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By Cristina Marie Tazza, SCU sophomore communications and Italian Studies major from Allendale N.J, and Santa Clara Community Action Program Julian St. Inn Coordinator
My time in New Orleans was a weeklong intensive experience I will surely never forget. The immersion trip was made possible through the help and support of Catholic Charities as part of their “Operation Helping Hands” program. Our team was housed in Hope Haven at a facility previously used to accommodate troubled and at-risk teens. It was evacuated during the hurricane, and at the time of our stay had yet to resume traditional functioning. This facility is located in the West Bank (Jefferson Parish), a mere 15 minutes outside of the city. Our team was given the guidance of a site manager who directed the group to their designated worksite for the day, and who provided all the necessary tools and supplies to needed to gut the selected houses.
Just five months after Hurricane Katrina swept the area, the destruction still appeared to envelop everything as far as the eye could see: clusters of half-demolished houses and scattered debris throughtout neighborhoods. There were mountains of damaged and destroyed possessions collected outside of homes, including bent tricycles, tattered wedding dresses, and mangled china. Power lines and telephone poles lay entangled as yarn on street corners and traffic laws were optional at best due to downed traffic lights and missing stop signs. The view inside the houses was ever more despairing.
Equipped with surgical facemasks, carpenter gloves, and work boots, we walked into houses seemingly frozen in time. The first impressions were overwhelming: Decaying rooms filled with furniture, household devices mangled and motionless as if they had been abandoned years ago. Keepsakes and personal remained on rotting shelves and in waterlogged chests. Soggy photo albums containing smudged memories lingered in bedroom closets and on family room end tables. The scent of standing water. The tragic scene was utterly devastating. We cleared out the houses, starting with damaged decorative tidbits, at a steady pace progressing quickly to large furniture items. Finally armed with axes, crowbars, rippers, and hammers, we proceeded to take out walls, tear down ceilings, built-in cabinets, toilets, and even tile floors. Nothing short of blood, sweat, and tears went into purging each house of its decomposing structure and mildew-ridden contents. We battled monstrous cockroaches, soaked and dripping insulation, and pesky nails that poked through our boot soles, all on top of immense emotional overload.
We worked diligently each day gutting houses from 8:30 in the morning until four in the afternoon. Each night we explored a different part of the city, giving us a chance to experience the totality of the travesty. One night in particular we met with a Loyola student who had attended Santa Clara University for the fall quarter in the wake of Katrina. She spoke of her time at SCU fondly as well as expressed her anxieties and anticipations about resuming her studies back at home.
Our student group, consisting mostly of females, averaged the completion of a house and a half per day. By journey’s end we had completely gutted three houses, leaving only the wooden pillars of the foundation standing. Through the course of our hard labor, we became close to some of the house owners who lovingly shared their tales over water breaks. The community appeared to maintain high sprits, speaking of rebirth and new beginnings. The residents were visibly touched by our efforts and made every attempt to express their gratitude.
While much more still needs to be done to clean up what the waters recklessly left behind, the SCU immersion trip was a complete success, in terms not only of work accomplished but also in the relationships forged and deep emotional bonds created. I left with far more than a better understanding of the troubling state of affairs in New Orleans, but rather with a newly established sense of attachment to these people and their stories, which I will carry with me forever.