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Rebuilding hope

UT students forget the beaches and booze to aid hurricane victims

Published: Sunday, March 12, 2006

Updated: Monday, February 2, 2009 12:02

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Photos courtesy of Donovan Nichols

Adam Scharf, top, a junior majoring in mechanical engineering, and Meaghan Dandurand, a freshman majoring in finance, work on a roof in Lake Charles, La. as part of the Alternative Spring Break.


Over spring break, more than 200 UT students went to the Gulf Coast to help rebuild communities devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Their efforts made national headlines and caught the attention of the U.S. Congress.

This is their story, as told by them, from blog entries kept during the trip.

On seeing the Gulf area firsthand:

Posted by Brad Engeldinger, a junior majoring in political science and women's and gender studies: All I can say is that as much as you hear from other people, and the news, and in magazines you just can't understand the awesomeness of the destruction. What we are seeing will stay with me for all time.

Posted by Terry Teagarden, assistant director of Commuter Services: Our group is absolutely incredible in the face of the destruction we have seen which just never seems to end.

Posted by Celia Regimbal, associate professor of early childhood, physical and special education: As we drove the last 3 [miles] to the beach our van became silent, the pictures you see don't even come close to seeing for yourself. What we saw made me cry.

Posted by Sean Stiff, a junior majoring in political science and public administration and an IC columnist: Today, for the first time in my life, I gazed out at the ocean.

On Wednesday, the Lake Charles Alternative Spring Break crew took [a] trip to a small, isolated community in southwest Louisiana. Cameron had a population of roughly two thousand people clinging to the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Now, aside from relief workers, the community is deserted.

As I stood on the beach today and watched the waves roll towards me, I wondered [where] the water pooling around my feet had been. Had a fisherman in Banda Aceh bailed it out of his boat in order to begin living his life again after the tsunami?

Maybe this same sea water had fallen as rain over the rugged mountains of Pakistan on the hospitals and new homes of earthquake survivors. I'll never know. One thing I was certain of as I stood before the new and eerie roar of the ocean, however, is that all humans are connected. The sooner we accept this and act upon it, the better off we all will be.

On the problem of mold in the affected homes:

Wednesday, March 8, 2006. Posted by the Metairie group in New Orleans: Disposing of their lives piece-by-moldy piece … MOLD - black mold has grown everywhere in the houses, so they have to be stripped down to the two-by-fours - ceilings, floors, walls - everything goes - carpet, clothing, books, [mementos], pictures, personal papers - between water and mold damage - sometimes both depending on how high the water rose within the houses (and it was weeks in many cases before the water receded enough to even return to survey the devastation).

We wear protective suits, heavy-duty work gloves, safety goggles, and masks. Not too cool to breathe in the air inside the houses. That mold thing, again.

On the problems the residents still face:

Wednesday, March 8, 2006. Posted by the Metairie group in New Orleans: The medical trailer (or "tin" as he refers to it) is fully-equipped to take care of basic medical needs of those who camp … The State of Louisiana has decreed that the medical professionals can no longer practice, can no longer volunteer their time and talents because they are not licensed in the State of Louisiana. So they have a nice big "tin," but no medical personnel are allowed. 70 percent of the electricity in the New Orleans area remains off. Stop lights in these areas mostly don't work. Some flash. So portable four-way stop signs are at most intersections.

On the heat in the city:

Posted by the Metairie group in New Orleans: New Orleans - 75-80 degrees with beautiful sunshine. Hot in the houses which haven't had the windows open in 6 months. Hot in the awful masks. Hot after hauling out refrigerators, appliances, beds, mattresses, food, dishes, etc.

So we're hot and sweaty and sunburned by the end of the day. We feel thankful we are here and feel satisfied at the small contribution we're making. At least we're here - we've heard that many times from the locals.

On their interactions with local residents:

Posted by Donovan Nichols, Americorps*vista/Campus and Community Collaboration Leader: While working on the roof at the house in Starks, two separate individuals dropped by asking us for hope. They described how they were not eligible for FEMA money and that they needed help.

Posted by Mary Ellen Edwards: Our group here in Bay St. Louis spent part of yesterday and today helping a family of 5 in the FEMA trailer (maximum occupancy 3) tear the siding off of their currently uninhabitable house to expose the moldy framework which will need to be replaced before starting on the moldy inside of the house.

Debbie, the mom of this family, fed us all lunch today. She is a lawyer, and had her graduation robes from Auburn [hanging] out on the line today to air out. She was proud that they survived the flood.

She had just left a law firm and opened her own office here about 2 months before Katrina hit. There is nothing left of her office. She's working now on getting the family home usable while her husband is working. I keep thinking that anyone of us UT faculty could find herself in this same position in a blink of an eye. Her teenage daughter brought home a puppy a few weeks ago and since they had not named it yet we started calling him Rocket and that is his new name.

Posted by Brad Engeldinger: As far as work in town, we did most of the work on houses painting them, making them look nice again. Not all the damage was from the hurricanes but all were people that needed the help.

Ms. Elizabeth was the first house, then the second house is owned by [an] elderly woman, who has cancer, recently had a heart surgery, and was in a car accident. As we worked on the house we found out she isn't supposed to be here with us for long. So we wanted to make the house beautiful for her remaining time here. And unfortunately we didn't get done with the 3rd house, because the weather was terrible this morning (Thursday). We had sheets and sheets of rain, which wasn't fair [because] we almost finished the scraping. But even though we didn't directly deal with the hurricane, we did affect the whole community, we were in the paper.

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