A house in New Orleans

Wanting a break from our keyboards and books, four friends and I went down to New Orleans last week to volunteer for local relief organization Common Ground. We were among approximately 20,000 college students to help in New Orleans over spring break, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Joining us at Common Ground were students from Howard University, Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke, the University of Illinois, DePaul University, Wesleyan University, and Barnard College, among others. Howard sent more than 500 students to New Orleans through its Alternative Spring Break program, approximately 200 of whom worked at Common Ground. Other schools came in smaller numbers.

At 6:30 each morning, volunteers awoke to clanging pans, a trumpet, or shouts. By 8:30, we began suiting up for a day of gutting houses, donning Tyvek suits, rubber boots, garden gloves, goggles, and respirators to block toxic mold spores from the floodwater that had sat in houses for weeks. Then we loaded a wheelbarrow, shovels, rakes, brooms, crowbars, and hammers into our car for the short drive to the house we would work on for the next few days, located in the Upper Ninth Ward, one of the most badly affected areas in New Orleans.

On the first day, we carried out a faded couch, rusty lamps, fans, and chunks of fallen plaster. Most of the smaller personal belongings had already been removed. With crowbars and sledgehammers, we knocked down the plasterboard covered in black mold, leaving only the wooden supports. Then we shoveled up the plaster pieces, a layer of rotting carpet, and the linoleum beneath, making giant piles on sidewalk.

The toughest part of gutting was removing the fridge. Common Ground workers warned all volunteers never to open one. The smell, they said, was unbearable, and what was inside was highly toxic. To make matters more difficult, the fridge in our house had fallen on its door. After shoving paint cans and bricks beneath to hold it up, the five of us slowly worked duct tape under and around the sides, hoping it would hold the door shut. Gingerly, we pushed it upright, as reeking water gushed out, then wrestled the box on a dolly to the front door, where we pushed it down the steps on its back.

On the last day, we pulled out nails, tore up more carpet, and swept, and swept, and swept. As we were collecting our gear to leave, a man living in a FEMA trailer down the block came by to look at our progress. Wandering through the empty rooms, he said, "You guys have done a lot of work. But there's a lot left to do."

Jenny Fisher, '07

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Photos (left to right): Trash quickly piled up in front of the house; Rachel Berg, '08, wields a shovel; Laura Eberly, '10, tears up rotting carpet.

March 26, 2007