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Blown Away in the Big Easy

The Life Lessons Katrina Left Behind

by Victoria Kidd - Assistant Director of Advancement Communications 

Spring 2006

Standing in the middle of the lower Ninth Ward, an inner city neighborhood in New Orleans, the destruction seems endless.Susquehanna University's first hurricane response team traveled to Katrina-ravaged Louisiana in January. Victoria Kidd, a regular feature writer for Susquehanna Today, accompanied the group for the first half of the weeklong service trip. Kidd, herself acquainted with disaster when her own home was flooded during Hurricane Ivan in September 2004, draws on her personal experience in writing the following account of the trip.

Atlanta, Ga., Saturday, Jan. 7

2:45 p.m. EST: I'm settling into my seat, 21E -- a window seat, as requested -- on Delta Air Lines Flight 630 to New Orleans International Airport. I watch as other passengers file by, searching for their seat numbers below the overhead storage. A young man -- long, lean and smooth-skinned -- stops at the empty aisle seat beside me and checks his ticket. He will be my traveling companion on this, the third leg of my trip. My day began at 6 a.m. with a three-hour drive from Selinsgrove, Pa., to Baltimore-Washington International Airport, where I caught my flight to Atlanta.

Like me, many passengers on this flight have a final destination of New Orleans, La., probably one of the last cities in the country most people want to be in this post-Katrina era. It's been more than four months since the hurricane slammed into the Gulf Coast, causing levees to burst and flood much of the city. As the young man settles into the seat beside me, I wonder, "Is he a survivor?"

My traveling companion smiles and says "Hi," as he stuffs a small duffle bag under the seat. By the time we take off, talk of our separate origins and common destination soon give way to discussions about the purpose of my trip and, of course, Katrina -- a subject that increasingly dominates conversations the closer I get to New Orleans.

I soon learn that Raynard Bender is a 25-year-old MBA candidate at the University of New Orleans. At least he was before Katrina struck. He is a native of the Ninth Ward, ground zero of the hurricane's devastating aftershocks. In one fell swoop, his home, his college -- life as he knew it -- was washed away. In the past four months, he has lived in Texas and Wisconsin. Now Bender travels back to his hometown to work with an engineering firm hired to research feasible locations for FEMA's controversial "trailer cities."

Victoria Kidd talks with Chalmette resident Rita Dauterive inside the house she and her family called home for nearly 20 years, now mud-riddled and mold-infested.We talk as if we've known each other a lifetime, and before long, he offers to show me a home video of his community, shot the week before while he visited family for the holidays. Placing a portable DVD player on my seat tray and handing me the earphones, he tries to set the scene, but nothing he says can prepare me for what I'm about to see -- a war zone on American soil, instigated by Mother Nature's violent wrath.

It is then, before ever setting foot in Louisiana, that I realize how blessed my family was in September 2004 to be at the mercy of Hurricane Ivan and the Susquehanna River, rather than Katrina and a weakened levee system. Unlike much of Greater New Orleans, my family had warning, had time to save our mementoes, our heirlooms and ourselves. For people living along the Industrial Canal in the lower Ninth Ward, time was not a friend.

Reminiscent of the 2004 Asian tsunami, a wall of water came barreling at them at a moment's notice, leveling scores of houses and washing even more off their foundations and into the streets. Unlike the family suspected of perishing in their Canal Street home when a barge broke through the levee and flattened their house, my family escaped the rising water of the Susquehanna River. We had a place to go, family to stay with nearby. We weren't forced into football stadiums in other states and left wondering whether loved ones were dead or alive.

Over the holidays that followed our disaster, we didn't get notified, as one family from the Ninth Ward did, that an uncle's body had just been discovered in the attic of his home. That he'd climbed to the highest level of his house to escape the rising water, only to have his refuge become his tomb. We didn't have an orange X spray-painted on the front of our house, and we didn't drive through our neighborhood after the water receded, praying we wouldn't find the letters DB (for dead body) in the lower right-hand corner of the Xs on our neighbors' homes.

As the images from Bender's home video play out on the small screen in front of me, tears blur my vision, and I instinctively reach over and touch his arm. He, in turn, takes my hand as if I am the one in need of comforting. And here we sit, at 30,000 feet, two strangers holding hands, staring at the massive destruction contained on that small screen, as a song, dubbed into the background of the video, plays through the earphones around my neck. It's a song I've never heard before, yet one whose chorus will play in my mind countless times during and after this trip: "Hurricane, hurricane, is sometimes the only way to wash away the pain."

Mandeville, La., Sunday, Jan. 8

It's the first full day in Louisiana for Susquehanna University's hurricane response team. Their home base is Hosanna Lutheran Church, in Mandeville on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain. Nineteen students and four faculty/staff leaders make up the team, and I will shadow the group through the first half of their weeklong stay in the Big Easy to document the trip.

As I gather together my notepad and microcassette recorder, my phone rings. It's Alison Kruchkowski '99, calling in response to an e-mail I sent her prior to the trip. She thinks it's incredible that SU has made a commitment to the Gulf Coast's recovery, and she's delighted that the group is in Louisiana -- the state she's called home for seven years now. She wants to meet the students and catch up with Professor of History Linda McMillin, provost and dean of faculty, who is serving as one of the group's four team leaders. Kruchkowski says she wants to drive down from her home in Baton Rouge to meet us. She can be in Mandeville in an hour and a half.

It's warm, approaching 70 degrees, and students are lounging on the patio of the church, taking full advantage of this rare opportunity to have sunshine and warm weather in January. Before long, more SU students and their team leaders arrive in grocery-packed minivans.

Amid the flurry of students unloading grocery bags is the Rev. Daryl Daugs, a retired Lutheran pastor from Washington. Daugs first came to Louisiana last November. Unable to sit idly by and watch the region's suffering unfold on television any longer, Daugs left his West Coast home and headed east, arriving on Hosanna Lutheran Church's doorstep with a simple mission -- to help out in any way he could. That initiative didn't go unnoticed, and now he's returned to Louisiana as Hosanna's site coordinator for Lutheran Disaster Response. Accompanied by his son, Daryl Jr., Daugs pulled his motor home into the far corner of Hosanna's parking lot just hours before the SU team arrived Saturday night. He will call the spot home for the next six months.

Today, Daugs and his son will call Kruchkowski and me co-pilots, riding in the back seat of his extended cab pickup truck as he guides the four minivans carrying members of the hurricane response team towards the Chalmette/Gentilly area that surrounds New Orleans proper.

The destruction along I-10 and Route 47 compounds with each passing mile. Barges, smashed into one another, sit cockeyed in the middle of marshlands. Boats are haphazardly strewn in people's yards as if toys in a child's play room. Flooded vehicles, stacked on top of one another like matchbox cars, sit in empty fields, and filling the air is a stench -- a swill of mold, gasoline and human waste -- so strong it permeates the cabins of our vehicles as we drive past.

An SU student works with a young boy on his reading skills outside a classroom at Chahta-Ima Elementary School.Neighborhoods in Chalmette and other areas in and around the city look more like Afghani villages than American suburbs. There is no electricity and no running water. Street lights don't work, and an open gasoline station or restaurant is a prized commodity.

The extent of the damage is unfathomable. So too were the stories Kruchkowski told me as we drove across Lake Pontchartrain Causeway -- stories she would later discuss with team members over coffee and beignets at Café du Monde, and a home-cooked meal back at Hosanna Lutheran Church.

When Katrina struck, she was studying veterinary medicine at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. In the aftermath of the storm, LSU became a temporary shelter for more than 30,000 evacuees from New Orleans, and its School of Veterinary Medicine was transformed into a temporary rescue shelter for abandoned animals. Some of the stories that Kruchkowski's fellow rescuers relayed from the frontlines of the disaster make her shudder to this day -- apocalyptic stories about dogs "packing up," reverting to natural survival instincts, and in some instances, feeding on the only thing they could find, human remains.

In Chalmette, the caravan stops to survey the progress of clean-up efforts at Christ Lutheran Church. "You feel like you're in a Third World country. It's unreal. It feels like I've jumped into a picture from CNN.com or something," says Robert Shick '09, peering down the desolate streets.

Lauren Bush '06, an integral member of the university's hurricane response planning committee, walks around the neighborhood surrounding the gutted church, looking in broken windows and open doorways at the overturned furniture, sludge-splattered walls and smashed memories inside the houses. "It just doesn't seem like it's our country. There's nobody here, and you wonder, "Who's coming? What's being done about this?" Bush says.

Team leader Eric Lassahn, Susquehanna's director of residence life and volunteer programs, stands in the middle of the street trying to absorb the scene. "It looks like there could have been a natural disaster here, or it looks like there could have been a war here," he says. "Then, folks who either live here or who have been here on and off tell you that even now there is no real plan in place. It feels like we're in a ghost town, like we're in a forgotten land."

Lacombe, La., Monday, Jan. 9

A sampling of the musical instruments the hurricane response team donated to Bayou Lacombe Middle School in St. Tammany Parish school district.A dozen students, carrying musical instruments donated by members of Susquehanna University and its surrounding communities, file into the music room at Bayou Lacombe Middle School. The team has been shuffling the instruments from place to place since Saturday. First, onto a school bus bound for BWI Airport, then onto conveyor belts as their second pieces of checked luggage. Now, the instruments -- more than 20 in all -- have reached their destination.

Music teacher Val Laird is there to receive them. "We'll be rockin' next year," she tells the three pupils accompanying her. And thanks to Susquehanna's instrument drive, sponsored by Sigma Alpha Iota and Phi Mu Alpha music fraternities, along with the Collegiate Music Educators National Conference, young musicians from this historically poor school district, left reeling from Hurricane Katrina, will have instruments to play without their families having to scrape together money to rent or buy them.

It is a welcomed sign of hope amid the daunting tasks that follow. This morning the group departed their host site in teams of five and six. The team led by Kathleen Dalton, reference librarian and assistant professor, is one of the first to face a seemingly unmanageable mission -- sorting a gymnasium full of donated clothing at Slidell Jr. High School, a "platoon" site running two shifts of classes from 9 o'clock in the morning until 9 o'clock at night to accommodate both students who regularly attend there and those from a school building destroyed in the storm.

Walking into the gymnasium, the team is met by mounds of boxed clothing and loose garments strewn all the way to center court and lining every wall of the space. The clothing was left here after drop-off sites like the Salvation Army and VFW posts filled to capacity from the deluge of donations coming into the area. Since then, the clothes have been rooted through by countless hurricane victims, leaving the gymnasium, like the relief effort and New Orleans herself, in shambles.

It doesn't take long to realize that there is no unified relief effort in Louisiana. Individual churches, volunteer groups and civic organizations have no one place to turn to for work assignments. Identifying families in need is done primarily through word of mouth. Red Cross volunteers are on random street corners handing out food. FEMA tents have taken over a parking lot in the French Quarter, and makeshift disaster recovery sites are set up outside damaged department stores. Yet there is a foreboding sense of disunity between the groups. It's not that they are working against one another. There is simply no centralized clearinghouse to organize their efforts.

As Lindsay Lawer '04, of Selinsgrove, Pa., who is also in New Orleans this week working with an animal rescue shelter, explains: "It's not federally organized. It's not even state organized. You really just have to show up, find your niche and do it."

By mid-morning, the Susquehanna teams are settling into their jobs, but as I watch Dalton and her students assess the task before them, I think how small they seem standing here in the middle of this mountain of clothes. It's a feeling many of us have had in the last 24 hours.

Reflecting on the devastation during the drive back to the church Sunday night, Emily Bowling '06 said, "I just feel so naïve. We all saw the pictures and the footage on the news, but walking around today, seeing the homes and churches that were damaged, brings it to life so much more. It's really humbling to see it all."

Ironically, this feeling of insignificance motivates the group. Members of the team are angry for feeling so small in the face of this monumental task, frustrated that life carries on as usual in the rest of the country while this place sits frozen in the morn of August 29, 2005, and they are determined to do something about it.

"I've never seen such a desolate place, and we're not in a different country," said Jenai Faulk '06, while surveying the damage in Chalmette Sunday. "We're right here in our own country, and I can't believe how people are sitting back not doing anything. I don't understand why America can't just stop for a day and come down here and help."

Before going to sleep on an air mattress in Hosanna's sanctuary Sunday night, Rebekah Miller '06 wrote in the team's journal: "I hate feeling like a tourist of other people's suffering and loss. Let's get to work!"

And to work they went this morning -- Dalton's team to the junior high school, the education team, led by McMillin and Bush, to Chahta-Ima Elementary School, and the other two teams to houses destroyed by the flooding. One is paired with Chalmette resident Rita Dauterive; the other is assigned to the Meraux residence of Nancy Arnold. Both women lost virtually everything: Arnold when a 20-foot storm surge -- unhindered by the vanishing wetlands in the area -- crashed through her development; Dauterive when flood waters carrying more than a million gallons of oil from a nearby crude plant inundated her neighborhood.

Small miracles: A student finds a wedding cake topper amid the rubble at Dauterive's house."It's a lot worse than I expected," says Justin Cushing '06. "I wasn't expecting a foot of mud to be in the houses, but we all work through it. We're able to put on our gloves and our masks, and really get in there and make a difference."

The teams braved the stench, the sludge and the snakes (hibernating under mud and vegetation covering the floors of the houses) to work side by side with the women, "mucking out" their houses and searching for small treasures they might be able to salvage. "You don't even know where to start," adds Randy Hagofsky '06. "You look inside and there's just muck everywhere, then, once in a while, you find a kid's baseball trophy or a family portrait."

The fate of such items is left to the discretion of the homeowners. They decide whether the items go in the trash pile or the save pile. One item that makes the save pile is an antique ceramic vase, uncovered by Shick and David Long '08 while shoveling debris out of Arnold's house. She cries when they give it to her.

"This was my grandmother's. She gave it to me right before she died," Arnold says, admiring the vase as she brushes dried mud from its surface.

Reflecting on the experience, Long says, "It's really touching to know you made someone feel at least a little bit better by finding something that was really important to them." But by midweek, Long and the rest of the team will see that, in some areas, there are no family heirlooms left to save -- that what they've seen so far is not the worst Katrina had to serve up.

Metairie, La., Tuesday, Jan. 10 

I cannot get Chris Graythen's voice out of my head. "I stopped counting at 10," he said. That's how many dead bodies the photojournalist saw in the days and weeks after the storm.

A New Orleans native, Graythen is the freelance photographer who accompanied our group to the work sites on Monday. He talked about his experiences covering the disaster -- stories of being shot at during the lawlessness that followed the levee breaches and watching a rescue worker tie string to a dead body and fasten it to a street sign so it didn't float away. There wasn't time to properly dispose of the corpse while there were still living victims waiting to be found.

But in some areas, like the lower Ninth Ward that Graythen took me through on Monday, survival seemed impossible. When Graythen offered to give me the tour, I thought I knew what to expect. After all, I lived through a flood myself. I've seen Dumpster-lined streets filled with my neighbor's belongings and watched cleanup crews take axes to waterlogged furniture too heavy to carry out of my house in one piece.

Besides, I'd seen Bender's home video of the area during the flight from Atlanta. It surely couldn't be much different than that. But as we weaved through the debris-ridden streets, I found myself, for the second time in as many days, sitting next to a stranger openly crying.A student examines the damage in the lower Ninth Ward. Although the water line on the house nearly reaches the roof, the symbols surrounding the spray-painted X reveals that, at least, no dead bodies were found here.

The scope of the destruction was unimaginable. Entire city blocks were flattened. Countless times through the sleepless night now behind me, I wondered how people could tell where their houses once stood.

By Tuesday afternoon, I'm in desperate need of hope. I find it at Chahta-Ima Elementary School, where the education team is working as tutors and after-school mentors. Seeing the children's faces brighten when a Susquehanna student helps them with a reading assignment or shows them a new computer function somehow sets my mind at ease, lets me know that everything will eventually be okay.

In a journal entry, Rachel Jasko '07 described her own change of heart as a result of her work at Chahta-Ima: "At first I was second-guessing my decision to go to the school to help in the classrooms because I thought it might not be the most helpful place for my efforts. However, the first day I was in my classroom, I realized these kids needed our efforts too."

Bush is amazed by how quickly the children take to the team members. "They just seem so welcoming to us," she says. "They immediately want to be with you and want you to help them. They want to be at the center of your world."

And Taiisha Swinton '08, for one, is happy to have them there. "The kids give me hope. When I first came down here and saw some of the sights, I felt helpless. The kids know that Katrina happened and it affected Louisiana in a large way, but they're moving on and they know it's going to get better," she says.

Slidell, La., Wednesday, Jan. 11

"It is part of our mission to be of service," McMillin explains, as cheerleaders practice their routines at one end of the Slidell Jr. High School gymnasium, while Susquehanna students work, assembly-line style, at the other end. The clothes project has become McMillin's mission, and this morning she organized three of the four teams into a finely tuned machine that sorts, folds and boxes the donated clothing for shipment to local distribution sites.

The mother figure of the group, and a parent of a college student herself, McMillin takes 10 minutes from her steady work pace to reflect on the educational value of the trip. "This has been tremendous in terms of thinking about what it means to give service. We've had a lot of conversations about who we are helping and the notion that we're not even able to help the poorest of the poor. But if we can help people who are then going to be the ones who respond to the neediest families -- teachers, pastors and so forth -- then we're really doing a service," she says.

Team leader Eric Lassahn cuts limbs from a hurricane victim's yard while working with a brush crew on the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain."Another life lesson they are learning is what it means for the infrastructure of a society to break down. There are things that you take for granted that do not happen smoothly here. They've learned what it means to walk into a Denny's restaurant and find out that, if there's only one cook on, it's really hard to feed 23 people," McMillin says.

The education team, in particular, is seeing how schools act as a community builder. "The group has come away with an incredible knowledge of what a school means to a community, and the ways in which the school is a safe haven for these kids in crisis, and what an important role that plays, above and beyond the larger educational purpose," McMillin says.

The societal issues haven't gone unnoticed either. "There are big implications here in terms of socioeconomic class and the structure of society that they're seeing," McMillin says. This stark reality hit the students head-on this afternoon when, as a group, we toured the lower Ninth Ward -- the predominantly poor, predominantly black neighborhood destroyed when the Industrial Canal levee broke.

We walk down deserted streets as if walking through a graveyard -- solemn, silent and utterly shocked at the complete devastation stretched out before us. A single word or phrase could never describe what we're feeling.

"It's like a crazy collage of confusion, sadness, anger, sympathy and more -- a gumbo of feelings and thoughts," says Denise Hughes '07.

In a sense, we are experiencing the emotions of the people who live here. As we wander through the desolation of the Ninth Ward, we're breathing the story of Hurricane Katrina, experiencing it on a visceral level and making the story our own.

Kyle Pheasant '06 spoke to this point the first day we were in town. Driving across Lake Ponchartrain Sunday night, he said, "You see this huge body of water, and when those levees broke that water had nowhere to go but to a lower elevation. And those lower elevations were places like the Ninth Ward, and it had devastating effects. You don't get to see that kind of stuff on TV. That's why this is just as valuable as anything I've ever done."

It is a sentiment that crosses my mind more than once today, my last here in Louisiana. I am reluctant to go home, disappointed that I cannot make a bigger impact on these people's lives and wishing I could stay on to help the group finish their good works.

***

In the days following my return to campus, I would learn that the team completed their cleanup efforts at Dauterive's and Arnold's houses, distributed garbage bags full of new shoes and socks to affected children in St. Tammany Parish Public Schools, cleared damaged trees threatening homes as far away as Mississippi, organized all but a small pile of the donated clothes in Slidell Jr. High gymnasium, and began deconstruction on a third family's home.

By all accounts, the trip was a huge success, one worthy of the investment made by alumni who supported the trip through earmarked gifts to the universitys annual fund drive. The group's experience also motivated others to join the relief effort in the Gulf Coast. Susquehanna's second hurricane response team (which included several volunteers from the January trip) traveled to Louisiana over spring break, and another service trip is being planned for the summer.

But perhaps the trip's greatest accomplishment was not the tangible results of a completed work assignment -- or even the inspiration the team has given the next wave of volunteers -- but rather the value they discovered in making connections, both to the people of Louisiana and each other. This became abundantly clear on my last night in the city.

Following a day of tedious work at Slidell Jr. High and heart-wrenching discoveries in the Ninth Ward, the group took some much needed down time in the French Quarter, dining together at a Cajun restaurant and listening to music by a one-man acoustic band in a Bourbon Street bar, nearly devoid of other customers. Everyone danced and sang in chorus to classics like Lynyrd Skynyrd's Sweet Home Alabama and Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. No longer was this a group of seniors and underclassmen, faculty and administration. We were human beings united in a mutual cause, bound by everything that New Orleans struggles to find -- a cohesive voice, a singular mission, a shared passion.A student geared up to "muck out" a home in Chalmetter, La.

Earlier in the day, Bowling said, "I love everyone on this trip, and I think we're all going to stay friends when we go back. It almost makes me cry. I've been a part of so many teams, in sports and stuff, but the morale and camaraderie on this trip is something that I've never experienced before. It's something really special."

Perhaps Giannine Della Rocca '09 summed up this closeness best when she wrote in the group journal: "I began this trip with two friends and I left with two dozen."

Other entries also pointed to lessons learned during the trip. Bowling wrote that the trip reinforced the importance of relationships over material possessions. "Success and prosperity should never be measured by money or material items, but by how we use our lives to impact and help others," she said.

Others noted the resilience of the human spirit. "I am not a risk taker," wrote Dalton, "and I went on this trip wondering how people react when life changes so much -- and not of their choosing. But I learned that life does go on and it is amazing how strong and resourceful and optimistic these people are."

Susan Musser, secretary in Susquehanna's Blough-Weis Library, observed the incredible potential of our students. "I have met people from SU that have made me aware that the youth of today will be great leaders of tomorrow," she said. Dalton illustrated a similar faith when she wrote: "I would entrust my life to every single member of this trip; they are that caring and concerned and genuine."

But within the pages of the group journal, the team was only cautiously optimistic about the impact they made and reluctant to leave the job undone. "I can't believe our last day of work is complete," wrote Kathryn Richter '06 during their last night in Louisiana. "It felt weird leaving the neighborhood for good this afternoon. I feel like we should go back tomorrow, as if our work here is only beginning instead of ending."

Even now, with another hurricane season fast approaching, the work is far from complete. It is a disheartening thought. Yet the insight these young men and women gained from the experience, then put to work, can be an inspiration to us all.

"If a picture can tell a thousand words, being here can tell a million," said Christopher Wiegand '06. "We can take pictures and share our stories, but it will barely scratch the surface of the experience. I am thankful for being able to leave my sweat and heart here."

Members of the inaugural hurricane response team learned that the Gulf Coast's road to recovery is a long one, and there is much work to be done. Generous alumni gifts funded that trip, as well as the second service team's travels in March 2006.

Members of Susquehanna's hurricane response team walked through the streets of the Ninth Ward and surveyed the damage. The house in this photo was one of many that was washed off its foundation and into the street. 


 




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