House of Blues
Last spring, a group of BU students traveled to New Orleans to help with post-Katrina rebuilding efforts. They were both shocked and inspired by what they found in the Big Easy.
By Richard A. Webster
It was early spring and just after 9 a.m. in the Crescent City. A soft breeze rustled the dark green leaves of the bushes that hugged a modest home in Lakeview, a largely white, middle-class neighborhood in New Orleans. Lakeview, like so many other areas of the city, had been buried under more than 10 feet of water in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Except for an occasional pick-up truck carrying two-by-fours and sheet rock, an unsettling quiet enveloped the block, largely abandoned since the storm.
A group of students from Barry University gathered on the front lawn of a one-story house, clutching shovels and hammers.
They had driven more than 14 hours to New Orleans as part of Alternative Spring Break. Instead of soaking up beach sun or going home to visit friends and family, they decided to spend a week gutting three homes destroyed by the storm and clearing hundreds of pounds of debris that littered the streets of neighborhoods struggling to rebuild.
An ‘alternate’ reality
This was the third Alternative Spring Break and the largest, with nearly 40 students participating. It was also the first to take place outside of Florida.
Sophomore Greg Whitehurst, an elementary education major, lived in New Orleans for 11 years before moving to Virginia at the age of 14. This was his first time back since Katrina. As he stared at the house he was about to gut, his thoughts shifted to the faces of his old New Orleans friends forced from their homes after the storm, now dispersed throughout the Gulf Coast.
Seeing the wreckage with his own eyes, Whitehurst struggled to comprehend the level of suffering the people of New Orleans experienced and continue to experience.
“When I watch the news they always make things seem worse than they actually are,” he said. “But when I got to New Orleans, it’s worse than even the news made it seem. A lot of it doesn’t even look like a city. It looks like an old western ghost town. We’re ignorant to the level of the damage.”
The Lakeview house belonged to a family of four, who, due to financial difficulties, had been unable to begin the rebuilding process until the arrival of the students. For 19 months the house sat untouched, its waterlogged contents left to fester in the sweltering Louisiana heat.
The Episcopal Dioceses of Louisiana spearheaded the home-gutting project and warned the students what they were likely to find inside the home —thick black mats of lung-clogging mold covering every surface and legions of cockroaches and rats. But more importantly, they would find the wounded memories and personal effects of what was once someone’s home.
And there was a chance they would find the body of the family dog left behind in the chaos of the evacuation.
Sophomore Fred Day, an international studies major and the lead organizer for the New Orleans trip, said the goal of Alternative Spring Break was simple — to improve the lives of people in desperate need.
When someone suggested New Orleans as a destination, many balked. How much help could the city possibly need 19 months later?
“People automatically think they’re getting the help they need and that things are getting better,” Day said. “But when I got there, things weren’t better at all. And it hit me hard, because this is something that can happen to us. Miami is below sea level. This can happen to us too.”
Like a father, like a brother
Each student decided to forego the typical spring break for different reasons. Whitehurst felt pulled to help New Orleans out of respect for his former home. Day said community service is something he has been committed to since high school.
But for Danielle Jackman, a sophomore and psychology major who headed the landscaping team, the trip to New Orleans involved more than charity. Last July, her 25-year-old brother, Sean, drowned in a freak accident in Seattle.
“He was working at Microsoft,” she said. “They were celebrating some new discovery and had a company picnic. The storyline is sketchy, but the end result is the same. He went out in the water and it was too deep. There was a drastic drop. This was July 21, last year.”
Sean attended Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he met and forged a strong bond with Father John Raphael, who now teaches at St. Augustine High School in New Orleans. Jackman visited Raphael several times while in New Orleans.
“Sean was like a son to [Raphael], like he was a brother to me,” Jackman said. “It was overwhelming.”
As Day stood outside the Lakeview house with Whitehurst, he spoke with the homeowner, who wished to remain anonymous. The man told Day about his sick daughter and wife who had been severely injured in a recent accident. Like many in their neighborhood, they had lost almost everything they owned.
When the 17th Street canal collapsed in the wake of the hurricane, 10-foot waves of water crashed through Lakeview, killing nearly 100 mostly elderly people in the upscale neighborhood.
Many sought shelter in attics that proved to be suffocating tombs. Those too weak to manage the stairs succumbed to the brown, murky waters of Lake Pontchartrain.
When the waters finally receded weeks later, all that remained were miles of abandoned homes.
And yet in the face of so much misery and destruction, the students said they found something noble in the people of New Orleans — a fierce determination to survive and an almost inconceivable dedication to their home.
A big pile of destruction and nobility
Like an assembly line, students emerged from the house, arms wrapped around piles of dry wall, clothes, books and boxes of memorabilia. They dropped their bundles into an ever-growing pile of debris in the front yard, turned around and went back inside, only to reemerge moments later with another addition to the mound.
As the day progressed the pile grew until it stood nearly four feet high and seven feet wide. By the time the students finished, they had taken the storm-ravaged house down to its skeletal frame.
Shealtiel Mack, a junior and English major, was also part of the team that gutted the Lakeview house. She said she watched in awe as the homeowner worked side by side with them, knocking down walls and picking through the rubble.
“He was there with us, going through his things [that were] once on shelves and in cabinets,” Mack said. “And now they’re being thrown out onto the street, just into a big pile. We saw baby bottles and medicine. I didn’t want to think about how hard it was for him to do. It makes me have a greater appreciation for the things I do have. If something like that happened to me I don’t know if I’d be able to start over.”
Half a mile from where Day, Whitehurst and Mack worked in Lakeview, Jackman’s team cleared the debris that had overcome the home of 83-year-old Rosemary Perrone.
After cutting down overgrown weeds and bushes in the backyard they carried bundles across an empty tract of land abutting Perrone’s home and piled them on the sidewalk.
Liz Widener, a volunteer organizer with the Beacon of Hope Resource Center, which directed the landscaping efforts, pointed across the street to a similar plot of dirt that rested between two houses.
“There used to be homes on those lots, but the elderly people who lived there died in the flood,” she said. “The houses have been bulldozed and this is all that’s left.”
New Orleans is littered with thousands of such lots.
“Most students don’t know what to say when they see the destruction and reminders of death, but we make sure they see it,” Widener said. “There are no words to describe what we’ve been through, where we’re living and what happened. It’s just as important for these students to take that message back as the work they do here.”
Nicole Marcellus is the director of Alternative Spring Break and a senior social work major. She lived in New Orleans for nearly three years, leaving shortly before Hurricane Katrina.
As she watched the 24-hour news coverage of her former home descending into chaos and civil unrest, the torment became unbearable, she said. Five days after the storm hit she returned to New Orleans to assist with the distribution of insulin to diabetics.
“I saw people I knew on TV who had been separated from their newborn sons,” Marcellus said. “I had friends at the hospitals. I couldn’t believe this was happening in the United States, people on the highway stranded and helpless.”
Marcellus supported the students’ decision to take Alternative Spring Break to New Orleans but warned them that what they would see and experience would likely unnerve and haunt them.
“We showed them the Spike Lee documentary and explained to them that seeing something on TV is going to be completely different than seeing it face-on, with the smells and sights when the actual wrath of it hits you in the head. Some of them were ready for it, some of them were not. We tried to prepare them as best we could.”
But nothing could prepare Day’s gutting team for the Lower Ninth Ward, a predominantly working-class black neighborhood that has come to symbolize the storm’s destructive power.
During the night of the storm, a 200-foot long barge broke loose from its moorings and crashed through the Industrial Canal. A tidal wave exploded through the breach and completely wiped out the Lower Ninth, lifting houses off their foundations, tossing them like paper cups into homes seven to eight blocks down the street.
Today, the Lower Ninth Ward lies in ruins. The city has bulldozed hundreds of unsalvageable houses while small pockets of homeowners attempt to rebuild amid a sea of abandoned buildings.
One afternoon, while gutting a home in the Lower Ninth, Mack said the elderly homeowner shuffled through the rubble, took her in her arms, and held her tight.
“I was crying because she gave me a hug,” Mack said. “It was so sad. She was an old lady and didn’t have anyone to help her. She was the same age as my grandmother.”
House of Blues
Wherever the students went, they said they were struck by the gratitude expressed by the people of New Orleans.
On their last day in town the students went to the House of Blues to see New Orleans legend Irma Thomas. One of them unknowingly struck up a conversation with a member of her band. When Thomas hit the stage she dedicated the first song to the Barry University students and thanked them for all they had done for the city of New Orleans. The audience broke out in applause.
“Everyone came up to us and thanked us for helping to save their home and to get their lives back,” Day said. “Everybody was just crying. It was a great night and the perfect way to leave New Orleans.”
But some students don’t intend on leaving New Orleans for good. Jackman is planning a trip back for Thanksgiving, if she can’t get back sooner, while Whitehurst has something more extensive in mind.
After the trip he applied for and accepted a job with the Episcopal Dioceses to continue the work he started with Alternative Spring Break. He arrived in New Orleans in June and will stay for a year to help rebuild his former home.
At first his mother fought his decision to put off his education for a year, he said.
But to Whitehurst, the choice was easy.
“When we were there people asked what we were doing, and when we told them they were so grateful. They said it was so hard for them to live in New Orleans and what we were doing meant so much to them,” he said. “It put a smile on my face. It gave you a warm feeling all over. I just feel like I owe something to my community.”