“Raise your hand if you were here four days ago,” a team captain of the New Orleans Common Ground Collective would ask volunteers every morning.
Very few people raised their hands.
Jeremy Moss, a journalism junior, traveled with a group of students from MSU Hillel, a Jewish student organization on campus, to New Orleans for spring break to help Hurricane Katrina victims. [houses]
“The turnover rate is so much that if the flow of volunteers stops, so will the recovery effort,” Moss said. “People need to go down there. Just because the media is not covering it, does not mean the recovery effort is going strongly. It looks exactly as I think it would have looked right after the storm hit. There are some areas that haven’t been touched at all.”
During MSU’s spring break, March 6-10, many students traveled throughout the country and the world to participate in community service opportunities. Since Hurricane Katrina touched down close to home six months ago, many student organizations at MSU planned extra trips to New Orleans.
Campus Crusade for Christ International, a Christian organization, partnered with Habitat for Humanity and organized a spring break option for college students across the country. A group of 115 MSU students planned on going to Pass Christian, Miss., before deciding to go to New Orleans.
Campus Crusade for Christ staff member A.M. said, “We actually found out that the place we were planning on going wasn’t able to hold us. We had to choose an area that we knew would be able to hold all of us and that would have enough work for all of us to do each day.”
Many of the areas affected by the hurricanes this season, like Pass Christian, are already starting to rebuild, while New Orleans is just beginning to clean up. “They are still in the very, very beginning stages, and we just hit the tip of the iceberg,” M. said. “Campus Crusade for Christ is trying to clear 2,000 homes by June. And the week that we left, maybe 145 [had] been cleaned out.”
When large-scale natural disasters occur, many look to others for help. Religion becomes a tool in helping people rebuild their lives, which is why religious organizations such as MSU Hillel and Campus Crusade for Christ took time to help New Orleans residents. Bringing prayer and love to these communities were just two ways volunteers chose to help.
“In the nature of being a faith-based organization, another thing we saw interacting with the residents, was those that had faith in God and that were religious,” M. said. “We found that’s really what they clung to. We were able to pray with a lot of the residents and talk to them about our faith in God. That not only was encouragement to them but to our students; [they] got to see what was really important in life, and seeing that material possessions could all be washed away in an instant. It took 10 minutes for this neighborhood to completely flood and they lost everything in 10 minutes.”
Julie Cremer, a zoology freshman, traveled with Campus Crusade for Christ to help clean up and rebuild communities. The group stayed at Camp Premiere, a few miles east of New Orleans. They worked with the local St. Bernard Parish. “I just wanted to have the experience in going down there and helping those people because they lost everything,” Cremer said. “I wanted to just be of service to those people for a week.”
MSU Hillel joined with the Common Ground Collective during their stay in New Orleans. Common Ground is an organization in the New Orleans area that provides short-term relief and long-term support in rebuilding communities affected by hurricane disasters. The organization was started about a week after Hurricane Katrina hit. Common Ground offers assistance, mutual aid and support within these communities.
“I don’t know what they have been doing for six months,” said Moss. “It’s people who volunteer their time that are doing most of the work. It seemed that everyone down there was a college student on spring break volunteering.”
The Common Ground Collective was expecting about 300 volunteers during the week.
The Campus Crusade for Christ group arranged teams of 10 students to go into homes and clean out everything visible, such as furniture, personal possessions, appliances and trash. “We would call the homeowner to tell them we were going to come and they were just so excited that we were coming,” M. said. “They had been on a waiting list waiting to have their homes cleaned out.”
It was not a small task; each house took approximately two days to clean out. After clearing out the houses, students gutted the inside by ripping out dry wall, sheet rock and carpeting. “[The homeowners] were really thankful,” M. said. “It was very emotional because some of them haven’t been back to their homes. Here we came in and were pulling out all of their memories. Some of these people were grandparents so they had three and four generations worth of things we were bringing out and a lot of them were in tears.”
Moss and his group worked on cleaning and gutting a middle school, Our Lady Star of the Sea, for the first part of the week. The middle school was full of black mold and asbestos, so Moss and his group knocked down walls and tried to decontaminate the building.
“We did whatever the supervisor of the place told us to do,” Moss said. “He was the handyman before the storm and the pastor of the church [which the middle school is affiliated with] called him up and told him to get back to work.” [walls]
The church “handyman,” Emmanuel, took the group on a tour of the lower ninth ward, which was where the levees broke. “You cannot imagine it being a neighborhood at one point,” Moss said. “[It was] endless, endless destruction. I said to [Emmanuel], this is surreal and he said, ‘No, no, this is very real.’”
The lower ninth ward is the easternmost downriver part of the city and was one of the last of the city’s neighborhoods to be developed. The lower ninth ward is made up of two neighborhoods, Holy Cross and the Lower Ninth. New Orleans is divided into 17 wards. In political situations the wards are divided into voting areas for elections.
[car] In the lower ninth ward, three houses blocked a through street six months after the storm. The houses were carried down the street during the flooding and were still in the middle of the road. “There are some places that cannot be saved,” Moss said. “There are just piles of rubble and they are still sitting there six months after Katrina hit.”
Six months after, homeowners are still reluctant to come back. The devastation of their homes and all those memories can be hard to come back to. “From what we heard, there are people who don’t want to come back and move on with their lives, people who want to come back get the stuff that they can and then move on with their lives, and then there are people who come back and stay in their houses,” said Moss.
People like Emmanuel – he’s been living in his house since Christmas.
On the last day of Moss’ trip, his group started to clean out a New Orleans woman’s home. She had been living in Houston and decided to return home. “We cleared out all the mess,” Moss said. “The whole house was the color of brown from the water and mold. It was sitting in water for pretty much a month after the storm.”
While removing debris from this home, Moss and his peers found the home owner’s dead dog still inside. Moss’ group managed to save one of her record collections, a 1960s table from Hong Kong and some photos. “She was standing on her front lawn looking at all the possessions that we could save, which were very few,” Moss said. “She was looking at her life on the front lawn of her destroyed house.”
Even though the clean-up effort in New Orleans is moving slowly, residents are very thankful for the time volunteers are donating to help clean up and restore the city. “Every time we went into the middle school and we finished work for the day, Emmanuel kept saying ‘thank you, thank you,’” Moss [group]said. “We were in our full bodysuits, our blue shirts, respirators, goggles, gloves – we looked like official workers. When we were outside taking out the trash, neighbors would wave at us and you could see them mouth ‘thank you’ to us. I really felt like we were making a difference.”
While gutting out one home, Cremer and her group discovered something amazing. “[One home owner] lost almost everything in her house,” she said. “She had this china cabinet full of her precious crystal and chinaware, and although her refrigerator got knocked over and was leaning on the floor, that china cabinet stayed up during the entire flood and she saved most of her valuables.”
It’s miracles like this that give New Orleans residents hope and students the courage to continue cleaning up. It gives the residents faith to continue on their long journey home. For many, small miracles like this are what keep their faith in a higher power strong.
Even though the groups endured some horrendous working conditions, like dealing with black mold, rats, cockroaches, snakes, mice, spiders and wearing heavy protective gear, they still managed to smile throughout the trip.
The experience of traveling to New Orleans to help those whose lives were flooded and stripped away from them within minutes gave students a reality check.
“I am a lot more thankful for what I have and just satisfied, but [we all need] to remember that your material possessions can get destroyed,” Cremer said. “It’s what’s inside of you, like the friendships you make, sharing with other people and the love you give to others is a lot more important than material possessions, and that is what stays with you.”
When looking at a disaster of such high magnitude, one might seek out a higher power and ask “Why?” in the hopes that it is all a part of God’s bigger plan. Just like after 9/11, faith and racial barriers were brought down and everyone became united as a nation. Volunteers from around the world are helping to restore the faith, hope and love of the New Orleans neighborhoods.
Campus Crusade for Christ has made a commitment to continue to help with relief efforts for as long as it is necessary. “We are sending groups down there this summer and we are also having staff that is going to be down there full-time,” M. said. “Seeing the devastation firsthand showed myself and a lot of students just how there is still so much need for volunteers and resources and that these people, their lives aren’t going to be back to normal for probably several years.”
Moss is also planning on traveling down there this summer. There is still a lot more that needs to be done before residents can even start to think about rebuilding their communities. [float]
The government isn’t sure if they are going to allow people to rebuild. If they do, new homes may need to be elevated to protect against flooding. Even though rebuilding is up in the air, there is still a vast need for volunteers for many months, maybe years, to come.
“This is America and America is here to help out your neighbor when they need it,” Moss said. “And the people of New Orleans still need it, and now, because it’s not the focus of the media attention, they especially need it, because now they aren’t being heard at all.”
Editors’ Note: “A. M.”‘s name was abbreviated for security reasons.