By Julia Ferrante
LEWISBURG, Pa. - The first time Bucknell University senior Lucy Christensen visited St. Bernard Parish, La., in 2010, the grocery stores were closed. Strip malls were deserted. And a storm-battered Walmart with broken windows and an overgrown parking lot was encircled with a chain-link fence.
"What struck me this time was the commercial development," said Christensen, a political science and Spanish double major who returned to the New Orleans area Jan. 8-16 with the University's Katrina Recovery Team. "There has been a lot of progress with businesses opening. I think the residential development, though, has kind of hit a plateau. People still want to come back, but they may not have the means to do so."
More than six years after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, the hardest hit areas of the Crescent City are showing signs of improvement. The Walmart is bustling. A grocery store has reopened. Schools are expanding. A permanent building is taking shape where portable trailers have long served as a hospital.
Still, in St. Bernard Parish and the Lower 9th Ward, newly constructed homes with abundant gardens sit next to vacant lots, abandoned houses and streets in disrepair. Some houses still have holes in the roofs where residents climbed through their attics to safety, and the tell-tale X used to denote damage and death remains prevalent.
Rebuilding a community
Bucknell's Office of Civic Engagement has organized service-learning trips to the Gulf Coast twice each year since 2006. Christensen was among 20 students and five staff members who participated in the winter break trip. Provost Mick Smyer, a native of New Orleans, and his wife, Pat Piper, a Lewisburg psychologist, also accompanied the group.
Staying at Camp Hope III, a government-run volunteer base in St. Bernard Parish, the participants worked with the nonprofit organization St. Bernard Project to rebuild a home in New Orleans East. Throughout the week, the team learned the many aspects of recovery and the broader efforts to recreate infrastructure, education and health care.
For those who had visited the storm-ravaged areas before, the progress was remarkable. For those who had not, it was shocking to see how much work has yet to be done.
"New Orleans is a unique American city," said Stacey Sommerfield, assistant director of service-learning and a co-leader of the January trip. "The storm was in 2005, and it would seem like everything should be fixed and done by now, but when you really learn about the process, there are numerous things that go into building a community."
Smyer, who has returned to New Orleans each year since Katrina, said that losing a third of its population meant the city has had to make some difficult choices such as what happens to the places where people don't come back. "But in many ways," he said, "the city seems more on a road to recovery even than it was a year ago."
Alumni and resident stories
The volunteers met with several Bucknell alumni and New Orleans residents, who talked about the trials and triumphs of the storm and the recovery effort. Andrew Yaspan, Class of '11 and an AmeriCorps VISTA, served as the group's site supervisor with St. Bernard Project. Yaspan became interested in the Katrina recovery effort through a class at Bucknell.
"I had never been to New Orleans before I took the capstone class on Katrina," Yaspan said. "After I graduated, I contacted St. Bernard Project. It means a lot to have students from my alma mater come down here and help."
Amy Schenkel, Class of '09, teaches biology at a local high school through Teach for America. Describing the challenges facing the New Orleans educational system, she said many of her students struggle with basic reading and math.
Jim Reese, Class of '69 and a New Orleans resident, took the group on a tour of the Mississippi River and the Port of New Orleans, one of the most active ports in the United States. The port reopened less than two weeks after the storm to resume the movement of cargo.
While touring the city newspaper, the Times-Picayune, the group heard how, even as reporters and editors contended with destruction in their own lives, the paper missed only four days of publication. Dr. Fred Lopez recounted the five days he was stranded at the former Charity Hospital in downtown New Orleans with dozens of sick and dying patients and no food, running water or air conditioning.
Many faces of recovery
Because of the large number of volunteers who go to New Orleans in January, the Bucknell team and another group worked in shifts, installing insulation and hanging drywall in a house in a recovering community in New Orleans East. The neighborhood is about a mile from a Six Flags amusement park that closed for Katrina and never reopened. The homeowner, former truck driver Keith Williams, addressed the Bucknell group on its first day of work.
"I was on the road during the storm, and when I saw on the national news that the Six Flags was under six feet of water, I knew we were in trouble," Williams recalled.
Like many displaced by the storm, the Williams family moved to Mississippi for a few years before returning to New Orleans. Insurance allowed them to pay off their mortgage, but the family did not qualify for enough assistance to cover the cost of rebuilding. The family finally found help through the St. Bernard Project.
The homes in the Williams' neighborhood are larger than the typical houses St. Bernard Project volunteers rebuild, the organization's co-founder Liz McCartney said, but the family is representative of the varying circumstances of recovery. The cost of rebuilding was compounded because the neighborhood's original developer had reduced the size of support pilings by half to save money, she said.
At the end of the work week, Williams and his son, Keaton, returned to the work site with pans full of homemade jambalaya, fried catfish, potato salad and peas as a thank you to the volunteers. When Keaton, 18, walked into his bedroom at the front of the house, he said it was looking more like home except, "I didn't have this big window. I didn't have this closet."
Throughout the week, New Orleans residents thanked the Bucknell group for helping to rebuild their city, addressing the questions on many minds: Are volunteers still needed? Should New Orleans be rebuilt? The resounding answer: "Keep coming back."
Christensen and her roommate, senior elementary education major Katie Smith, met on the 2010 Katrina recovery trip. This time, Smith was selected as one of two student-leaders. Both said they wanted to see the progress in the city and to again have the chance to meet others at Bucknell with similar interests.
"As a leader, I was able to guide other students as they went through the experience, and it is a journey," Smith said.
'When time passes, people ... tend to forget'
Xiaolong Li, a civil engineering and economics double major from China, said the Katrina recovery trip offered him a new perspective on cities in the United States as well as disaster recovery.
"Before I left, I thought New Orleans, as an American city located in the wealthiest and most powerful country in the world, should have well recovered six years after the storm. When I actually got down there, I saw that there are still many people waiting to be helped," he said.
"When time passes, people outside of New Orleans tend to forget about the disaster that happened, but it is still important for groups like Bucknell's Katrina Recovery Team to go down and help."
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