The city of New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA), is vibrant and lively, from listening to live jazz on every corner, indulging in spicy foods or conversing with the people
submerged in the culture. However, one could be easily fooled by how upbeat the community has stayed after Hurricane Katrina and not realize how much damage is still there. As a volunteer with the United Saints Recovery Project over spring break, I was able to hear the heart-breaking backstories of those impacted by the storm that may go unnoticed.
Driving to our volunteer service in the lower ninth ward, there was empty lot after empty lot, where houses used to be filled with neighbors, friends and lovers. Stairs leading to nothing were also a common sight, or houses with DOA (Dead on Arrival) still spray painted on abandoned doorways. Twelve years have passed, yet the constant reminders of the damages Hurricane Katrina caused such as these is seen every day for those who are still living in the community. In certain areas, you would think the storm happened a few weeks ago.
When Hurricane Katrina struck NOLA, it overwhelmed several of the city’s unstable levees and drainage canals. By nine in the morning, the low-lying places, such as the ninth ward, were under such massive amounts of water that people had to scramble to attics and rooftops for safety. Eventually, nearly 80 percent of the city was under some quantity of water.
Before the storm, the city’s population had nearly 30 percent of its people living in poverty. Hurricane Katrina only added to these conditions, and left many of NOLA’s poorest citizens more vulnerable than ever before. The storm also had a way to turn a person’s world upside down, leaving those in more comfortable status’, such as the middle class, finding themselves begging on the streets for money the day after. Nearly 2,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands of evacuees scattered far and wide. The rebuilding of the city has been ongoing since 2005, and I was able to be a part of it.
I worked on two different houses in the span of a week, with seven other Keene State College students. We became carpenters overnight, between putting up sheetrock, texturing walls and painting. The house we worked on had barely been touched since Hurricane Katrina, with one woman and her mother living in a quarter of the size of their whole house since the storm. While her situation was not ideal, she did not let her situation define her.
She was rooted in kindness, constantly asking our group throughout the work day if we were okay or if we needed anything. Every home that we worked on had a gracious homeowner, and it truly put into perspective that happiness is not found in material things. Meeting people with such appreciation for what they have, no matter how small, proves all that we take for granted.
Alternative Break allows me and other students to step out of our own world, where we have been given everything we could ever ask for, and dive deep into another. It shows that some of the most positive people have been through hell and back, but use their experience for the better, rather than the worse. This trip has taught me no matter the battle you face, there is always a chance to find the silver lining. You can always rise above.
Olivia can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org