Klein's music room is a small space just off the carport. "I came in here and started pulling out instruments and stuff," he says. "And Sheik [Armand "Sheik" Richardson] got a crowbar and started tearing sheetrock out, and I said, 'You're a one-man wrecking crew,' and he said, 'Yeah, we're the Arabi wrecking krewe.'" As Klein and Richardson, who has been photographing the New Orleans music scene for more than 30 years, heard from more and more musicians in the same boat as Klein, the "wrecking krewe" joke turned into something more. Since October, the group -- a core of five or six musicians and other volunteers that can swell to 20 on a busy Saturday or Sunday -- has worked on more than 80 musicians' homes in the New Orleans area. On a Saturday night, Klein may be playing in a club on Frenchmen Street after a full day of ripping out sodden sheetrock, clearing mold and throwing out rotten refrigerators.
"I had insurance," says Klein. "It was enough to pay the mortgage off, but after that you're on your own. That's what we're trying to focus on, helping people who didn't have insurance. And we focus on musicians' homes. You know, there's too many homes -- you can't do them all. I hate to say only musicians' homes, but that's my community. And there's a shortage of musicians now. So you have to be a pioneer and get the ball rolling."
The group's Web site, www.arabiwreckingkrewe.com, is a meticulous log of their work permeated by a healthy sense of humor. The photo gallery of krewe members includes pictures of local musicians Dr. Michael White, Matt Perrine and Greg Stafford sporting respirators. A page called "awards" notes laureates in categories like "mechanized refrigerator tossing," and "plaster and slat throwing." There's a link to each project house with photographs and a work log marking progress as well as a calendar of scheduled work days, which are open to new volunteers.
"It's mostly been just word of mouth, and it's labor that we really need," Klein says.
The Krewe got a big push during Mardi Gras, when the ABC reality show Extreme Home Makeover came to New Orleans looking to support the rebuilding effort.
"That was the thing that took us to the next level," says Klein. "I lost a lot of instruments, but I still had the trombone I was playing, so I said 'I don't need instruments, but check out the Web site.'"
The show filmed the group gutting producer Larry Batiste's home on the Sunday before Mardi Gras, and later hosted an instrument giveaway at the Howlin' Wolf. The biggest shock of that visit, though, was the $50,000 check the show presented to the Arabi Wrecking Krewe.
"When we first started, we didn't even have a checking account that said Arabi Wrecking Krewe on it. They want to make a check out to us, and we have nothing that says that. And it sort of snowballed from there."
Over the Jazz Fest week, Klein says, they were scheduling work days as fast as they could to accommodate festgoers who wanted to volunteer.
"It's starting to be almost more than we can handle, especially with this Aug. 29 date coming up," says Klein, referring to the city's deadline to have damaged houses gutted. "We need a whole other year. It's impossible." Klein's wife and four children, between the ages of 6 and 17, are still living in Baton Rouge, where the family relocated after the storm, although their plan to come back has remained steady. "I married a girl from Arabi, and people from around here don't leave. They want to stay. My wife's family has been here for 120 years," he says. "It's almost too much -- I had a gig this morning, and I have another one tonight. But in the end, who's going to help you? Your friends."
- The original wrecking krewe of Craig Klein, Armand "Sheik" Richardson, Dennis Kyne and Bill Phillips gut Klein's home on Oct. 13, 2005.