Aug. 29, 2005, is a day that will live in infamy.
Hurricane Katrina pummeled the coasts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama that Monday morning, and left nearly 2,000 Gulf Coast residents dead and hundreds more missing. Even after the federal government pumped billions of dollars into the region, many houses damaged by 155 mph winds and gutted by floods are still unlivable three years after the storm.
Last week, 19 Brenau University and Brenau Academy students trekked to New Orleans during their spring break to help rebuild the homes and communities that remain broken.
Bill Lightfoot, dean of the School of Business and Mass Communications at Brenau, said two Brenau graduate students helped lead seven Women’s College students and 10 Brenau Academy students in rebuilding three houses in the devastated St. Bernard Parish near New Orleans. Lightfoot said 17 of the 19 Brenau builders were international students from Asia.
Students worked in conjunction with the St. Bernard Parish Project, whose founder, Liz McCartney, recently won the CNN Hero of the Year Award for 2008.
Before Hurricane Katrina, St. Bernard Parish was home to 67,000 people, but was left virtually uninhabitable once the levees in the neighborhood gave way to rising flood waters following the storm. The St. Bernard Project has rebuilt 175 homes in the neighborhood so far.
Students slept in two cabins behind Good Shepherd Church in Metairie, La., which was about an hour from the home sites. During the day, students scrubbed mold from flooded houses, painted and initiated construction projects in the parish. Down the street from their work sites, students could see the levee walls that gave way to the floods. They could also watch the progress being made on the eco-friendly homes in the parish being built by movie star Brad Pitt.
Jenny Kong, a Brenau Academy 10th-grader from China, said she wanted to take the road trip to New Orleans for spring break to see another state in the U.S. other than Georgia. She said she hadn’t imagined there were places in America that looked like St. Bernard Parish.
“There was much trash. It was kind of dirty,” she said. “Maybe we will go to do more next year, because there are many houses that need to be rebuilt.”
Gyuree Wong, a Brenau Academy ninth-grader from Korea, said she was disheartened to see so many people living in poor conditions.
“I thought America was (one of) the most leading countries, and would be better to help rebuild,” Gyuree said. “But there wasn’t much help to rebuild. It was very sad.”
Lightfoot said when he visited New Orleans in 2007 for an academic conference, he, too, was “totally blown away” by how much work still needed to be done in New Orleans neighborhoods.
“I’ve been in war zones in Bosnia and I’ve been in war zones in Sri Lanka ... and it looked a lot like that. ... The difference is, maybe in a war zone, you see bullet holes,” he said.
Homes in St. Bernard Parish still bear neon numbers spray-painted on front doors, which indicate the number of humans and animals found dead in the house. Some homes near the levee walls have only a few cement foundation blocks in the grass to suggest there ever was a home there. And many homeowners can still be seen toiling in their front yards as they continue to pull debris from their living rooms. “Please don’t demo” signs staked in front of abandoned houses are not uncommon, some students said.
Lightfoot said in addition to learning about community service, he wanted the international students on the trip to get a taste of New Orleans’ flavorful culture. He said overseas visitors typically hit up Miami, New York and Los Angeles, but New Orleans, which is “uniquely American,” is often left off itineraries.
“I think it helps to understand why it’s so important to rebuild an area when you get a sense of the culture and a sense of the history,” he said. “... As much as it is important to build a house, it’s important to help them rebuild their lives and help them rebuild their sense of community. And our international students — students from Asia, actually — got that. They embraced it, and they were really enthusiastic.”
After working, students went on a tour of the city’s music hall of fame, where they learned of famed jazz legends such as Louis Armstrong. They also went on a ghost walk, and heard about New Orleans’ dark history of slavery as they meandered through the city on foot. And they also frequented some cajun restaurants in the French Quarter, where they feasted on spicy jambalaya, crawfish and New Orleans-style fried chicken.
Kong said she was glad to spend her spring break fixing up homes, tasting the jambalaya grateful St. Bernard Parish homeowners made for students and listening to the lively sounds of street performers. She said she felt obligated to lend a hand to the many hurricane victims in need, even if she’s not a U.S. citizen.
“If there was a flood here, I would hope people would help us. It’s our responsibility.” she said.
Kristina Rhoades, a Brenau University graduate assistant working on a master’s degree in organizational leadership, accompanied students on the trip. As students repaired homes and heard homeowners’ stories of lost lives and lost pets, Rhoades was there with a video camera in hand.
She’s using the footage from the trip to make a documentary, and hopes to complete the film in six weeks. Rhoades said she must make the documentary because it’s difficult to understand the depth of the disaster if “all your impressions come from the news.”
“You knew some neighborhoods were damaged and people needed help, but you can’t fathom how much was lost until you see it. And this didn’t happen last week,” Rhoades said. “Another thing that amazed me is the generosity of these people, their strength.”
Rhoades said the home to which her group was assigned belongs to Lisa Vaccarella, a mom with two college-aged kids that works as a guard in the St. Bernard Parish prison. Rhoades said Vaccarella has been living in a trailer provided by the Federal Emergency Management Association for three years. She said Vaccarella is diligently working on her home so she can move into it by June 1, which is when the federal agency has informed trailer residents it will be collecting FEMA trailers.
Lightfoot said students who went on the trip are already asking if they’re going back next year. He said it was hard work fixing up homes under the delta sun, but a trip to Mobile, Ala. — another Gulf Coast city hit hard by Katrina — may be in the stars.
“I was just really blown away at how positive our students were over this,” he said. “Because we’re all sore, we’re all tired, we have our cuts and our bruises ... but they did it. They did it fantastically.”