Rebuilding New Orleans
France Griggs Sloat
As they come off the bridge into what’s left of the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood in New Orleans, the sight before them leaves them speechless. Someone turns off the radio, and for several minutes the 23 students and one advisor just look out the windows at the destruction left by Hurricane Katrina nine months after the storm hit the Gulf Coast. As members of the Alternative Break club, their job over the next two weeks is to help clean up the mess the looming out their window.
In some ways, it’s more than they’d bargained for.
“The houses were just like they were left in August,” says Maggie Meyer, who helped organize the trip. “There were houses on cars and cars in trees and piles of rubble. There was spray paint on houses marking the dates when rescue arrived and what was found. There were axe marks in the roof where people got out.
“Most overwhelming to me was walking to the port-o-potty and it was so quiet and these houses just left exactly as they were and kids’ toys stuck in the trees and doors fluttering open and shut.”
The eerie feeling doesn’t last for long, though. They get busy in a heavily flooded section of the neighborhood now covered with dried mud. They strip everything from the damaged houses, reducing them to their frames in hopes they can be rebuilt. Out comes insulation, drywall, floorboards and roof tiles. Street curbs fill up with dead refrigerators— taped shut to prevent the decaying putrefied food inside from spilling out—rusted appliances and ruined furniture. Everything left behind is then sprayed with bleach to kill the black mold that grows on every surface it can find.
The students gut eight houses in their two weeks and stay in a giant air-conditioned FEMA tent set up in a camp on the Mississippi River just outside the city. They sleep on metal cots and use bathrooms and showers set up outside. They even have use of a television lounge, dining hall with hot food and wooden floors.
The trip began on May 15 when the students left in two rented vans provided by Xavier. They signed up for the trip with the Alternative Break club, which sponsors trips for students who want to do community service during their vacations. Trips are also held during winter and spring breaks and early in the summer.
The students in New Orleans keep journals and take video of their surroundings. One of the more memorable events is meeting a man named Johnson whose house they are gutting. Maggie never got his first name, but the man, now living in a trailer in Baton Rouge, is so grateful for the help with his little two-bedroom house that he breaks down in tears as he gives them a case of bottled water.
“That was what he could give,” she says. “It was his way of showing his appreciation. It was so cool.”
He tells Meyer he plans on rebuilding his house and moving back in.
For Meyer and the others, the whole experience is an eye-opener. She says they were surprised that many of the residents they met weren’t angry with the government. They just want their homes back.
“We learned a lot about how the hurricane fits so many larger issues—why are they so poor they can’t recover and rebuild their lives, and why it’s so hard to get the government to rebuild the city? It puts so many things into perspective. Before the hurricane, these people were happy. Mr. Johnson was having cookouts and the kids still knocked on his door.”
With the help of the students, maybe he can again one day.