Springsong Cooper ’09 provides a glimpse into her second alternative Fall break aiding in Katrina disaster relief—this time in New Orleans’ lower ninth ward.
Awakened by the sound of a guitar and singing (Common Ground’s volunteer wake-up crew), I grimace as I roll over, open my phone, and read that the time is 6:30 a.m. in New Orleans, 4:30 back in California. The ten other Pitzer students and I reluctantly emerge from our sleeping bags laid out on cots in a classroom on the second floor of what used to be St. Mary’s School. Breakfast is served downstairs in the gym, and I am impressed that so many volunteers are awake and ready to begin a day of gutting houses in the ninth ward.
After breakfast our group is given a safety orientation. It has been more than a year since the levies broke and the houses we are working in still have not been gutted, so they are harboring the perfect environment for black mold and asbestos to thrive, both extremely toxic and dangerous substances. We have to wear full body suits, steel-toed boots, respirators, and gloves, and at the end of each day, all our tools and gear are disinfected with bleach and left to air out.
The Pitzer students break into two groups and work at different houses located in the lower ninth ward, the area that received the bulk of the flood during Hurricane Katrina, due to its close proximity to the levies. The government has mandated that every house be gutted. The problem is that many people have left their New Orleans’ homes since they cannot live there or they are not physically capable of completing the arduous job and are unable to financially pay someone else to do the work.
This is where we come into the picture, young able-bodied and energetic volunteers who have not personally experienced the devastation of Katrina. We soon discover that the work is not only physically challenging but emotionally challenging as well. As we carry loads of personal belongings to dump in trash piles on the street, we find articles of people's lives that have been destroyed by water, muck (mud and toxins), or mold. Clothing, family pictures, china, stuffed animals, furniture—all are ruined, all are piled in a huge heap waiting to be picked up by the city.
We try to imagine what it must be like to lose every single one of your material possessions and to see a house that you grew up in and your children grew up in, filled with memories, in a state of complete destruction. After emptying the house of all material possessions, we essentially strip it bare, ripping out carpets, pulling up floor tiles, taking down walls, insulation, and ceilings, until all that remains is the structure of a house that used to be a home passed on through generations of families.
|Andrew Doty ’09, China Camacho ’07, Onri (Common Ground Volunteer), Springsong Cooper ’09, Samantha Field ’09 and Michele Hatchette ’09.
Not pictured: Francine Mireles ’09, Owen Brewer ’08, Aleksander Lyng ’10, Sky Shanks ’08, Danielle J. Brown ’08 and Daphne Churchill ’07
We cannot understand how little support the government has given these neighborhoods in the lower ninth ward. Even more disturbing are the government mandates that require houses to be gutted and lawns to be maintained or else the government will seize their properties. Yet, perhaps the most difficult part of the trip was returning to Pitzer College, the real world. New Orleans feels like a different world as we try to explain all that we have seen and experienced to our peers and professors. How does one describe a community that has been wiped out from a flood that occurred because the urgency and necessity of building higher levies was blatantly overlooked as money flowed elsewhere? The significance that the neighborhoods that were hit the hardest were predominantly African American? That so many neighborhoods have been completely abandoned? Or the lack of funding, resources, support, as well as the many disrupted and uprooted lives?
Most importantly, I want to thank the Pitzer community for their continuous support of the student initiative to be a part of the relief efforts in the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina. I joined Pitzer students mucking and gutting in Mississippi last year during our Fall break, a few months after the Hurricane hit. Now, more than a year later, the cameras have turned off and the world has forgotten that those devastated by the storm are still in much need of support. I am impressed that students again gave up their Fall breaks to spend five days working with and learning from them, and am so grateful to the Pitzer organizations that supported us. As long as homes need to be gutted and rebuilt and residents’ lives have not returned to normal, it is vital that the Pitzer community continues its solidarity for the communities in our country that have been turned upside down, undersupported, and forgotten by much of the world.
—Springsong Cooper ’09