January 13, 2006

Two student groups spend break in south for Hurricane relief

More than four months have passed since hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the southern Gulf Coast. Though the situation in affected areas no longer dominates daily national news cycles, reconstruction is far from complete. Last month, after finishing exams and turning in papers, two groups of U of C students joined in the continuing effort by heading south.

Thirty-seven students paid their own airfare to Biloxi, Mississippi, where they lived and worked from four to seven days, as personal schedules allowed. The trip, organized by second-years in the College Anna Snoeyenbos and Abigail Mulligan, connected University students with a national relief organization called Hands On USA (HOUSA), which is volunteer-staffed.

The Biloxi volunteers’ tasks included covering damaged roofs with tarps, gutting and cleaning mold-infested houses and buildings, sorting donated items at a local distribution center, and even working in a local animal shelter.

“There was a lot of work to be done,” said Snoeyenbos. “Biloxi is the poorest city in the poorest state and had huge issues even before it was hit with Katrina, and it was hit really hard.”

Eight members from the campus a cappella group Rhythm and Jews traveled by car to give a seven-day benefit tour in the New Orleans area, giving concerts and working with Common Ground. This organization, founded to help with Katrina relief, has been working since two weeks after the hurricane.

Experiences in the affected areas gave several students new perspectives on the magnitude of the disaster.

Ali Lange, a second-year in the College, worked on the Biloxi trip. “At one point I was walking around this big pile of dirt, and I suddenly realized when I walked out the front steps that it was a house,” Lange said.

Third-year in the College Ruby Hasnie told of her experiences working in the Biloxi community distribution center. “We were told to help people find what they need and to monitor how much people are taking,” she said. “There were certain limits on things, especially when it came to sanitary and personal hygiene items. This was especially hard to enforce when listening to someone tell you how they are living in a tent with 10 other people and only a hot plate.”

Student volunteers also gained perspective on the logistical problems of the reconstruction project. Chelsea Richer, a second-year in the College, participated in the Rhythm and Jews trip. She spoke of the frustrations expressed by local residents when trying to deal with the extensive regulations enacted to control reconstruction. At one point, she talked to a man displaced from his home who had managed to secure a trailer as temporary housing. The man was delayed several weeks in moving into his trailer, however, because it had to be inspected by each of the several different authorities that had jurisdiction in the area.

Despite these problems, volunteers were optimistic about the work being done in hurricane-affected areas. Snoeyenbos was enthusiastic about the success of HOUSA in particular. “The residents of Biloxi were really grateful to have Hands On USA down there because of their unique philosophy—get as much work done as you can as quickly as you can, with the understanding that some portion of it will end up being wasted, like a house that you spray for mold ending up getting demolished anyway. This philosophy ensures that the residents are able to call upon HOUSA and get immediate response which is if nothing else a huge psychological boost,” she said.

Lange, too, saw the importance of emotional support of local residents as an addition to the physical labor. “I think as much as needing actual help people down here really just want someone to listen to their stories and provide some source of comfort by telling them that it really is bad, they aren’t weak people.”