Learning through Service in Flood-Ravaged Louisiana

April 1, 2006

Diary by Kendall Morgan
Photos by Kendall Morgan and Daoxun Lin

St. Bernard's ParishSaturday, March 11, 2006

On Saturday night March 11 – while many of their friends were heading off for spring break vacations in Miami, New York or Mexico – about 130 Duke students boarded three charter buses bound for St. Bernard’s Parish, La. A 15 minute drive from New Orleans, the parish was one of the places hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina seven months ago.

For the majority of the students, the trip was a service learning project for the "Natural Catastrophes: Rebuilding from Ruins" class. The interdisciplinary course stemmed from the desire to “do something” in the aftermath of Katrina’s devastation and to learn some valuable lessons in the process. Forty or so others took advantage of the opportunity to contribute by tagging along with friends in the class.

The group, myself included, would meet up with Habitat for Humanity at Camp Premier, a FEMA-run tent village with facilities for 1,300. We would soon become members of what it is said represents the largest group of volunteers ever assembled to help after a disaster.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Damaged house with a spray painted messageAfter a long, restless night cramped on the buses, we arrived to a surreal scene. People lined the streets on folding chairs in front of shells of former Radio Shacks and Taco Bells. Carts selling pink or green feather boas and helium balloons stood here and there amid evidence of the flood that submerged buildings throughout the town -- a bicycle, a pile of ruined doors, stray running shoes.

As we drove by in silence, trying to make sense of it all, many of the people on the street, kids and adults alike, waved at the buses. A woman held a sign that said, “Thank you for caring.” Many of us waved back.

We later saw the brightly painted floats, decorated with leprechauns and witches, parked along the street, waiting their turn to go. St. Bernard’s Parish, still in shambles in the aftermath of the hurricane, was celebrating upcoming St. Patrick’s Day.

As we drew closer to camp, what was left of fast food and retail chains gave way to houses. On the surface, the neighborhoods still looked intact. It was a scene that civil and environmental engineering senior Emily Wren from Arlington, Va., noted was quite different from the total devastation she and the rest of the Engineers without Borders group witnessed in Indonesia following the Christmas tsunami of 2004.

The houses here still stand, but through the open doors and windows the severity of the damage is unmistakable. Some of the homes are gutted, while in others everything remains virtually untouched since the water that stood for five days finally receded last summer.

By noon, we arrived at the army green tent village surrounded on all sides with a chain link fence. The place is plastered with rules: no alcohol, no guns, and we soon found out, no cameras. If one of the many security guards catches you snapping a photo, your camera will be confiscated on the spot. We’re told it’s a measure enforced for the privacy of other volunteers and for the residents of St. Bernard’s that continue to find refuge there.

Check-in consisted of a series of lines for tent and work team assignments and an official photo I.D. that was to remain visible at all times while at camp. Given the size of our group, the experience took hours.

At orientation that evening, more surprises were in store. First, Charlotte Grave, our orientation leader, showed a video documenting the flooding at its height. People in boats passed just under stoplights. Rescue workers saved others from their rooftops. The focus, however, was on our safety and preparation for what we might encounter the next day.

Although most people associate Habitat with home building, the effort here remains focused on cleanup. It’s the grueling work that has to be done before the thought of rebuilding even becomes a possibility. It’s also part of the reality that gets left out of all those disaster movies we watched in the bus on the way down, and all too often from media reports.

We’ll each be part of a 12-person volunteer army, stripping everything out of houses, day by day, down to the studs. We’re told to refer to this as “debris removal” rather than “gutting” as a way of easing the process for the homeowners who have lost just about everything they owned.

Despite the heat, Grave tells us to wear long sleeved shirts and long pants as protection against bugs and mold. It’s clear from the grumbles around the orientation tent that some people haven’t come prepared for this, but will have to make do. All the stores here remain closed save for Home Depot, which re-opened just two weeks ago.

The scene from Valmor Street.Once in the house, the refrigerators are to be dealt with first. They and all their contents have been without power for months, so are to be immediately duct taped and discarded. Just about everything else will go too, save for a “memorabilia pile” of personal keepsakes: photos, trinkets and the like, which will be placed back in the houses for the homeowners.

We are warned about stumbling across rats, poisonous snakes and spiders, which it’s recommended we kill on sight with our shovels or at least chase over to the next abandoned house. There is always the possibility too that we might find human remains hidden beneath the debris. It hasn’t happened yet, Grave said, but she expects it’s just a matter of time, as volunteers work their way down to neighborhoods in closer proximity to the initial storm surge.

Monday, March 13, 2006

After a strict lights out at 10 p.m. last night, the morning started early when the first shift of volunteers awoke at 6 a.m. There are so many people here now, the majority college students from around the country, that volunteers head out in three shifts and return in the late afternoon accordingly.

The Duke contingent is assigned to the second, 8:30 shift, but at 9:00, all of us loaded up with our safety gear, the bus still hadn’t left. My group of 12 started to get antsy. We had come such a long way and had yet to contribute. The organization of camp is impressive, yet the logistics here, just brushing your teeth or taking a shower, seem to take considerable time and effort. We were all looking forward to the reason we came.

Rebecca Fairchild and Jim Garnevicus shovel out the front room.The bus finally moved off and in a few minutes we were in the neighborhood where we would spend the next two days at least. The self-appointed neighborhood watchman greeted us with his poodle in tow. He tells us he’s a contractor who evacuated to Florida before Katrina hit and returned home as soon as he could. He says he’s bought up the houses to either side of his along with a couple of others in the vicinity.

In the evenings, he sits on the porch with a shotgun. People don’t usually come around, he said, because they know he is there.

After some mix-ups over which house we’ll be in, we were assigned to 2305 Valmor. The pink front door didn’t want to budge, so our tool leader Jim Garnevicus, a senior in civil and environmental engineering from the Bronx, broke it down with a sledgehammer. Everything was going anyway, down to the concrete slab and studs.

The amount of work ahead for our group -- and all the others taking part in the cleanup effort -- is overwhelming. Under our hard hats, fogged safety glasses and n95 respirators, the heat was already stifling inside the unventilated house. If temperature is a factor now, it’s hard to imagine how much more difficult this task will become during the coming spring and summer months.

Meghan McIntee and Kuppy Sampale take on the den.Vermont native and cultural anthropology major Rebecca Fairchild and I headed to the refrigerator first, duct tape in hand, in keeping with the instructions we were given in last night’s orientation, only to find it inaccessible. The dryer had floated out of the laundry room and become wedged between the pantry and the refrigerator. We decided to leave it for now. There is plenty of work to be done and the fridge certainly isn’t going anywhere.

The team started in the entry way and from there moved into the den. Three inches of heavy, caked mud covered everything. All the bedroom doorways were blocked by massive pieces of furniture at odd angles. So we shoveled and carried the muck – keeping busy however we could to get everything out. Garnevicus, already an obvious fan of the sledgehammer, broke the ruined furniture apart before others helped carry it out or push it from the first story windows.

As we started to uncover items from the wreckage – a big screen TV complete with surround sound speakers, souvenirs from around the world -- it became clear the house was nicer than many of us had expected. Then again, everyone in St. Bernard’s Parish needs help now.

Our AmeriCorps bus leader, Dustin Buck, tells us that 100 percent of the houses and businesses in the parish were submerged by the floodwaters. Rumor has it that just one house was spared.

At midday, the woman whose house this is arrived, wearing scrubs. She works at the hospital at Tulane and still lives in the vicinity. She thanked us through tears.

Still later, I heard her say, “It’s a sad day, the saddest.” But, for her, the cleanup represents closure. After the house is cleared, there will be nothing left to come back and look for anymore.

Rebecca Fairchild and David SchaadIt still isn’t clear to anyone what will actually happen to any of these houses – or even what the options really are or should be. Our homeowner, a spunky woman with short red hair, has no intention of living in the neighborhood again, although she said there is a chance her son will. He can’t afford the prices in New Orleans.

She stayed with us for much of the day, sorting through odds and ends as we carried them out, looking for anything that might mean something to her and be in a condition to save. In particular, she asked about a wallet that once belonged to her father, two rings and a didgeridoo bought on a trip to Australia.

Although we didn’t find the wallet or the rings, the didgeridoo turned up in a bedroom closet, along with some unbroken depression-era glass, her framed marriage certificate, a diploma and a scrapbook full of get well cards -- mementos of the time she spent in the hospital as a 9-year-old. Save for the few things she took with her before the storm, it’s all that remains of her pre-Katrina life.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

A pile of debris in front of a St. Bernard's Parish homeWith plenty of work left to do, we returned to Valmor Street, optimistically hoping to finish. Assistant chair of civil and environmental engineering David Schaad, who organized the class and the trip, joined the team to help out for the day.

The work went smoothly, and largely uneventfully, as we carted out load after load of molded drywall, mud, and all the other odds and ends that make up any home.

Despite the extra help, we still didn’t manage to finish. It’s taking longer than the day or two we were told to expect at orientation. On the other hand, it wouldn’t seem right for a home, with all that represents, to be taken apart, plywood, insulation and all, so quickly.

At dinner, a volunteer from another state asked team member Daoxun (Dx) Lin, a junior biology major from Singapore, what he thought of the experience.

“It makes you feel lucky for what you have,” he said.

It does indeed, but as the mountains of debris grow, it’s also hard not to wonder why we have so much. It’s been estimated the Katrina disaster has created the equivalent of 30 years worth of trash, and it’s not at all clear where all the wasted belongings will go.

The homeowner informed us that due to a dispute over contracts – the debris pile will remain in the front yard for an indefinite period of time. Once it is finally carted off, it will wind up in one of the newly opened landfills, or one of the local parks that, for lack of a better place, are now being used as temporary landfills.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The near empty house on Valmor Street.Back at the house, which the group has affectionately taken to calling “our house,” we picked up back where we left off, clearing out kitchen cabinets and bathroom fixtures. Freshman biomedical engineering major Ben Tannenbaum from Los Angeles and I set to work on the pantry full of spoiled food that we had all successfully avoided until now, while Nicholas School graduate student Eric Maurer, from San Diego, began shoveling out the stagnant mud that filled the bath tub.

While the work is challenging in itself, it’s made a greater challenge by the limited availability of tools: four pry bars, a sledgehammer, a couple of hammers, a utility knife, an axe, shovels of various sizes, brooms and three wheelbarrows. Or at least there were three wheelbarrows. After a mysterious wheelbarrow crisis, we’re now down to two. We’re also short a pair of wire cutters that came up missing yesterday.

If a shortage of supplies is an issue for us, it must also make life more difficult for those living in St. Bernard’s Parish.

While eating our pack lunches in the driveway at lunch, Garnevicus and our team leader Wren asked us all to name our favorite tool. For me, and a few others, the pry bar wins out for its sheer versatility. Others are clearly partial to the brute force of the sledgehammer and the axe. Kuppy Sampale, a junior biomedical and electrical engineering double major from South Brunswick, N.J., says her favorite is the long-handled squeegee that came with the house. We've come to appreciate the true value of a good tool.

Our 12-person work team after finishing the first house.By midafternoon on work day three, we finally completed our first house. The mountain of stuff now covers the front yard and spills out over the curb. Inside, the potential for the house shows through. It could almost be mistaken for a house under construction, which I suppose one day, it just might be.

Our work on Valmor completed, the group walked a block over to our next assignment. By comparison, the modest brick house at 2400 Livacarri Drive was obviously home to a younger family with at least two children. What furniture they had was smaller too and easier to manage.

In the kitchen, a brand new refrigerator, still wrapped in plastic, lay on its back next to a dishwasher and gas stove, still in the cardboard boxes they came in. Notes tacked to the appliances asked that we save them in the backyard.

I had expected it to be difficult to move from one house straight to the next, but once there the team sprang into action, hauling out sleeper sofas and odds and ends strewn about the floor in what little time we had before the buses arrived to take us back to camp.

Now that the initial shock of the devastation has started to give way and the reality sunk in, many students have started to ask questions about what our efforts are really accomplishing.

“I thought we came to build houses, but gutting them – what does that represent?” Sampale asked from her cot. “But it’s worth it to see the homeowner. She was so appreciative.”

Kuppy Sampale interviews a local firefighter.The sheer magnitude of the destruction here makes it hard not to ask such questions and it has become clear that the answers are complicated and elusive. Is it really safe from a health standpoint to rebuild in these houses? What are the chances that such a flood might happen again? What is being done to prevent that? Who will want to live here?

Before Katrina, an estimated 70,000 people lived in St. Bernard’s Parish. Now, we are told the number is closer to 15,000. The true number likely won’t become apparent for some time to come.

The majority of the people that once lived here are now scattered across the country, and it seems there remains little to come back for. Still, many of the people that remain -- especially those whose families had lived in the area for generations – seem inclined to stay.

A firefighter monitoring the cleanup effort told the students he “thinks differently than most people.” He expects about 50 percent will come back.

“Most can’t afford to do anything else,” he said.

As for our efforts, the only thing that can be said for sure is that we’re helping individual families, one by one. In a less tangible sense, the effort of volunteers seems to be a morale booster to the broader community as well -- a sign of hope that the people of St. Bernard’s Parish have not been forgotten.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Dean Kristina Johnson with the work team on Livacarri Drive.Pratt Dean Kristina Johnson joined us on Thursday, traveling back and forth between 2400 Livacarri and a nearly identical house across the street where another team worked. The work moved more quickly this time, now that everyone had a clearer sense of each of the tasks involved.

First, we cleared out the furniture, then moved on to taking out any carpeting or rugs, and then on to the removal of drywall, baseboards and door frames. The appliances were rolled out to the backyard and the kitchen cabinets disassembled.

At lunch time, the homeowner’s father came by, asking after the appliances. He was renovating his house, a few blocks away, when the storm came. The new appliances – bought on sale -- were being stored at his son’s house until he had a place for them.

He’s relieved to see they are in the backyard, instead of under the junk pile, and although they spent five days submerged in dirty floodwater, carefully wraps a blue tarp around the three to shield them from the rain.

Before leaving, he looked at the trash heap in front of the house and asked the question we all wondered, “Where will all this go?” In this place below sea level, maybe we will have some mountains yet, he said.

Back at camp, a few of us decided to venture out to New Orleans for the night. Several people had been doing this all week, and all reports suggested that things there seem “normal.”

A jazz bar in the French QuarterOn the way, the Tunisian taxi driver that took us gave us our first glimpse into the difficulties faced by the area’s many renters. Most of the assistance, including the work we are now doing, goes to the people lucky enough to have owned a home. Those without have received comparatively little, he said.

On top of that, the cost of living for renters has skyrocketed since the storm. The apartment he rented for $600 before Katrina now costs $1,500 a month -- a result of the reduced availability of housing.

He lets us off on Broad Street in the French Quarter, with its bright lights, booming dance music and general party atmosphere. The only clear evidence of the storm here are the other relief workers and the “Rebuild New Orleans” T-shirts that hang in souvenir shop windows. We settled on a quieter jazz bar on the main drag, donating a dollar at the door for jazz relief.

After a couple of hours’ respite, we headed back to camp to beat the midnight curfew, when the gates close for the night.

Friday, March 17, 2006

By 11 a.m., the team had finished up the house at Livacarri. We took an extended lunch break in the hot sun before crossing the street to a third house, this one marked with a “For Sale” sign. With only a few hours to work, the team didn’t expect to get far, but the now-experienced cleanup crew set to work for a strong finish. An hour in, a second team joined us and by days end, almost half the house had been cleared.

Back in New Orleans later that night, the team celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with yet another parade. We headed back to camp before curfew with more than our share of traditional Mardis Gras beads tossed from passing floats or marching bands. Despite everything, the energy and spirit of New Orleans remains strong.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Kevin Wagner with a map of New Orleans showing its 300 miles of levee in yellow.With our labor complete, the group was to meet in the orientation tent Saturday morning for a presentation by Army Corps of Engineers representative Kevin Wagner. Perhaps he would have some answers for us about the rebuilding efforts now underway.

Wagner showed us a map of the area's 300 miles of levees. They were designed back in the '60s after Hurricane Betsy to withstand hurricane winds consistent with a category three storm.

The major failures caused by Katrina caught them by surprise, he said. Although most of the levee system held strong, the walls toppled in other places after being compromised by water levels that swelled by more than 20 feet.

“Once the levees were overtopped, the water eats away at the backside, opens a gap, and the levee starts to unravel,” Wagner said. “Once the water poured out into neighborhoods, there was nothing to stop it.”

So far, the Army Corps has been authorized only to restore the damaged levees to their pre-Katrina height, he said. It’s an effort involving approximately 60 contracts and nearly $700 million, but “it doesn’t give us the extra protection we are looking for,” he said.

A more comprehensive plan to protect the New Orleans area would require authorization from Congress and a major commitment from the nation.

He led us on a tour to sites where the levees are being rebuilt. At one, the students climbed up on the levee under construction and peered out over the water behind it, now almost eerily calm.

Students peer over a damaged levee, now under constructionA second levee breach site lies adjacent to what was a neighborhood of older homes in the Ninth Ward, now flattened by the Katrina flood. When the levees broke, the first row of houses was ripped from its foundations and rammed into the next in a “domino effect,” Wagner said. After the storm, the streets here were impassable, covered in 30 feet of debris. Although the roads have been cleared, the remnants of houses, overturned vehicles and snapped trees remain, as if frozen in time.

It's a scene that certainly puts new perspective on the condition of the houses we had spent the week working in, all of which had been determined to be "structurally sound" before qualifying for the Habitat program.

A destroyed house in the Ninth Ward next to a broken levee.With our St. Bernard’s mission accomplished, the group boarded the bus for a final day wandering the streets of New Orleans before the long trip back to Duke.

The Duke group of 130 cleared some 25 houses, inching Habitat for Humanity closer to its goal of 2,000 and becoming better acquainted with the very human realities of disaster in the process. While solutions to many of the problems still faced in New Orleans remain enigmatic, our first-hand experience of the storm’s aftermath and the steps we’ve taken on the long path to rebuilding have at least led us to many of the right questions, and given us a newfound appreciation for the complexity of their answers.