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In New Orleans, a Second Freedom Ride

TruthOut Editor's Note: TruthOut's Allie Deger traveled to New Orleans with over seven hundred students from eighty-two colleges across the nation from March 15 to March 19, 2006, to participate in debris removal in the New Orleans area during an "alternative spring break" with Habitat for Humanity. Here is her eyewitness report.

In New Orleans, a Second Freedom Ride

By Allie Deger
t r u t h o u t | Report

Tuesday 04 April 2006

The yards were full of head-high heaps of rubble consisting of bricks, refrigerators, cars, toilets and boats. The towns I whipped by at 70 miles per hour were empty shells of once-thriving communities.

Wednesday 15 March 2006

I arrived in New Orleans, Louisiana, today for a week of debris removal in St. Bernard Parish, accompanied by 700 students from across the nation. The host organization, OpportunityRocks, joined with Habitat for Humanity to orchestrate students from 82 colleges in a week of providing aid to families whose homes were dilapidated due to the levee breach in St. Bernard Parish during Hurricane Katrina.

I sat in the mid-passenger seat of our rental van during the drive from the airport to downtown New Orleans for an introduction speech by Senator John Edwards. I peered out the window looking for homes that were destroyed. I was looking for destruction. The group of students I was traveling with also found irony in my sentiment, canvassing the passing area east of New Orleans for devastation, demolished homes and the elusive FEMA trailers. A short time passed before I was in the midst of a sea of blue tarps covering the roofs of once-intact homes. The yards were head-high heaps of rubble consisting of bricks, refrigerators, cars, toilets and boats. The towns I whipped by at 70 miles per hour were empty shells of once-thriving communities. I imagined this is what Dresden must have looked like after the bombing in 1945.

Inside the Loewes Hotel in downtown New Orleans, I received my training with hundreds of other students on the "dos and don'ts" of debris removal. Do wear protective gear at all times, do kill any black widows and brown recluses, don't be insensitive to the homeowners, don't ever remark "who would want to live here now!" And, be cautious of human remains. Though OpportunityRocks was disorganized to the extent that I needed an Advil after the events in the hotel, they did manage to collect, instruct and distribute able-bodied college students who were literally ecstatic to exchange the apathy of a typical spring break for an Alternative Spring Break reconstructing the Gulf Coast.

Thursday 16 March 2006

Day one for debris removal. Temperature: 80 degrees; Humidity: 90%

On the drive to the job site from the hotel in downtown New Orleans to St. Bernard Parish the student group I was traveling with passed the Lower and Upper Ninth Wards. Along St. Claude Street, businesses (po-boy shops, mechanics, diners ... ) were shut down, and houses looked like a bomb had been exploded inside them. Literally, a bomb. I spotted a few people sitting on the stoops of their collapsed homes and a few more sleeping on their stoops. It was still early.

I crossed the Mississippi River and entered St. Bernard Parish. All of a sudden, the few people diminished to zero. No business were open, no houses were intact, the roads were overflowing with debris, and cars were lodged in strange places, like under houses. One brick foundation stood with the most peculiar mess inside: a toilet smashed into a bed frame and a plastic cup that looked unharmed resting inside.

It was difficult to find my job site; there were no street signs. They had all been knock down in the storm and still have not been replaced. The bearings used were landmarks and counting cross streets. Finally I arrived at a two story brick home that looked like it had been picked up, spun inside a washing machine, and smacked around with a 200-foot baseball bat. The owners were standing outside.

Ron Evans and his wife met the students and took them on a tour of their house. They explained where the houses on their road used to sit, since some had migrated to other roads during the storm. They did not stay long. Ron said his wife has cancer and cannot be exposed to the toxicities that are in the air for an extended period of time. The toxic air smelled like sulfur and what I can only imagine as rotting animals. When the wind blew, fragments of molded fiberglass were visible.

Thursday 16 March 2006

End of first work day.

I spent most of the day loading debris into large plastic containers and carrying wooden planks into the street. The students were inside the house shoveling out six-inch mud, removing furniture and ripping out drywall. It was necessary to keep moving, keep walking, in order to distract myself from the heat. Not five minutes after suiting up in my gear, which consisted of a full body white tieback, steel toe boots, respirator mask, goggles, gloves, and hard hat, I was perspiring. The only relief from the heat was from my own condensed sweat.

The work was labor-intensive. I was working with a group of ten students from different colleges in the San Diego area. We amazingly cleared out about half of the house in one day. As we worked, we met other homeowners and students from OpportunityRocks. By noon, on our street alone, there were six different student groups working on six different houses. Most of the students were from the University of Madison Wisconsin's Habitat for Humanity group, Whisper.

Friday 17 March 2006

Second day of debris removal.

We finished gutting the first house down to its studs and brick by noon. It was bizarre to see the entire contents of a house piled in the yard in front of it, taking up more space than the house itself. A sizable portion of the mound was comprised of dark brown fiberglass insulation. Unfortunately, even though the house had been gutted there, it was not possible to rebuild due to an oil spill from the nearby Murphy Oil Refinery. All of the homes in the area surrounding the refinery have been deemed too toxic to be inhabitable. The only option the homeowners have is to sell their properties, but first they must gut their homes. I met two freelance New Orleanians with a CAT dump truck clearing the street of the house I was working on. They estimated that at the current rate of debris removal it will take another six to eight months before St. Bernard Parish is vacant of debris.

The second half of the day was spent on removing debris from a different house. The homeowners of this house approached one of the San Diego students and tearfully pleaded for us to clear out her home. With a surge of happy exultation, we began gutting the second house. The interior of this house looked even more devastated than the first home. The floor was at times covered with a foot of molded mud. Some of the mud was slick, which made removal of bulky items like refrigerators full of stagnant water quite difficult. At times the tasks seemed daunting, but room by room, hour by hour, the moist drywall crumbled down and the desired bareness became a bit more plausible.

Saturday 18 March 2006

Last day of debris removal.

I was running on limited sleep, yet my exhaustion was suffocated by an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. Today the students and I finished the second house.

It was cool in the morning and the humidity did not slow our progress until late afternoon. Diligently, I shoveled mud for hours while the students worked more cohesively than the first two days, removing broken furniture and appliances. If the mud that lined the entire interior of the house had hardened, I had to use a metal spade to pry it loose. If the mud was damp, however, it harbored spiders and maggots and with each displacement from my plastic shovel, the stench intensified in stiff whiffs from which I nearly vomited. Once the debris enveloping the floor was cleared, dislodged and dispelled, we removed the drywall and the insulation, which like the mud was overridden with sundry spider species. When all of the debris was relocated to the front yard, along with everything else from the interior excluding a few personal items, I was almost unable to fathom how the house could be empty. The owners of this house are an eighty-five-year-old couple. They could not have cleared the house themselves.

After the students and I finished our second house, a neighboring homeowner approached one of the students, tearfully asking us to remove debris from her home. The student, wrought with guilt, could not acquiesce because she was leaving New Orleans the next day. Spring break is only one week.

Full of a hollow accomplishment, the students and I closed the day and the Habitat for Humanity alternative spring break with a search for a shrimp boat that was rumored to have become lodged in a house. We gathered ourselves and headed a few blocks closer to the levee. Riding in the van, we passed more homes that had been leveled or were just gone except for a blighted foundation, the brick structures in substantially better condition when compared to the homes framed with aluminum siding. Finally, after much cross-street counting, we were smacked in the face with a 50 foot boat pushed into the side of a brick home. The two houses to the right and left of the boat were ripped out so that only their foundations stood. The boat was 1500 feet from the Mississippi River. Because the boat had already been described to us, its sight was not surprising, but nonetheless it was horrifying.

While walking around the boat and taking photographs, we stumbled upon more displaced homeowners. Some came to look at the boat, some came to look for their pets. The "shrimp boat" lay unclaimed and undisturbed.

Seven months have passed since Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the Gulf Coast, and St. Bernard Parish continues to be forsaken - left in shambles by the neglect of FEMA and private insurance companies, with uprooted homes, cars lodged in the second floors of houses, and shrimp boats in a displaced family's living room. When I asked the students why they chose to spend their spring break gutting-out houses in Louisiana rather than lying on the beach, they all shared the same lament: we cannot rely on this government, this administration to provide assistance to its citizens. This country has articulated its values, and the attraction to Iraq greatly outweighs the responsibility to the Gulf Coast.


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