This is year three for me, and every year this trip sort of sneaks up on me. Then the week itself is a rush, and before I know it, I’m back in Albany. In three days I will be flying with 14 Saint Rose students and one other staff
member to New Orleans to continue Hurricane Katrina rebuilding. I am once again participating in an “alternative” spring break, rather than going somewhere and getting crazy, we go somewhere to give back.
A question that I get about this trip, especially now that our immediate area has been impacted by its own storms is, “Why? Why are you flying out of state when we need you here?”
Yes, we’ve had Irene and Sandy, and I certainly do not want to make light of the impact of those storms. They impacted areas very close to Saint Rose and I personally have family who have had to deal with the aftermath. Our community service office has done a great job of making volunteer opportunities available for clean-up for those storms, and I hope we continue to do more for these areas. That being said, it’s now been eight years since Katrina terrorized New Orleans, and there is much left to be done.
The area most impacted by Katrina was the lower ninth ward, and it’s been the area that has been the slowest to bounce back. There are still dozens of lots that either have one or two decaying houses, or nothing on them at all. For those that have rebuilt, they struggle with the lack of businesses that have returned and schools that haven’t reopened or are struggling. Part of the reason rebuilding has been slow is that New Orleans itself is below sea level, with some areas several feet below sea level. This means that, scientifically, New Orleans really shouldn’t be a populated city- it has high risk of being harshly hit by storms again and again. Personally, this was something that I really struggled with the first year that I went to New Orleans. I was happy to contribute and to rebuild, but what if it’s all for nothing when the next big storm hits?
I can’t answer that question for anyone without sounding a bit like a snob when I say, “You just have to go there.” New Orleans is an amazing, culturally-rich, diverse place, the people are amazing and so kind, and…these are their homes. They grew up in New Orleans, and they want to raise their children and grandchildren there. It also certainly helps that the infrastructure that goes in now works much more in favor of battling big storms. The collapsed levees have been replaced and are built to last, houses are built off the ground and have escape hatches on the roof. No, it’s not perfect but…you can’t understand if you haven’t been.
What do we do while we are there? We work with a volunteer organization called lowernine.org on various projects. Last year we concentrated on a couple of houses, doing roof work and painting, and a community garden. The first year I went we tore down walls and put up new ones. Truthfully, we won’t know exactly what we are doing until we are told at 7:45 a.m. each morning. We will all put in a solid day of work for four days, and while our impact may seem small, if 20 other schools visit this time of year for spring break, then together we’ve made a significant impact. We do take one day to relax and explore the culture of New Orleans, we will visit the French Quarter, eat some beignets, hear some authentic NOLA Jazz. After four full days of working, it’s a well deserved break.
I will be blogging, tweeting, and sharing from New Orleans next week, so check back here to see what we are up to!