COVE Volunteers Travel to New Orleans

Mark Fuller

This January, for the third time since Hurricane Katrina struck in August, a group of volunteers from Colgate University traveled to New Orleans to aid in the rebuilding process. The trip was sponsored by the Center for Outreach and Volunteerism Education (COVE), which organized similar relief trips during breaks in October and November.The January trip to New Orleans was different from the others in that is was the Colgate group’s first experience working within New Orleans. The first two trips brought students and faculty to New Iberia, a rural area west of New Orleans. On Saturday, January 14, a group of 14 students and 4 faculty members flew from all over the country to converge on the Big Easy. Over the next five days group members worked from sun-up to sun-down helping individual families begin to rebuild.”Everyday we would wake up around 7:30, leave around 8:15, get to the house by 9:00 and gut it until around 4:00,” sophomore Kara Cooperrider said. “A couple of days we had to spend time evaluating whether or not the house was salvageable.”The group stayed in a local Methodist church along with other volunteers, including a group of senior citizens from a retirement home. Dispatched to different locations each day, the Colgate volunteers worked on the houses as a group. The bulk of the work was the gutting or demolition of houses.”When you get there the first thing you do is move everything out,” Associate Provost Trish St. Leger, one of the faculty and staff members on the trip, said. “Trucks come and pick up the piles of debris. Then you go to work gutting the house: removing drywall, tearing up the flooring, etc.”The group expected to be able to finish one house every two days, but they worked at an impressive rate of a house a day.”Everyone just got in a groove,” St. Leger said. “Everyone found a job that they liked, whether it was pulling out drywall or swinging an axe, and we all got right to it each morning.”Severely damaged by the floodwaters, affected homes have to be completely cleaned out and stripped down to the bare bones before the rebuilding process can begin. Months after the disaster, a large percentage of houses are still in this early demolition stage. The Colgate group worked in East New Orleans, an area devastated by the storm and still relatively untouched.”In New Orleans, we often came across houses that had only been opened once or twice since the flooding in late August,” sophomore Laura Simocko said. “Some had had the furniture removed, but in others nothing had been touched and everything had to be removed. In five days we managed to demolish five houses, mostly one level with five or six rooms, down to the studs, which we then sprayed with bleach. The piles of debris were amazing.”Simocko is in a unique position to shed light on the January experience: she has participated in all three of Colgate’s Katrina-relief excursions. In October, Simocko and ten others arrived just after Hurricane Rita. In the recently affected area, the volunteers spent four days salvaging items and material within the homes. The next group, sent over Thanksgiving break, was involved in the second stage of cleanup. They gutted the houses and began sanitizing the insides of them. Rural Louisiana and New Orleans, though both ravaged by the floods, were different by nature.”The January trip to New Orleans was more overwhelming than the first two simply because of the density of destruction,” Simocko said. “In the New Iberia area, houses were destroyed but they were spread out over a larger area. In New Orleans, however, there was block after block of homes that had been completely gutted and other areas where it was clear the houses had been totally destroyed.”The scenes of destruction overwhelmed Colgate volunteers. Some noticed the many houses marked with large X’s on the outside. These symbols indicated if, and how many, people were found dead in the building.”It was heart-wrenching at times,” St. Leger said. “At one house we visited, the wife had been found dead in the house and the husband found dead in the tree above the home.”Working by themselves, the group members had little sense of large-scale operations. They did, however, learn how massive and complicated the cleanup effort is and will continue to be.”In both areas it seemed like there were not enough resources to deal with the damage,” Simocko said. “In New Iberia, neglect was the main problem. In New Orleans, it was disorganization.”Nevertheless, a little help went a long way. In two cases, the January group was able to work with the family whose home they were repairing. In each case, members said this kind of personal contact was important and moving.”Obviously, our group didn’t make a huge impact on New Orleans, but we made a huge impact on the people whose houses we rebuilt.” Cooperrider said.St. Leger agreed that there is a need for continued efforts. “We accomplished so much,” St. Leger said. “But there is so much more to do.”This spring break, Colgate will send a fourth group of volunteers to continue to help rebuild the devastated region.