Glenn Sr.: Living in a FEMA Trailer for 3.5 years   Leave a comment

by Nancy Lemon


Glenn Matthews Sr. lives at 7555 Mackenzie Street, East New Orleans, a one-story brick house with 3 bedrooms, 2.5 bathrooms, and no trees. He is in his late 60’s, African American, and is the father of Glenn Jr. and Moshell. Glenn Sr. and his wife are separated or divorced, and Mrs. Matthews is the official owner of the home. 

In 2005, the family was renting to own. The 2 Glenns, father and son, were living in a small building in the backyard which was not up to code. The rest of the family – Mrs. Matthews, Moshell, and her 3 children, were living in the house. The backyard was shaded by a big tree in the neighbor’s yard.


Mackenzie Street is in a neighborhood called Little Woods, a rectangular strip about 1 mile from north to south and about 6 miles from east to west. It is mostly residential. Its northern border is the huge Lake Pontchartrain, where a large earth embankment keeps the water from the lower land where the houses stand. The western border of Little Woods is the Industrial Canal, which connects the Lake to another inland waterway, and ultimately to the Gulf of Mexico. Little Woods is east of the main part of the city of New Orleans, and north of the Lower Ninth Ward.

In August 2005, when Katrina came, East New Orleans was the first neighborhood to be flooded, as the waters surged up the inland waterway and the Industrial Canal. The levees on the eastern side of this canal were the first in New Orleans to give way. Water poured in to Little Woods, reaching levels up to 15 feet. Most of Little Woods was under standing water of 6-10 feet for a long time. In parts of the neighborhood, residents were forced to climb up onto their roofs, either from the outside or by chopping holes in the roof from the inside and pulling themselves up onto the roof. They had to move very quickly, as the water was rising fast.

August is the hottest month in New Orleans, and many residents of Little Woods had to wait on their hot black roofs, with no water, no food, and no shade for hours or days until helicopters came and let down a bar for them to grab onto.


After the waters receded, the Matthews family came back, though they could not live in their house as the inside had been destroyed by the flooding. The small building in the back had been entirely ruined, except for its cement foundation. The big tree shading the back yard had fallen over. The family split up, with Mrs. Matthews staying with a friend about 20 min. away, Moshell and her children staying elsewhere in N.O., and the 2 Glenns moving into 2 small FEMA trailers in the front yard of their home.

Moshell is finishing up her training as a nurse. In spite of her busy school and work schedule, and being the single mother of 3 children, she is the person in the family who has taken the lead on getting the house rebuilt, managing the huge amount of bureaucracy necessary to achieve this. In spite of her efforts, it took many years before the rebuilding of 7555 Mackenzie even started.

There are still many houses in Little Woods which are boarded up, and many lots where houses apparently used to be, which are quickly turning back into the wild swampland growth native to the area. Black eyed Susans grow profusely in these lots.


Finally in April of 2009, over 3.5 years after the inside of the Mackenzie Street house was flooded, Church World Service decided to include this house as one of the 12 houses they would focus on during a 4-week building blitz. Volunteers from all over the US and a few from Canada came to work on it. This coming week will be the last week of the blitz, but CWS has promised to see each house through to completion.

When Glenn Jr. is off every day at his job as an electrician, he leaves his dog Sheba on a chain in the backyard and her puppy, Jr., with his father. Glenn Sr., who takes many medications and has some dementia, spends his days alone with the puppy in his FEMA trailer, watching TV and guarding the house from burglars. Elsewhere in Little Woods people have broken into houses which are being rebuilt and have stolen tools, and electrical wires right out of the walls.

Glenn Sr. says he hates dogs. Perhaps this is partly because the puppy has chewed up one of his shoes, and he is forced to wear only one shoe and a flip flop. It is hot inside the trailer, with only one window that opens, and no shade — and if he opens the door to get some air, he has to work very hard to keep the puppy from escaping through the hole in the screen door and running off to the lake.

He keeps the trailer very tidy, with the dishes always washed. His favorite channel of the 3 he can now get is Court TV. The handle on his toilet does not work properly, so he collects water in a plastic jug in the bathtub, and pours the water into the toilet bowl to flush it. This was the toilet he allowed us to use while we were working on his house. (We brought our own toilet paper, often consisting of one ply of the paper towels we were using to wipe up caulk, paint, or sanding dust.)

The added bonus of using Glenn Sr.’s toilet was that we got to talk with him on our way to the bathroom. Once in a while he would come into the house and joke with us, “I don’t hear any noise – have you stopped working? Get back to work!” One day he came into the house and asked us which was stronger, imagination or pretending. He said this was being debated on the TV. I commented to him that he is a philosopher. His own answer to this question was that the strongest force is a combination of the two.

He also told me the cost of everything has gone up post-Katrina, from cable TV, which he can no longer afford, to bus fare, which has doubled. He sometimes manages to get a cigarette from other folks, as he cannot afford to buy these. He described the many festivals in New Orleans besides Mardi Gras and the Jazz Fest, each 2 weeks long. He said he and his children ride bicycles together on Sundays.

The federal government says it is recalling the FEMA trailers soon and will destroy them. They were meant to house people for a few months, but many people like Glenn Sr. have been living in them for almost 4 years. While the trailers have problems such as releasing formaldehyde, they are the only place many people have to stay. Government officials from Louisiana have managed to postpone the date of the recall, but it may well happen that people like Glenn Sr. are evicted before they have another place to live. Money for rebuilding has almost dried up, with both the federal government and big relief organizations deciding to move on to newer disasters. Fortunately, volunteers keep coming almost year round.

We made a lot of progress on the house during the week, cutting and installing baseboards in the back room, priming, prepping, and painting doors and interior trim, helping John install the tub, and tiling the shower. We also petted Sheba, brought her treats, made sure she had water, and taught her to sit on command.


At the end of the last day we worked on the house, the rest of our Mira Vista team came to join us for a closing event. Glenn Jr. had just got home from work. We all made a circle in the living room, in the midst of the piles of tools, paint buckets, sheets of paper, and sawhorses. We prayed for the Matthews family and the people of New Orleans. Michael Miller played Amazing Grace and When the Saints Go Marching In on his saxophone, and we all sang, blessing Glenn Sr., his family, and the house.

The 2 Glenns invited us to come back next year, and have a crawfish boil, celebrating the family’s move back into the house. We thanked them and told them we were the ones who were blessed to be there. They thanked us again for our work as we picked up our daypacks and drove away.


Posted May 11, 2009 by NOLA-er in Uncategorized

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