Eight Tusculum College students had the opportunity recently to not only see first-hand the progress of the rebuilding efforts in New Orleans but also to work in restoration efforts in one of the areas still devastated by the effects of Hurricane Katrina.
The students were part of a Service-Learning Immersion Class and worked with the Common Ground relief organization, which primarily provides assistance toward recovery in the Lower Ninth Ward. This was the fifth trip to New Orleans by a Tusculum class to help in hurricane recovery efforts to be led by Robin Fife, assistant professor of social science. After returning from their trip, the students gave a presentation for the campus about their experiences.
The class spent three days helping with construction work on two homes in the Lower Ninth Ward. The students also had the opportunity to tour the city and see what areas remain devastated and what work has been done. In the evenings, they experienced the rich and diverse culture of the city.
Prior to traveling to New Orleans, the students participated in team-building activities and reviewed first-person accounts of the hurricane, its aftermath and the ongoing recovery efforts.
“Before we went to New Orleans, I thought ‘It’s been about five years since Katrina, what is there left to do?’” said Elizabeth McDonnell, a junior majoring in English from Memphis, Tenn. “But, when we arrived, it looked like the hurricane had happened two months ago.”
Traveling on a Sunday, the group arrived at Common Ground and settled into their lodgings in the Lower Ninth Ward for their time in New Orleans. “We could see the levee from where we were staying,” said David Roncskevitz, a junior majoring in English from Murfreesboro, Tenn. “It was kind of creepy. You could tell where houses used to be.” That levee had failed following the hurricane, flooding the Lower Ninth Ward and demolishing some homes while leaving others severely damaged.
The Lower Ninth Ward was one of the poorest areas of New Orleans prior to Katrina, and the students found that the recovery in that part of the city has been slow.
Common Ground works with people from the Ninth Ward to rebuild and repair homes. However, the students said, the organization is not able to help everyone because a homeowner has to pay for some of the costs associated with the rebuilding because Common Ground has limited funds, and there are some people who are unable to pay.
The organization also provides legal assistance to homeowners who are trying to keep their land or are negotiating with governmental agencies for disaster relief funds. In addition, Common Ground operates a program to educate third and fourth graders about healthy eating. To help prevent similar devastation from future hurricanes, the organization has a wetlands restoration project to plants trees and grasses to expand the wetlands and provide a greater buffer for the city.
“One of the things I thought was most interesting during our orientation at Common Ground was discussion about the fact there has been no school in the Lower Ninth Ward since the hurricane,” McDonnell said. “Common Ground is pushing for a school as a way to build back the community.”
Common Ground is raising funds to build a school after FEMA retracted the money it had set aside for a school in the Lower Ninth Ward. Since there is no school in the Lower Ninth Ward, families with children are hesitant to move back, she explained.
On Monday morning, the students were matched with volunteers who were renovating a house. The students were impressed by the volunteers, some of whom had left jobs to donate a year of their time unpaid in the hurricane recovery effort, and noted their evident passion for what they were doing. “They worked harder than the paid employee,” said Victoria Neal, a senior majoring in psychology from Ellenwood, Ga.
“It was definitely a new experience for all of us,” said Kelsey Longwell of the task the students found waiting for them at the work site. Longwell is a senior majoring in mathematics from Johnson City, Tenn. “All of us had to be shown how to hang dry wall. Most of the volunteers were willing to work with us and show us how to do it.”
As they began work on the house that had been gutted, the back wall could be seen through the front entrance with just wall beams in between, said Jillian Cunha, a junior pre-medicine major from London, Ontario. “To me it looked like a house, and as we put up dry wall, it became a home.”
For the second day of work, the students were split into two groups. One group continued to hang dry wall at the house where they worked the previous day, and a second went to another house that Common Ground has helped rebuild.
The latter house was in the final stages of completion, and the students helped with the finishing touches such as hanging doors and installing baseboards.
The students talked to the homeowner, who was visiting from Florida. The homeowner is a single mother who has been living in Florida since the hurricane, working to save money to rebuild her home in New Orleans. “It was such a rewarding experience to see how happy she was,” said Neal. “While it is rewarding to do something good for someone else, it is more rewarding when you see someone who is being made happy by what you are doing.”
Katrina Larkin, a senior from Kingsport, Tenn., majoring in psychology, said working on the second house was also a good opportunity to see how much work is put into rebuilding a home as they compared it with the other house where the Tusculum students worked.
After finishing their work, the students walked around the neighborhood and talked to other residents about their homes, McDonnell said, and one lady told them she had her home built near a tree on her lot because that tree had saved lives following the hurricane.
The students began their third full day in New Orleans by taking a tour through sections of the city guided by a native of the city. Some sections had not been touched since the hurricane and still showed all the devastation caused by the storm, another area was in the process of being rebuilt and a third more prosperous area showed no ill effects from Katrina. Their guide also shared some of the history of the area, telling the students that the Lower Ninth Ward was part of a plantation in antebellum times and was where the slaves lived.
After the tour, the students returned to their work on the houses under renovation.
Ashley Bradford, a senior pre-physical therapy major from London, Ky., found herself wishing she could do more throughout her experience in New Orleans. However, she felt as if she left her mark on the city by helping enable someone to move back into a house and restart his or her life, she wrote in her journal about the trip. “New Orleans left a mark on me because it showed me how a little bit of work can go a long way and how the sacrifice of yourself is often greatly beneficial to others, and in the long run, it turns out not to have been a sacrifice at all.”
The students also had the opportunity to experience the rich and varied culture of New Orleans in the evenings. On the night they arrived in New Orleans, the staff at Common Ground recommended the students visit a Hara Krishna temple, which served a free meal to the public. The students arrived in the middle of a service and then attended the meal that concluded the service. Some of the students chose not to participate in the meal that was part of the service because of their own religious beliefs. Longwell said that situation caused no problems within the class as the students respected each other’s beliefs and decisions regarding the meal.
Later that evening, they visited a convenience store/restaurant/liquor store in the Lower Ninth Ward where they talked to some of the residents of the area. McDonnell said they were approached by a man asking them for things who told them he hated the city. “It was interesting to see how people are still emotionally affected by the hurricane.”
After their first full day in New Orleans, the students visited a jazz club. “It was nice to see that after the devastation, they still have part of their culture,” said Larkin.
Kimsie Hall, a sophomore from Cleveland, Tenn., majoring in athletic training, added that the club was having an “open mic” night, and for those who got on stage, performing seemed to be a release from dealing with the aftermath of Katrina.
The students visited the House of Dance and Feathers, which David Roncskevitz said embodied the spirit of New Orleans as a city, down to earth.
And on their last evening in New Orleans, the students went to Bourbon Street to experience the culture there.