Alluvial Woes

This morning did not begin well. A meeting with one of our contractors who is also a structural engineer. The topic of discussion: Is the house sinking into the swamp? Or does it just appear that way?

We already knew we had a rotten sill along the front wall of the house and so repairing that is in the budget and already underway.

bracing on the front porch

Interior bracing

However, any time you build a large, heavy house on unstable alluvial soil there is a chance that physics can come into play. Apparently physics is having a blast at our place.

For those of you who don’t live in an historic city located in a flood plain, I should probably note that a perfectly straight and level house in New Orleans is the exception to the rule. All our houses lean a little this way, settle a bit that way. So when you get a home inspection, the general rule is that as long as no portion of your floor is more than 5″ higher or lower than any other portion of your floor we call it normal.

Our mistake was asking a carpenter to go through all the windows in the house, ensure that none of them are leaking, weather strip them, and re-hang them so that they are all operational. Everything went fine until the carpenter came to this window.

exterior window showing evidence of the house sinking

close up of window showing the movement of the house

What you see with this window — and its cousin directly above it on the second floor — is that the window has racked so that one corner is substantially lower than the other. The finish carpenter working on the windows rightly pointed out that if we “fix” the window to accommodate this extreme rack, we will have one weird looking window.

However, fixing the rack is no easy undertaking.

The super-duper right thing to do is probably to call in a shoring company to lift the entire house, level it, rebuild the foundation, and then drop the house back. That is probably $50,000+ (K says last time she checked for one of her clients it was about to $70,000 but that was closer to the Federal Flood so maybe people aren’t quite so busy these days).

The New Orleanian thing to do is to fill the gap in the window with an old washcloth, stick a plant in front of the window, and call it a day.

In between these two extremes is a sea of gray that swirls around the general idea of gently lifting that corner of the house to remove a portion of the rack while keeping an eye on the side wall of the house to make sure you don’t then rack all those windows and create a bigger problem than the one we started with.

I’m leaning towards the idea of crafting a wood insert to fill the space at the bottom of the window, adding on to the top sash to fill that gap, and then painting it all out so that the casual observer doesn’t notice. While it doesn’t address the underlying issue, it does have the advantage of not destroying the original wood sashes. Then if in the future we – or the next owner – decide to undertake the leveling, the patched in pieces of wood can be uninstalled and the house can be made whole again; nothing has been destroyed in a hack-fix.

Then again, maybe the washcloth and potted plant is the way to go.

This evening I finished removing the sticky tile from the wood floor in the upstairs bathroom. Then it was back to the kitchen where I finally got up the last of the luan plywood and sticky tile.

The highlight of the evening was seeing the first of the old window sashes painted and ready for a reinstall.

freshly painted window sash ready to be reinstalled.

That and finding a very small prayer book with a card inside providing the times for the Holy Week Services at St. Anthony’s Church at Canal and St. Patrick Sts. . . . for 1939.


prayer book exterior

This city never lets you forget that you don’t really own anything here — you are just lucky enough to be the caretaker for brief moment in time.


From ‘How’d You Do?’ to ‘Who Dat!’

Riding our bikes to the Muses parade last week, some friends and I passed one of the parking lot attendants waiving a flag to attract customers. He looked at us, smiled, and yelled Who Dat! Of course we laughed and yelled Who Dat! back at him and continued on our way. It didn’t matter that football season was already over.

That spontaneous but somewhat ritualized exchange with someone we didn’t know suddenly threw me back to the fall of 2005. At that point, we were all rushing, stumbling, or drifting back into our badly damaged city. We didn’t know who was back and who was lost. When you did see a friend or neighbor or familiar face, you didn’t know what they had been through. Had they lost their house? Had they lost relatives? Were they living somewhere else and just back visiting or taking care of business?

In that environment, everyone developed another spontaneous but also ritualized exchange. Upon seeing a friend or neighbor for the first time — or just standing with strangers in a long line at the one open bank branch — we would ask each other: How’d you do? That was it. Everyone knew the reference.

It gave us a safe way to break through to the potentially unspeakable or to the happy news that lay on the other side of the question. You never knew if the response would be “we lost my mom”, “we lost our house and my sisters house”, or “we made out ok”.

But asking the question let the other person know that you were a part of the community. You weren’t an outsider who might not be ready for the answer. They knew you weren’t asking in the same way people all over the country ask ‘How are you today?’ — not really wanting to know. They knew that you cared. Even if you hadn’t known them before the flood, you genuinely cared about what they had been through and how they were putting things back together.

Now, four and a half years later, there is another, much happier way we are letting people know we are part of the community. A simple Who Dat! and a smile. To my mind there couldn’t be a more beautiful echo. The closing bookend to a shared tragedy and a testament to the rebirth of a vibrant community.

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