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The Buchtelite

The Editorially Independent Voice of The University of Akron

The Buchtelite

The Editorially Independent Voice of The University of Akron

The Buchtelite

Our Spring Break … their reality

“NEW ORLEANS: At 5 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 23 2005, the National Hurricane Center announced that a tropical depression had formed over the Bahama Islands. By Thursday, the minor disturbance hovering above the South Atlantic had gained considerable strength. At 11 a.”

NEW ORLEANS: At 5 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 23 2005, the National Hurricane Center announced that a tropical depression had formed over the Bahama Islands. By Thursday, the minor disturbance hovering above the South Atlantic had gained considerable strength. At 11 a.m., it was upgraded to a hurricane. They called it Katrina.

By the time the storm struck land on Monday, Aug. 29, it had been upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane. Sustained winds of 175 mph and gusts of up to 216 mph tore through the entire Gulf. With them came flooding. The few buildings strong enough to withstand the fierce winds were soon filled with seawater. The storm worked quickly until not an inch of the landscape was left unaltered.

Shortly after, the skies cleared. When the gloomy clouds, intense winds and powerful rain subsided, they were replaced by blue skies and sunshine.

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During a two-week trip to Mississippi last summer, citizens from Pass Christian tried to explain that there was a certain tranquility that came immediately after the disaster – an almost lifeless quiet. The same was the case for most of Mississippi and Alabama.

Just more than an hour away, New Orleans residents were experiencing an entirely different situation. Although the storm’s wind surge struck Mississippi the hardest, Louisiana’s largest city was completely submerged in seawater.

In front of our televisions, we watched the panic that resulted. We saw pictures of people stranded on an interstate bridge. We read the stories of murders and rape in the Super Dome. Still, the pandemonium seemed more like a big budget action movie than reality. Watching the disaster develop on a screen made the chaos seem so distant.

Last week, it became real.

During a Spring Break trip with more than 120 members of Campus Focus, I saw the destruction first hand. I drove the I-10 bridge where dozens of residents were trapped for days. I saw the word help spray-painted on the roofs of now empty homes, and I heard stories from the people who lived through the devastation, looting and violence.

For one week, we tried to understand the reality of Katrina’s aftermath. As I reflect, I’ve concluded that my third trip to the Gulf Coast may have been the most revealing.

Sunday, March 18

We arrived at the Operation Nehemiah headquarters around 6 p.m. For many of us, this was not the first trip to Katrina Land. So the downed power lines, debris filled yards and boarded-up shopping centers weren’t a shock.

After filling up on leftover chicken and cold-cut sandwiches, Nehemiah staff showed us to our rooms. For the next five days we would sleep less than two feet away from each other on triple-stacked bunk beds and cots.

Fred Franke, the director and founder of Operation Nehemiah, explained that we were the largest group he had ever taken in. As a result, there seemed to be a lot of disorganization and confusion. Hopefully, it will all be straightened out by the time we begin working tomorrow.

Monday, March 19

The 12-person crew I was placed in worked to gut a house just outside the French Quarter today. After only a few minutes, it became clear that the magnitude of damage in New Orleans was far greater than the destruction I saw in Mississippi. After speaking with a city worker, I learned the two-story building we worked on was almost completely submerged in water after the storm hit. Because of New Orleans’ notoriously tight living conditions, the same was true for tens of thousands of homes in the area.

Another difference was in the people. In Mississippi, homeowners were present and eager to greet us. In New Orleans, there were few homeowners to welcome volunteers. Most were still dispersed across the country in places like Texas and Oklahoma. Many haven’t returned.

With very little guidance, we worked to remove moldy walls, ceilings and flooring from the house. There’s nothing like swinging a sledgehammer through walls that used to house and protect a family.

Tuesday, March 20

Today we returned to the same house to finish the job we started.

It didn’t happen.

After finishing up downstairs, we concentrated on tearing apart the upper level of the building. As we carried buckets of smashed drywall downstairs, a green pick-up truck rolled up to the house. An older man stepped out and began asking who we were and what we were doing.

After we explained, he responded with silence. Then he picked up his cell phone and dialed a number. For a few minutes he explained the situation to a person on the phone. From a few feet away I could hear the woman he was speaking to raise her voice. My heart began to sink.

Then, as if I were some sort of authority, the man told the woman, Well, here he is, and then handed me the phone. Before I could finish saying hello, the woman barked at me, Who gave you the authority to enter my home?!

I explained that we were volunteers from Akron working with Operation Nehemiah. I told her that we were instructed to gut both the upstairs and downstairs. I tried to help her understand that we were nearly done. Then she told me to get out. She said she only wanted the downstairs gutted, and she wanted us out of her house.

I talked to a staff worker about it later. He explained that the woman was probably scared she wouldn’t be able to afford rebuilding the upstairs. Even though the walls were water damaged and moldy, she was still hoping to save them. Everyone says we were obviously not at fault for the miscommunication.

Regardless, I have never felt more discouraged than today when a woman who had lost her home – a woman who I didn’t know but wanted to help – told me to get out of her house. In Mississippi, our work brought residents to tears. The same was the case today.

But these tears were much different.

Wednesday, March 21

Today I was asked to sign an affidavit. The owner of the house where we had been working was preparing to sue Operation Nehemiah. I tried to put it out of my head as I drove to a new worksite this morning. Driving was how I would spend most of the day.

The first house we arrived at belonged to an elderly woman who had spent the last several months in a Texas hospital. She had yet to see her house since the storm. When we arrived, we discovered that nobody else had either. We stepped inside and found the house had not been touched. Black mold covered the walls. Furniture was turned upside down and strewn throughout the living room. Everything in, on and around the house had faded to a dingy brown color.

Everything except the pink slip stapled to the front of the home. It was a notice that the city had inspected the building and was planning to demolish it in 13 days.

Somewhere in a Texas hospital bed, an old woman was expecting work to begin on her house. She was hopeful that after we gutted it, workers would soon restore the home to its original condition. Soon, maybe her life would be restored to that condition as well. The pink slip was an indication that none of that was going to happen. Later that day, the woman was in tears as our discovery was reported to her during a phone conversation.

While driving through her neighborhood, we looked around and saw that most of the houses had the same pink slip. There was no work to be done here. For the rest of the day our crew was directed to five different sites where people had requested volunteer labor. At each, there was no work to be done for various reasons.

The hopelessness here is far greater than I could have ev
er imagined.

Thursday, March 22

Yesterday, a few students with our group spent the day delivering food and care packages to locals. I was amazed by some of the stories they came back with.

Martha has been living in a FEMA trailer since the storm devastated her home. She truly loved her neighborhood. She loved it so much that when her elderly neighbor refused to leave, she stayed too. As floodwater engulfed her house, Martha escaped to her roof where she was stranded without food and water for four days. Eventually, a military helicopter rescued her and her dog. Despite the trauma and severe illness that followed, Martha was incredibly positive. She loves her life and is thrilled that we have come to help however we can.

Today my team arrived at another house that needed to be gutted. This time, there was no pink slip and the homeowner was ready to greet us. After a few hours of work, we cleared most of the house. It was nice to help someone without enraging them to tears.

That’s when it hit me. Martha had it right. In the grand scheme of things, the work we put in this week across New Orleans means very little. The magnitude of Katrina is so far beyond any of us, it would be foolish to think any single person or group can truly have an impact. But it’s in the lives of the people we serve. Just showing up with the will to help someone is where the difference is made.

As the tattered city fades in the rearview mirror, I realize that’s what New Orleans taught me. It’s a lesson we need to take home with us. We’re heading back to a city and state where thousands of people could benefit from the same lesson.

While Akron might not be in shambles, many of our neighbors are homeless or struggling through addiction and poverty. People are broken and in need. None of us have the resources to fix any of it, but simply showing we care by trying has the power to save a life.

After the storm, it would have been easy for Martha to give up and sink into depression. But she said she resisted. She resisted because she saw people like us show up to help – even when there was little that could be done. And since the storm, they have just kept coming.

In Martha’s mind, if there are people in the world willing to help her in the face of Katrina’s intense destruction, then that’s a world worth living in.

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