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 New Orleans Journal

Habitat for Humanity Trip - Friday, January 12

New Orleans Trip - Jan 14-Thank You - Jan 13 - Jan 12 - Jan 11
Jan 10 - Jan 9 - Jan 8 - Jan 7 - Before the Trip - Photo Slide Show

Homeowner Profile: Michael Harris

All that is left of Michael Harris's home in the New Orleans Ninth Ward is an empty lot. When he snuck past the armed guards to see it five weeks after the levees broke, he had to climb through the window because the doors were blocked by rubble. Inside he could only find one salvagable item, an antique iron. A barge had breached the levee just blocks away and Harris's whole house had been picked up by the water and floated several feet. "The house landed on an air conditioner, like the Wizard of Oz house that landed on the Wicked Witch," he said.


Sixteen months after the floods it is still difficult for Harris to return. At the sight of the tree stumps in the front yard and pieces of his 16-year-old-son's weight set lying on the ground, Harris turned and walked to his former neighbor's fence. When he could speak again, he talked about the history of the "Lower Ninth." "There was a time when no one wanted this land," Harris said. "Many of these homes were built by hand, and passed on from generation to generation. The flood destroyed all that. This was the largest area of low-income home ownership in the city." Blocks away Fats Domino's home stands, unoccupied. "He could have lived anywhere in the world," Harris said. "He chose to live here."

Harris is about to become a homeowner again. Sometime in March, he'll move into a Musicians' Village Habitat home. He's a base player for several jazz bands, Bruce Sun Pie Barnes, Irma Thomas, and Frog Man Henry, who he'll play with in May at Jazz Fest. He also sings in a city-wide 60-voice gospel choir, Shades of Music.

Hurricane Katrina

Harris was on tour in Brazil for two weeks before Hurricane Katrina hit. He was in the Dallas airport when he saw that the Hurricane had been upgraded from category two to four. His suitcases got sent to New Orleans on the last flight before Hurricane Katrina hit. He never saw those suitcases again. Harris went to Houston where he joined his brother and extended family. "That was one good thing about all that craziness," he said. "We reconnected with family: nieces, and nephews." After several weeks, Harris moved to a hotel room. "I needed to absorb the whole situation, to reconnect with God, and to reflect. It was a life changing experience." That's when Harris returned to see his damaged home.

"I saw what had happened to New Orleans on TV and knew I had to come home. No one knew I was going to do it. That was foolishness, but had to see it for myself." Soon afterward, Harris left Houston for good and moved into a cubbyhole in uptown New Orleans. "I realized I could do more here with nothing, than I could in Houston in a hotel," he said. "They were wonderful to me there, don't get me wrong, I just had to come home."

Rebuilding the City

In New Orleans, Harris got work performing for the relief workers like the first responders, the construction workers, and the people who were repairing the levees. "They became our extended family and we became theirs," he said. "We really appreciate what they are still doing for our city." The work was sporadic. "The network was broken," he said. "We started slow. The diaspora was scattered to the wind."

Tipitinas, the legendary music mecca, was on the front line for service to New Orleans musicians. Harris attended a Tipitinas crisis support workshop for musicians and Habitat had a table at the event. “I stopped at every station and took the paperwork,” Harris said. He immediately applied. Photo below: Surrounding Harris in front of his new home are: (standing l-r) Lori Stroik, Aaron Lassila, Kristen Semlak, Michael Harris, Jaci Bernard, Jessica Roder, David Werenskirchen, and Vicki Schneider. First row: Sean Booher, Chris Perner, Athena Westin, and Lindsay Siolka.

m. harris house

The Habitat forms weren't difficult to fill out, but the effort to gather the support documents was daunting. “I would stand in line in one place, only to be told I have to go to a different part of town and stand in line there first.” At the time of the flood, Harris had his driver's license and passport with him and nothing else. He had to resurrect his entire life: titles to his house and car, birth certificates for himself and his son, and his tax information for the past several years. Ordinarily, that would be hard enough, but added to the situation in New Orleans, where banks and government offices had been flooded as well, it was practically impossible.

The community is rebuilding and Habitat for Humanity's Musicians' Village is playing a part. "I only have one more move left in me," Harris said. He may only have one move left, but he is continuing to expand his horizons. Harris has enrolled as a history major at Suothern University at New Orleans. He thanks every Habitat volunteer who works on the site. "Good things have happened," he said. "You all are here and I thank you. You are bringing hope." He was able to perform for former U.S. President Jimmy Carter on a recent visit. Harris touched his chest. "That man has Habitat in his heart. It's beautiful." In a few months Harris and his son will move into their new home. "My son and my daughters will always have a place to stay," Harris said. "I will have something to leave for my children and grandchildren."

by Cheryl Reitan

Coming Video clips: Floor Joists | Plywood




UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,
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