ABWK Partner Family Profile: Diane Norman

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In the walls of her home, the volunteers found a clipping from a newspaper from 1912. Back then, apparently, newspapers were sometimes used for home insulation. Back then, too, did the city of New Orleans have major street repair projects underway. More remarkable than anything, though, is that this scrap of paper survived four weeks underwater in 2005 to be brought to light ten years later.

Diane Norman’s home has been in her family for 40 years. Located on a short, almost secluded, section of St. Roch, she says it’s the quietest street in the city, a place where she and her family have set their roots. Before her family bought the home in 1975, they had moved frequently around the city and southern Louisiana, and the permanent feeling of security and stability that their home brought cemented her attachment to it. Thirty years later, when the levee failures brought ten feet of water into it, she never once considered selling it or moving on.

“It was like heaven to not have to move anymore,” she said.

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Ten years after the catastrophic damage of the storm, she has finally finished the repairs on the house. Though she and her mother had hired contractors in 2006 and 2007 to complete all the necessary repairs, significant damage remained after they failed to live up to their promises. The home was repaired enough to live in by 2007, but it was not until she applied with NOAHH for the A Brush With Kindness program that everything was fixed.

Her odyssey after the storm showed her the hidden depths of human kindness. Her whole family–14 people, including her siblings, children, and mother–had found their way to a hotel far from home, but a long-scheduled event was going to force them out quickly. As chance would have it, an older lady Norman identifies as “Ms. Helen” happened to be there, and she opened up her home to them. As it turned out, her home was an expansive place just off the Interstate in West Monroe, and for the price of a few meals and keeping up the utilities, Ms. Helen let them stay indefinitely.

“We didn’t have more than the shirt on our backs,” she said. “We met Ms. Helen, and she took us under her wing. She took us places and did things. You don’t know who you’re going to have to help in the world. You don’t know what disaster is coming. I was sheltered once in life. I feel like [my home] is a shelter for me.”

Norman, however, returned to the city less than a month after the storm, going back to work as head housekeeper at the Doubletree Hotel, where she had worked for 23 years. Staying at the hotel, she led as many of her employees as could make it back in repairing and cleaning the place in readiness for the city’s earliest visitors, relief workers and others instrumental in the early recovery process. Seeing the area around the hotel appearing fairly unscathed, she had hope that her own home would be well, but a trip into the then-dark and empty St. Roch neighborhood proved to be a shock.

“Nothing. All the posts are down. The streetlights are down. I’m standing in the middle of the street and I ask what I did that for,” she said, referring to her trip to the neighborhood. “It was like being in the desert by yourself.”

Ten years brought many changes, as some neighbors returned and others did not. The street is not yet back to where it was before the storms, but Diane indicates that it seems to be returning. She said, “Everything is coming back, and I feel like I’m coming back with it. My house is going to be beautiful.”

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The volunteers who came to fix her home came from all over the United States, and many of them had volunteered before, coming year after year. As part of her sweat equity, Diane decided she would make sure the volunteers were fed. Each day, she and her sister prepared food for the volunteers and invited them into her home. Almost immediately, they formed a bond.

“They all got in the spots they wanted to sit at, and every day, an older gentleman sat at the table and said, ‘this is my spot,'” she said. “Someone tried to sit there the next day, and I said, ‘you can’t sit there. That’s his spot.’ And they enjoyed the food. When you’re cooking for somebody and they eat two or three times, you know how you feel inside when you’re the cook? It must be good!”

In less than two weeks, the exterior of her home, which still had rotting wood, was repaired and painted. The ramp her mother had used before she passed away was removed, and the plumbing had been fixed by a professional. As the volunteers finished the work, Diane was reluctant to let them leave.

“It’s an honor,” she said. “I told my daughter. I’ve been back since right after Katrina. I came and helped out the city, getting it ready. Now, I feel like I’ve been blessed. I would tell anybody, if you get what I got out of this, you got something. This is something I won’t ever forget and something I will talk about probably the rest of my life.”