Youth Group at Federated Church Returns from Mission to Aid New Orleans Cleanup
By MARK ALAN LOVEWELL
A large area in and around New Orleans remains devastated after Hurricane Katrina brought high winds and a storm surge to the Gulf Coast in August 2005.
Since the storm hit a year and a half ago, little has changed. Neighborhoods are still broken. People are without homes and there is untold wanton despair.
During the Christmas break, a team of young Islanders and their chaperones went to participate in an effort to help in what is a huge cleanup. They came back reporting that much remains to be done.
They called the five-day trip from Dec. 26 to 31 a success, though in many aspects it was more than what they had expected. The trip, in fact, was a life-altering experience.
Nine youths, aged 13 to 19, and three chaperones from the Federated Church Ecumenical Youth Group are back telling what they saw. They found it hard to believe that the devastation, the poverty, the sadness is within the borders of the United States.
"I want to go back and help, again," said high school senior Jackson Parker, 19.
That is an overriding opinion felt by all the members of the group: They want to return.
Mr. Parker has a vivid memory of standing on the highway and looking out across the landscape and seeing a community of thousands of broken homes spreading out as far as he could see. "It is like a bomb was dropped. Everything that we saw had been underwater at one point," Mr. Parker said.
The storm surge was at least 15 feet high in the area where his group worked. They were seven miles from New Orleans and saw ships on the Mississippi River and adjoining canal.
While industry is back in business in some parts of the city, roads run for miles with little change in the devastation since the storm, Mr. Parker said.
The Rev. Dr. Gerald (Jerry) R. Fritz said he was struck by the realization that while every house was affected for miles around in the town of Violet, where the group was working, one out of every 10 houses had someone living inside.
There was always the question about whether these homes were safe. Yet with the holiday season, people who had very little still had a way of showing that they were observing Christmas and had sparingly made decorations.
The Vineyard church group joined with volunteers from around the country in a program called H.O.P.E., Helping Other People In Every Way. While they had originally thought they were going to help in the rebuilding of homes, they spent most of their time taking ruined and abandoned personal belongings from homes and piling them in front yards for future collection.
They wore protective hazardous material suits, face masks, and gloves. A pervasive noxious smell, a stench, was everywhere.
"It was a toxic smell that must have come from so much mold and mildew in these buildings that remained," youth minister Jill Parker said. "We used one house where we flushed the toilet by dumping a bucket of water."
People in these communities hadn't showered in as much as a month. And when the Vineyard volunteers spent a week there, they never showered. There were Federal Emergency Management Agency trailers everywhere. Many were occupied and many were not.
Mr. Parker said he is disappointed the Katrina story no longer is being told in the media; that a national disaster of more than a year old is in many ways just as bad as it was following the August 28, 2005 storm.
For Cassaundra Gaines, 18, of Edgartown, a senior, two memories rise above them all.
She remembers Dani Cleary, 13, and herself going into a small room in a one-floor troubled house not knowing what to expect. As their eyes adjusted to the light, she said they found a flipped-over crib covered with diapers. Clothes and furniture were strewn and piled in the room. There was no doubt, she said, that the room had been for an infant and probably hadn't been visited since the storm. "We found a photo album that was so new that they hadn't yet put the photographs in it of the child," she said.
Also, Ms. Gaines said, "I remember when we were driving along the road, we saw a lady on the side of the road with a handwritten sign: ‘Stranded.'"
They stopped and gave the woman water. "She started crying," Miss Gaines said.
"People think: This doesn't happen in America," Mr. Parker said.
At the other side of the human equation, Southern hospitality was generously given the New England visitors. People were appreciative. Ms. Parker said they would often drive along a neighborhood road and see people waving from the street, from their sidewalks, from their home.
There was one disappointment. While money was donated to fund the trip, the group came up $1,000 short for the trip, which cost $10,000. Though most of the money went to pay for airfare, the price was higher than they expected.
"Holiday air fare prices jumped a lot higher when it came around to the time of purchase," Ms. Parker said.
The youths that went on the trip were Miss Gaines, Mr. Parker, Ms. Cleary, Christian Walter, Matthew Fisher, Win Grimm, Michaella Gaines, Dan Durawa and Wesley Haeselbarth. Chaperones were Dan Parker, Ms. Parker and Reverend Fritz. The group hopes to show pictures and share their stories in a program to be offered in the weeks ahead. The program will help in their continuing effort to raise funds.
Tax-deductible contributions may be sent to the Federated Church, P.O. Box 249, Edgartown, MA 02539. Checks should have a notation that it is for New Orleans trip. Any monies raised beyond the $1,000 needed will be put toward another trip.