pour concrete footings, build new cement block piers and level the monster.

People say it’s not a complicated job, replacing sills and piers, just labor-intensive. They add, however, that if we screw up, walls or even the entire house could fall. Kinda scary. To avoid such a disaster, my friends Sam and Beau are working hard to secure sagging ceiling joists, sister up wobbly studs and brace leaning walls before we even look at a jack, let alone hoist up the house.

Wish us luck. Say a prayer. Light a candle, do a dance, whatever. I have a feeling we’re gonna need it.

(Photos: Ariane Wiltse)

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2 Comments on Dispatch from New Orleans: The sweet sound of progress

  1. Keep up the good work – more than 2000 miles away!!!!!!

  2. You guys just rock big dogs. I have gotten to where I look forward to your next dispatches on the Recovery of New Orleans some 2000miles away.
    Thank you very much.
    Edidilla d’Aphasia
    New Orleans News Ladder

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