When my friend Matt asked me to go on a trip with him to Louisiana over winter break, I thought it would be your typical college vacation—lots of partying, no work, no worries.
But it wasn’t. It was a chance to help heal the wounds that Hurricane Katrina had inflicted on the Gulf Coast when it hit more than a year-and-a-half ago.
Over winter break, 27 students in the Ithaca College chapter of Habitat for Humanity—myself included—traveled to the city of Slidell, Louisiana, to volunteer with local affiliates and build homes for residents of the area. After 22 long hours of driving, we arrived at our destination.
Over the next five days, we were up at 7:00 a.m. and working by 8:30 a.m., hammering in floor joists, cursing whenever the eight-penny galvanized nails bent under our hammer swings, and looking on with pride as we raised the first walls of the house.
Across the street, five other Habitat houses in various stages of completion waited for volunteers to finish them. After Katrina hit, the Slidell Habitat for Humanity affiliate redoubled its efforts to build affordable housing for needy residents, vowing to build 100 houses in a year—a tremendous increase from building only three or four houses a year. But even building 100 houses is a drop in the bucket considering the scale of the destruction.
On the 15-minute ride to and from the build site we witnessed the scars that Hurricane Katrina had left behind. In Slidell, dozens of houses on the side of the road were wrecked, ruined, or forgotten. Massive trees lay overturned in the forests, and shopping malls were deserted.
But on the job site it was easy to forget that so many homes had been destroyed when we were building new ones to take their places. Working side by side with senior citizens and AmeriCorps volunteers, we cut flooring, built walls, stapled insulation, and nailed hurricane straps to the houses in progress.
The most rewarding moment came, though, when we met the new inhabitants of the house. The mother and father beamed as they saw the mob of students building their new home. Nearby, their son played with a wheelbarrow. “Mom, take a picture of me,” he said, standing triumphantly by his future front porch.
I also learned some humility. All of us big, tough college students were eager to show off our brawn with a hammer and nails when we first arrived at the job site. But after about an hour, the physical pain had most of us crying on the inside and wishing it were lunchtime. Finally, after what seemed like the thousandth nail, my hammer clattered onto the plywood floor and my hand went limp. It was time for a break.
Then I looked to my right. Janet, another Habitat volunteer whom I guessed to be in her 50s (although she preferred not to say), was still diligently working, banging in nails with the energy of a jackhammer set on automatic. I was at once both amazed and ashamed, and I forced myself to pick up my hammer.
Ten minutes later, Janet reluctantly dropped her hammer and plopped down on a floor joist. “I have to take a 10-minute break every two hours for my insurance,” she said. When it was time to leave, we parted ways with our fellow volunteers and vowed to return in the spring. As our vans pulled away, we were coated in grime and I desperate need of sleep yet filled with a sense that we had made a difference.
As we left Louisiana we got another harsh dose of reality. We passed fields filled with thousands of new, unoccupied FEMA trailers carpeting the grass like tombstones. Why were those trailers lying unused in a field when thousands of people have nowhere to live?
Through our efforts, people displaced by Katrina will eventually have places to live. But the vacant trailers made me see that rebuilding a region isn’t an overnight process, and it’s definitely not possible to finish over winter break. There’s still a lot of work to be done. But we’ll be there, with hammers in hand—I’m sure of it.
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Fuse is a student produced publication about the Ithaca College experience. All content in the print and web versions of Fuse is developed by current Ithaca College students in a breadth of different areas of study.