Malorie Potts and Ryan Martin were two of 23 students from Lenoir-Rhyne, an ELCA College in Hickory, N.C., who gave up their spring break to join Lutheran Disaster Relief’s “What a Relief” effort, cleaning up the New Orleans area after the Gulf Coast hurricanes. Here’s what they shared with The Lutheran:
When I signed up, I was just going for lack of anything better to do. My attitude completely changed when I reached New Orleans. I’ve never done that much physical labor. We woke at 6 a.m. every day and boarded buses to our work sites—neighborhoods that had been flooded over the rooftops. The houses were a complete mess. We shoveled, pushed wheelbarrows and pulled down drywall. I slept well every night because I was so tired.
Locals told us that out of 68,000 people, only 10,000 have returned to live in St. Bernard’s Parish. Out of 23,000 homes, 10,000 had to be demolished. Several people live in small Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers in front of their homes while waiting for building permits. A firefighter said he didn’t feel like he was a part of the U.S. anymore. That broke my heart.
We gutted two houses. Although this isn’t much, it felt good to know that we helped the people of New Orleans get one step closer to rebuilding their lives. A week wasn’t enough time. My effort to help the people of New Orleans didn’t stop after we boarded the bus to go home. The people in New Orleans feel they’ve been forgotten and, in a way, they have. I was guilty of ignorance before I went—you truly can’t understand the desperation until you see it firsthand.
I admire the people who are rebuilding. Most have positive attitudes even though some have lost everything they owned. I’d love to go back to New Orleans next year and actually build homes instead of gutting them.
I may not have spent spring break on the beach, but I have no regrets about working so hard. I would do it again.
I wondered what good we could do six months after Katrina had hit the Gulf Coast. I figured on sweeping and cleaning basic public areas. The media had quit covering anything concerning New Orleans, so I assumed it was somewhat back to normal.
As we entered Chalmette, La., the site of our base camp, we saw total devastation. Every business and home we drove past was in shambles. Most intersections had stop signs. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve thought the hurricane had hit the previous week.
Our camp housed about 2,000 volunteers from all over the country. We registered, received photo IDs and set up our stuff in 20-person military tents that had heat and air conditioning. We were dropped off at the first home with wheelbarrows, shovels, an ax, crowbar, razor knife, sledgehammer and several hand-tools. We were to empty half of the house. A thick black sludge of mud covered everything—you didn’t know what was under your feet. All the windows were intact so everything was still very wet. I knocked out a window to get air into the place.
Our group of five men and five women removed sinks, carpet, appliances, furniture, cabinets and drywall, cleaning down to the studs. The ceiling and insulation had fallen on top of everything. Tubs were full of muddy water and had a stench. The worst was the refrigerators. We were told to tape up the doors and not open them. I opened one freezer to find maggots all over the inside and an undescribable smell. When I got the refrigerator on the furniture dolly, fluid leaked onto the floor. By the time I got it to the street, everyone had dashed outside to escape the smell. It was 45 minutes before we went back in.
We worked hard for five days. Every day we were covered from head to toe in stagnant mud and drywall dust.
Armand Buck, a tough-looking firefighter, said we were the first volunteers he’d seen since the National Guard left in November. He wanted to know what the rest of the country was hearing about their situation. We told him we hadn’t heard anything. He wasn’t shocked—he thinks our country had failed and forgotten them. I believe he was already so broken that this didn’t affect him as it would have any of us.
We volunteers grew close and walked away changed. We met a city of people forgotten by their local and federal governments. Without homes, all they have are family and neighbors. There’s no place for children to play. You can’t run to McDonald’s for a quick burger. The closest Wal-Mart is open from 8 to 5 and there isn’t much on the shelves. We took a lot of photos, but they can’t do this situation justice. To drive hundreds of miles and never run out of destruction is something you have to see with your own eyes. I found it hard to leave. I felt like I was shortchanging them by going back to my air-conditioned apartment with running water and a solid roof.
I’ve pledged to tell everyone that people in the New Orleans area desperately need help. I encourage everyone to call their representatives and push for action. We need to take care of each other.
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