Our Stories

Putting Things Back Together in New Orleans

Small frame houses had shifted off their foundations and floated down the street. They were overturned, stacked on top of each other, or flattened. Cars had been tossed onto porches, trees had crashed through roofs, a barge rested on top of a school bus. Telephone poles tilted at frightening angles along streets in the Ninth Ward, and mountains of debris had washed ashore in front yards.

In spite of the devastation, many New Orleans families still wanted to call the place home.

And so, during the holiday break, when many university students were basking on beaches or hitting the slopes, two groups of Willamette students went to Louisiana to help families whose homes had been battered by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The original trip, sponsored by Willamette's Take a Break program, filled so fast that spillover students hastily organized a second, informal trip with assistance from the Lilly Project, a University program that helps students find their spiritual calling or vocation. Working with the United Methodist Storm Recovery Center, the students lived simply, slept on the floor of a local church and cooked their own meals. They worked side by side with homeowners and spent days shoveling mud and tearing out walls and floors.

"The destruction was overwhelming," says student Lindsey Mizell '07. "I didn't expect that five months after the storm. A lot of the houses were so devastated they will have to be totally rebuilt. We were in areas that had seen extreme water damage, but there was a possibility of saving them, so we struck the houses down to the studs."

The work was filthy, but the worst part wasn't the oily muck; rather, it was the black mold that covered households. Many families, stricken with "Katrina cough," were unable to help. "We wore protective gear," says student Sean Muller '08, "but by the end of the day our masks were full of dust and mold spores."

"There was nothing left--nothing," says Steve Boyd, a staff member who served as a trip supervisor. "There was just removal of debris. Only by luck were we able to find an intact memento or two."

"One woman -- she was around 80, I imagine -- had been living in that area her whole life," Mizell says. "Her house was totally devastated. We asked her if there was anything she wanted us to salvage. With prodding, she said there was a vase of her mother's. That became my mission, to find that vase." After taking out loads of soiled clothing and buckets of oily mud, Mizell found the vase. It had been protected by mud.

Students hauled out furniture and appliances and children's toys. They ripped down ceilings and walls and piled the rubbish up to the roofline in front of each home so the city could haul it away. Last was the carpet, as they stripped each house clean.

Before leaving the bare shell of each house, students posed with the owners, or wrote "Take care, God bless, Willamette University, January 2006," on the exposed wood. "We wanted people there to know that people from other parts of the country were thinking about them," Muller says.

The student dedication was genuine, says Steve Boyd. Students bypassed an additional sightseeing opportunity to put in an extra day of volunteer work.

Two more Take a Break student groups left in March, heading for Texas and Mississippi, where hurricane refugees have been relocated. Mizell was so moved by the experience she declared a leave of absence for the 2006-07 school year, and will return to the area to do volunteer work.

Each night in New Orleans the Take a Break students gathered to reflect on their experience. "What we realized is that -- even with lack of sleep and physical exhaustion -- we really can make a difference," Muller says. "And it was a lesson in humility. I think we learned a lot about the human spirit. People there have taken a hit I can't imagine taking. They've been stripped down to nothing, lived through months of this, and they still have the spirit of hope. They're still giving."

In the wake of Katrina's devastation, Willamette University mobilized to assist affected individuals and communities. The University offered a tuition-free semester to displaced students and matched donations from students, faculty and staff, sending $58,500 to the American Red Cross. The student club Blazing Hearts and Wild Minds created and sold "Katrina Relief" bracelets across campus to raise funds, and each undergraduate class competed with other classes, raising money by selling Mardi Gras necklaces made of glass beads. The Panhellenic Council sponsored a Red Cross blood drive, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity organized a benefit event with live bands, and students set up jars for spare change around campus. The Chaplain's Office collected and sent health kits, while the Hatfield Library dedicated their annual book sale revenues to an academic library damaged by the hurricanes. The campus food service, Bon Appetit, also made a corporate contribution.

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