Another Kind of Student Aid

    It was spring break, and instead of covering themselves with the strings of Mardi Gras beads a trip to New Orleans screams for, a crew of 60 UCSD students from Campus Crusade for Christ prepared to don bulky goggles, face masks and knee-high boots to help with Hurricane Katrina relief. Divided into groups of 10 students, each set out to their assigned destinations, whether it be food service to displaced residents or camp volunteers; the gutting of houses, schools and churches; or sweating in the grueling southern humidity.

    Photo Courtesy of Nicky Buchanan
    Though covered with mold, an old wedding album survives the torrents of the hurricane.

    One team headed out to a nine-room duplex home with dead rats, cockroaches and a black, mold-infested foundation. The house, with its fragile frameworks and sorrowful past, echoed its story of survival in each piece of drywall that was torn loose by the crew.

    The owner is a very similar character. The small, retired 75-year-old man paid a surprise visit to the hardworking volunteers who were attempting to breathe life back into the place he once called home. With a somber tone and hollow eyes, he shared his story with them. The same pipe that the able-bodied youths struggled to remove just hours before his arrival was broken by the old man’s bare hands the day of the flood, after he frantically crawled through the attic and broke through the glass window. He was rescued by a passing boat that floated on the 10 feet of water that submerged his street and home.

    Invigorated by this remarkable, real-life account, and now having more than just a nameless, faceless person to labor for, the workers, like the majority of volunteers, pressed on to gut the house of all its debris, walls, ceilings and nails in the 9-to-5 workday they were assigned.

    This was only one man’s story, and a single glimpse into the emotionally draining and physically demanding journeys that 1,800 college students from all over the country experienced during the week of March 25 to March 30.

    Volunteers were crammed into damp warehouses known as “Light City” near the St. Bernard Parish, the region most heavily affected by the storm.

    Here, workers found themselves thankful for the port-a-potties, “mystery meats” served at meals, cold showers and firm cots when compared to the endless stretch of piled debris: children’s toys; wedding albums cast into the gutters flowing with trash; overturned cars; snapped electrical wires; and uprooted trees.

    “The thing that weighed me down the most was the desolation,” said Earl Warren College senior Megan Jacks. “I was prepared to see ruined homes and harsh living conditions, but the fact that you could drive for many miles at night and not see a single light shining creeped me out. It was really forlorn out there.”

    Though these descriptions paint a more vivid picture of what is considered to be the most catastrophic natural disaster in the nation’s history, it doesn’t come close to doing justice to what can be seen with one’s own eyes. Thurgood Marshall College senior Jessica Green described her shock at the horrific images of pain and destruction she witnessed.

    “When the hurricane first hit, it was all over the news, and now that it has died out on networks, it leads a lot of people to believe that things are near being taken care of, but nothing has really been done,” Green said. “It was much worse than I thought it would be.”

    It is difficult for those who are not in the direct New Orleans area to fully grasp the gravity of the problem that is no longer being reported by the media. The thousands of displaced residents, however, are eager to talk of their situations. One of these residents is a schoolteacher named Honeybee, whose home was destroyed by an oil spill.

    “I resorted to sleeping on the couches of my colleagues until one day the reality sunk in that this was not a temporary thing, that I needed to start over,” she said. “This was one of the saddest days of my life. I got lucky and found an apartment in the French Quarter, but I will never go back to my house. It takes a piece of your heart every time.”

    People like Honeybee are also more than willing to offer their deep appreciation for all of the effort of organizations like Campus Crusade, Habitat for Humanity, Global Aid Network, American Red Cross, the Salvation Army and dozens others.

    “I thought my service would go unseen as volunteering normally does,” Marshall junior Morgan Vanderpool said. “But we were servant celebrities in the best way possible: deeply appreciated by the community. I had no idea of the mass exodus that exists down there.”

    Vanderpool also relayed the words of a ticket lady at a taxi stop: “Y’all, all you youths, are doing so much more for the people of Louisiana than the government has ever done.”

    Whether the efforts of these compassionate youths go by unnoticed is of minor importance next to the biggest issue of all: Is the government noticing this disastrous region enough?

    The hurricane hit approximately 90,000 square miles, and is directly affecting 1.5 million people. Ports for importing and exporting goods, airports, railroads, bridges, roads, schools, hospitals and many more fundamental institutions were closed or ruined in the storm, ultimately wiping out the region’s commercial infrastructure.

    While the Department of Homeland Security dedicates 10 pages on its official Web site to detailing the $88 billion of federal aid and thousands of federal personnel dedicated to relief, recovery and rebuilding, it seems very distant and unreal to people like the student volunteers who witnessed the residents’ current state of overwhelming misery and heard their testimonies.

    “The politicians are spending too much time deciding what in the world they ‘should’ do, when I know they are quite aware of what can be done to bring their people home,” Vanderpool said.

    Marshall senior Morgan Greer said he worries about the government’s response.

    “They could be doing so much more,” Greer said. “Most of the relief effort that I could see at least was coming from a lot of volunteers with the majority being local Christians giving their time and money to help in small ways. There definitely isn’t enough help coming from the government, which is a big problem since that should be a major concern for government spending.”

    It will take many more years, many more workers and volunteers, billions more dollars and countless more tears shed before Louisiana and its bordering states can become what they once were.

    “My group made two houses ready for rebuilding out of the thousands destroyed,” Green said. “And yet I feel like I have hardly made a dent in all that needs to be done.”

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