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Water, Water Nowhere

Trying to flood New Orleans with something else on Katrina’s anniversary

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If nothing else, Vincent Scotti Eirene is persistent. Chaining himself in front of Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute to protest its defense contracts was not enough for the long-time North Side activist; he had to celebrate a recent birthday with a picket there too.

Now, for his fourth trip to New Orleans to help with Katrina relief, set for Sept. 2, he is trying to become a human water main. He spent the summer in a failed attempt to get bottled water donations to Common Ground Relief, the charitable group that has been offering everything from house-gutting services to legal advice in New Orleans' worst-hit neighborhoods since the Aug. 29, 2005 hurricane.

"Yeah, I talk to [potential donors] and they go, 'Man, that's yesterday, that's old news,'" Eirene says of his quest for bottled water. "They say, 'We gave when Katrina happened a year ago.' We've had a heck of a time, because people don't perceive a crisis."

Common Ground is down to its last shipment of donated bottles, says Will Speaker, the group's administrator and financial coordinator. And there is still a crisis.

Working in the Ninth and surrounding wards and in the middle of New Orleans, Common Ground is running women's and community centers and trying to rebuild a low-income housing project in the Algiers section.

"But we're still doing a lot of house gutting," says Speaker; in fact, there is a year-long waiting list for the group's help. They have begun training locals in plumbing, electricity, carpentry and other construction skills and paying them to work on re-building projects — trying to buy local. But they can't buy water locally, Speaker says.

"A lot of areas of [running] water are back on and doing fine," he reports. But when Common Ground workers in the Upper Ninth Ward began getting sick recently, the group tested the water and found parasites. They installed a filter, but that's only half the battle.

Just a month ago, water in the Lower Ninth Ward was declared fit enough to wash one's hands in, he says, but many building don't have water connections yet, and many pipes are still broken or leaky. About 300 families pick up basic living supplies each day from the group's relief sites, and that includes bottled water. The need, says Speaker, is still 90,000 bottles a month.

Common Ground volunteers also need to stay hydrated, to the tune of 60,000 bottles each month. As Speaker described it in a June letter to Eirene, those gutting homes are "suiting up in protective gear, which includes Tyvek suits, respirators, goggles, rubber boots and gloves; they are essentially cooking themselves while they work inside moldy houses with no form of air circulation."

"If we don't have [bottled water], we just don't have it," Speaker says today. "Since the parasites have been found in the water, we've had to back off from telling [workers] to fill up at the spout" before heading off to gut the next home.

Which is where Eirene's idea comes in. It's so crazy, it just might work. He is now seeking empty plastic water jugs for New Orleans.

If he can muster carloads of gallon jugs, he says, he and other volunteers can drive the containers to other parts of the Crescent City, or even farther-flung Gulf communities that have recovered better from Katrina, such as Jackson, Mississippi, to be filled from the taps of relief groups or other donors and driven back again.

"I don't know why we're running into so many barriers," he says. Even getting the money to buy such jugs has proven difficult. It doesn't help that plastics vendors are quoting him high prices for gallon containers: 24 for $18, he reports.

"Nobody wants to sell you jugs," he says. "They want to sell you something in it." What Eirene may be having a hard time selling, besides a bit of attention, is a true sense of hope. Is the city coming back?

"It is, slowly," says Speaker from his post on the ground. But there's another reason he's all in favor of Eirene's jug project: "We want to build up a supply in case another hurricane hits."

To donate: www.commongroundrelief.org. To participate in NOLA relief and rebuilding efforts: www.commongroundcollective.org.

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