College students from across the nation poured into New Orleans during Spring Break, filling relief camps designed to hold 150 people with more than 1,000 volunteers looking for a place to sleep.
Kelsey Birdsey, a freshman open option major, joined almost 80 volunteers from the Summitview Community Church in Fort Collins to spend Spring Break in New Orleans gutting houses destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
Birdsey’s group stayed at Good News, a relief camp set up in City Park. Good News put up several large tents that held hundreds of cots for volunteers to sleep on.
With so many people living in such a small area, Birdsey said showers were hard to come by.
“There were 12 showers for over 1,000 people,” Birdsey said. “We were told to limit our showers to no more than three minutes.”
For the hundreds of college students staying at the camp, spending a week in New Orleans was a way to get involved and do something productive for Spring Break.
“I had been to New Orleans before, and after the hurricane I wanted to help out the city,” said Katie Provorse, a freshman restaurant and resort management major.
The group spent four days stripping houses that were demolished by the flooding down to their frames.
“I saw images on TV, but seeing it up close hit me harder,” said Courtney Lundy, a junior speech communications major.
Volunteers spent most of their time cleaning the lower ninth ward of New Orleans, the part that was hit hardest by the hurricane.
Birdsey said that when they first arrived, it looked as if nothing was done to clean up the area. Cars were found beneath houses that had separated from their foundations and in some houses, nothing was moved out at all.
“Nothing in the area was running unless you went over to the French Quarters,” Birdsey said.
Volunteers wore masks over their faces to keep out smells and mold.
Birdsey said walls in some homes still were damp enough for people to punch holes and pull off large pieces.
Volunteers said they were surprised to see the state of the area and how it affected the people who lived there. Houses were so damaged that when people came back after the hurricane, many were unable to find their homes altogether.
Birdsey said one man whose entire house was destroyed told her that the hurricane was God’s way of cleaning up the city. The man was in the process of rebuilding his house, while most of the houses in the area remained abandoned.
The volunteers said many homeowners lived in such poor conditions before the hurricane that many are staying in hotels as long as possible.
With such poor conditions and so many people walking around, volunteers said the atmosphere was intimidating at times.
“You didn’t walk around alone,” Provorse said.
Lundy said security at the relief camp helped the volunteers feel safer in their surroundings.
Witnessing the destruction in the city and the people it affected reminded Provorse to appreciate what she has.
“The trip put a face on something that wouldn’t normally affect me,” Provorse said. “It reminded me to be grateful for what I have.”
The trip required a lot of hard work but turned out to be a rewarding experience.
“I would do it again in a heartbeat,” Birdsey said.
Lundy had no idea what to expect going into the trip but found the experience worthwhile. She’s already planned another trip to New Orleans for the summer.
“I’m excited to go again,” Lundy said. “I absolutely loved it.”
Sarah Mast can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.