New Orleans’s Bellaire Drive looks like set from a Hollywood disaster movie, according to a group of students who traveled to the city earlier this month.
School buses sit unattended in lawns or lodged into the sides of buildings. Homes rest in the middle of the street.
For residents on this street and many others in the ravaged city, the devastation of Hurricane Katrina remains as real as the day it hit nearly five months ago.
While many students spent the last few days of winter break sleeping late and spending time with friends, a small group of University students traveled to the hardest hit areas of New Orleans to tackle the destruction left by Katrina.
“The situations these families are in are so hard to fathom,” said LSA junior Eden Litt, who participated in the mission. “It is hard to believe that months ago people lived in these places and went about their daily lives.”
Various universities nationwide, including Northwestern University and Harvard University, sent student volunteers to repair and rebuild homes, schools and synagogues.
The University of Michigan sent about 10 students, led by Chabad House’s Rabbi Alter Goldstein. For five days, they worked from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. moving furniture, clearing debris and removing flood-soaked carpet and drywall.
They built the first Habitat for Humanity home for New Orleans Katrina victims, Litt said.
Most of the areas they visited were nowhere near the rebuilding stage, Litt added.
“We entered neighborhoods that had not been touched by humans since the hurricane,” she said. “These places have been left to mildew, mold, and (are now) home to all sorts of bacteria and insects. Our most powerful tool on this trip was a garbage truck.”
Some of the residents joined in the efforts to clear the debris from their homes, while others – too emotionally affected by seeing their possessions discarded – sat by and watched or left the scene entirely.
“It was easy for us to gut away these homes and trash the belongings, but to these families, this was their life we were throwing away,” Litt said. “But ultimately they were thankful- not only because we had provided them aid that would have cost them tens of thousands of dollars, but also because they were reminded that there were still people out there who cared.”
Goldstein said the experience was valuable not only because the students gained hands-on experience in disaster relief, but because it was a constructive way to spend winter break.
“Instead of relaxing on some beach, these students made a conscious decision to go somewhere where help is needed, where accommodations were not five-star and where conditions were unpleasant,” Goldstein said. “We all knew what we were there for, and there was the feeling that ‘if I’m not going to do it, who’s going to do it?'”
LSA junior Ben Greenberg, who was in New Orleans visiting a friend, met up with Rabbi Goldstein and the student volunteers to work on a synagogue in a local neighborhood.
“I had heard the stories of the devastation, but the reality of the situation set in when I saw the dirt all over the floor and the mounds of trash,” Greenberg said. “I realized that what happened in (that) synagogue happened hundreds of times to other houses and synagogues.”
Greenberg said he came to a realization of the amount of time and effort that would be needed to clean out the homes and buildings and to reach the point where residents could go about their daily lives.
But for Litt, there is much more to do.
“People need to do more. It is easy to escape reality – if you don’t watch TV and see what’s going on, it can disappear,” Litt said. “But these families are still trying to piece their lives back together.”