The Great COVE Clean-up

Rob Sobelman

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in August 2005 and 18 months later, a dire situation still remains for most residents of the “The Big Easy.” While billions of dollars of government and private funds have been spent on the cleanup and rebuilding the city of less than 250,000 residents (half of its pre-hurricane population), there are still significant steps that need to be taken to ensure lasting stability and growth.

Before the hurricane, New Orleans was a volatile city that had a failing public school system and many neighborhoods stricken with high crime rates and extreme poverty, with nearly 30 percent of the city’s families living below the poverty line. The sizeable underprivileged and uneducated populace in the city did not have many goods or services thought to be basic, like house or car insurance. Although the hurricane did not create these problems, it did transform a bad situation into a crisis with over 80 percent of the city flooded and over 1,500 lives lost. As the third lowest point in the United States, after Death Valley and the Salton Sea, the city was quickly and viciously ravaged as the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain overflowed. Underprivileged families that were barely scraping by were suddenly homeless and had no insurance money to relieve them. The federal and state governments did too little, too late to protect the lives and property that should have been saved.

Rebuilding New Orleans has been a national effort, and the Colgate Community has been doing its part through involvement in the Center for Outreach and Volunteer Education (COVE). Since the hurricane, the COVE has sponsored six trips to New Orleans to provide direct service from over 100 members of the Colgate Community, in order to rebuild the homes of those with limited means and support those who were impacted in their time of need to assure them they have not been forgotten or left behind.

On their trips, Colgate students have had both distressing and inspiring experiences. On one trip, the residents of the neighborhood the students were working in were very suspicious of their presence even though the students were there to donate their services. The woman who owns the house they were working on had grown up in that home, raised her family there, and was then living alone because her children had moved away. She had lost her job and car as a result of the flood, and had no savings or insurance settlement with which to rebuild. Her house is now all that she has, and though it was obviously in bad shape even before the storm (i.e. broken windows, missing doors, disintegrating floors, vermin infestation), she is now doing what she can to keep the parish from tearing it down. She told the students that they were “the talk of the neighborhood.”

It took days of hard work until her neighbors felt comfortable interacting with the visiting students.Upon reflection, the students found that the neighbors’ initial suspicion made sense because of their experiences of being exploited of by other outsiders (insurance companies and contractors), who had less generous intentions.

A more encouraging encounter was when Matt Inbusch listened to a resident discuss the success of the Saints as an inspiration for the displaced and discouraged residents of New Orleans at a local restaurant. The resident spoke of the New Year’s celebration and the Sugar Bowl festivities as signs of life returning to a broken city.However, Matt found that no amount of optimism could compete with theharsh reality of the endless stretches of abandoned communities such as the Lower 9th Ward.

In this continuing national crisis, we must all have a role in providing for those that have been victims. The COVE’s Disaster Response Team has ongoing activities both on and off campus to contribute to the revitalization of New Orleans and help the city prosper once again. To learn more about opportunities to be involved, contact Gina Landon (glandon) or visit the COVE in East Hall.