New Orleans rebuilds: Student’s eyes opened by hard life in Big Easy

Keri Lynn McHale

My body ached as I climbed into my stained, broken cot. I pushed my nose into my pillow to escape the stench of the room, a combination of body odor, mouse feces and dust. I cocooned in my green sleeping bag and rested against the abandoned teacher’s desk. Around me, half-naked strangers prepared for bed, a mixture of volunteers and residents. Men and women from all walks of life, more than 20 of us, were crammed into the classroom.

Welcome to the clothing-optional room on the third floor of St. Mary of the Angels School in New Orleans. St. Mary’s houses more than 300 Common Ground Relief volunteers, working on behalf of the Common Ground Collective, an organization that provides relief for the victims of hurricane disasters in the Gulf Coast.

In January, I traveled to the Upper 9th Ward in New Orleans, with five other Quinnipiac students: Rafal Kowalczyk, Zinacay Quinones, Kerry Ellington, Jenna Fontaine and Emily Hayworth. Our mission was to help rebuild communities that were left in shambles after Hurricane Katrina.

The house we were assigned to, on Adventure Avenue, had not been touched since the hurricane hit, which was about a year and half ago at the time. In we trudged, looking like Willy Wonka’s Oompa-Loompas in our blue and white suits. Our large respirators protected us from the toxic mold that colored the walls in various hues. Through my goggles I could see the destroyed possessions, photos, china, furniture and stuffed animals piled to the ceiling. My oversized rubber boots protected my feet from the bits and pieces of broken life that were shattered across the floor.

We lined the street with every water-logged, broken, molded object that once made this house a home for a grandmother and her grandchildren. The only inhabitants left were cockroaches and rats, which scurried up the walls and rained from the ceiling during demolition. We ripped and pulled, squeezed and punched, sweat and swept our way through the layers of the house. We knocked down every wall, every piece of sheetrock and insulation and plucked out each and every nail until the house was stripped to its core.

Then we gathered outside and tried to admire our work, but stared at the emptiness inside the house and felt a parallel feeling within ourselves. I was drawn to the marks of the disaster that remained on the siding, the stained lines left from the day the levees broke. Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet flooded New Orleans after heavy winds and rain, from Hurricane Katrina, caused a storm surge that broke the levees. The days following the hurricane, bodies floated in the water and people were left abandoned on their roofs. One and a half years later, the people were still stranded in their recovery effort, but not just any people, the black residents with lower income.

The reality of the situation haunted my mind. After our final day at the house, I sat in the back of the pickup truck with the wheel barrels and the tools on the way back to St. Mary’s. I could not fathom why so many neighborhoods remained deserted, why so many trees were still down, restaurants and stores still abandoned and why the FEMA trailers, housing families, were still sitting next to damaged houses. Welcome to the United States of America, the richest country in the world.

The truth is that the story is entirely different on the other side of the train tracks, literally. I walked to the edge of the Upper 9th Ward and saw the beautiful town over, fully rebuilt, without a hint of devastation. “The recent hurricanes not only devastated much of the city of New Orleans, they exposed long-standing injustices faced by the residents of the lower income, black communities. It is estimated that over 275,000 housing units were destroyed and efforts to clean up, repair or open livable housing has been slow,” according to Common Ground’s Web site.

During my stay in New Orleans, I never saw any government officials or paid contractors. Instead I saw extreme neglect by those in power and the valiant effort of hundreds of college-aged adults, mostly white, trying to aid the forgotten. Common Ground’s mission went beyond ours, but we quickly adopted their motto, “solidarity not charity.” The people involved in Common Ground want to rebuild lives, not just fix the destroyed houses, but to fix injustices that existed long before Hurricane Katrina.