January 30, 2009

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By Molly O’Brien-Foelsch

NEW ORLEANS The name Feliciana means “fortunate” in Italian and Spanish, but at first glance, the residents of Feliciana Street in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans are anything but lucky.

Take, for example, the blue house with cardboard tacked to its exterior walls.

Barely a week into the New Year, five members of Bucknell University’s Katrina Recovery Team stand on the street outside of that house. Tara, a Habitat for Humanity worker, tells the volunteers that the woman living there has been scavenging for construction materials to fix her flood-damaged home – the home where she’s raising five children.

Dilapidated state
The woman has painted over the large “X” that a search-and-rescue team sprayed on her house in September 2005, but the paint cannot disguise the dilapidated state of the structure.

The Bucknell volunteers were not there to help the woman and her children.

Instead, they needed to fill an owner’s request at a new Habitat for Humanity House directly across the street: Move a small pile of sand from the front of the house to the back.

'Really difficult'
Shovel load by shovel load, the volunteers whispered their frustration to each other:  “It's really difficult,” says Josh Goodman, Class of ’10 and a Bucknell Katrina Recovery volunteer. “When the people next door or across the street are living in a house that is barely standing, it’s hard to understand why you can't help everyone.”

In contrast, a few blocks northeast on Feliciana Street, the rest of the Bucknell volunteers worked steadily at three charming pastel houses rising out of the ruins near the Industrial Canal, which overflowed into the city when Katrina’s storm surge hit. By week’s end, the 16 student volunteers, along with five University staff members, an AmeriCorps VISTA member and the University Provost, Mick Smyer, and his wife celebrated their accomplishments. In just five days, they had completed new porches, steps and fences, painted doors, laid sod, planted flower beds and installed baseboards – all to prepare the new homes for their owners to move in.

And so it goes in New Orleans, where grassroots rebuilding efforts can help some but not others, where the people continue to embrace a deep sense of community even while crime persists and where acts of human kindness overcome despair as slowly and steadily as it takes to clear the hard mud left by long-receded waters.

These were just some of the myriad lessons learned by the members of the Bucknell Katrina Recovery Team during their Jan. 5-13 trip.

Labor-intensive work
The students’ learning experience began in November, when the team gathered on Sunday nights to learn about New Orleans and Katrina from several academic perspectives. The team and the sessions were organized by Bucknell’s Office of Service Learning. Among the sessions were discussions of the geographic, political, social and economic factors behind the storm and its aftermath. Provost Smyer led a discussion on trends in mental health and aging before and after Katrina.

These Sunday sessions were just the prelude to a deeper learning experience for the students, says Provost Smyer, who is a native of New Orleans. “The trip was a new way for students to think about an American city,” he says. “This is a part of the country with which they have had little or no exposure or experience. I think they were surprised by both the devastation and richness of the city’s cultures.”

In addition to the five days they spent working on Feliciana Street with Habitat for Humanity, the volunteers also experienced the returning vibrancy of New Orleans, taking in jazz and beignets in the French Quarter and seeing Musician’s Village, a new community designed to attract performers back to a city renowned for its musical heritage.

Horrors and triumphs
On Wednesday evening, the group traveled uptown to the home of Jordan White, Class of ’11, where they met Dr. Fred Lopez, professor of medicine and vice chair for education at Louisiana State University. Lopez described the five harrowing days he spent in Charity Hospital as he tried, without access to electricity or outside communication, to save the lives of a number of critically ill patients. Lopez’s presentation, and the photos that accompanied it, helped the students understand both the horrors and the triumphs of New Orleans those fateful days of August and September 2005.

“While many people died that week despite the efforts of the hospital staff and while many had to be turned away at the front doors from any help at all the almost unbelievable survival stories were amazing to hear,” said Dan Ryan, Class of ’09 and the trip’s student leader. “That was the first time I really thought about how crippled the New Orleans health care system was during the disaster. Dr. Lopez’s experience and the stories he shared with us are a testament to the way people can band together and do what’s right during such a horrible crisis.”

In evening reflection sessions, and in the days that followed, the volunteers have shared some of the most affecting experiences of the week, including:

  • Seeing the spray-painted Xs on the front of homes with numbers indicating how many bodies were found inside, some as high as five.
  • Admiring the courage of the residents who rebuilt their house directly across from where one of the levees was breached.
  • The contrast in the gradual progress made in New Orleans versus the faster rejuvenation of Bay St. Louis, Miss.
  • Working alongside locals who lost everything in the flooding yet have returned to help rebuild and to make New Orleans home again.
  • The accomplishments made in just five days on Feliciana Street.
  • The strong bond that emerged among the group members as the week progressed.

The volunteers have yet to process completely what they saw and experienced during their week of service, but according to Smyer, “It’s clear that they are better able to make judgments about the involvement and responsibility of individuals, community and government in confronting civic dilemmas.

“It was labor intensive work – the rebuilding, of course, but also the work of fully engaging in these issues,” Smyer adds. “Doing so requires close, structured supervision by faculty and staff even at the end of a long day. It’s the combination of action and reflection that contributes to the full impact of service learning.

“As a University, we want to prepare students and alumni to confront civic dilemmas whether they occur in the local community or beyond. It’s terrific that our students have come back to campus able to talk about what they’ve seen, to raise funds, to organize events and educate others so that no one forgets about New Orleans.”

Next trip May 2009
The next Bucknell Katrina Recovery trip is scheduled for May 2009.

See a Google street view of the intersection of Feliciana and Tonti before the rebuilding efforts. This is where the Bucknell volunteers worked on three new houses. 

Contact: Division of Communications