Many U.S. college students are returning to classes after a month-long vacation. For most, it was a relaxing winter break. But one group of college students spent their time off in New Orleans, Louisiana, and learned some valuable lessons in the process.
About 25 college students recently visited New Orleans together on a school project -- helping to rebuild the devastated city -- and they described much of the city the same way. "I had no idea that things were this bad five months later. It shocked me," says Justin Starr, who is from Sewickley, Pennsylvania. "I called my parents and sent them some photos. They were stunned. They had no idea how this travesty in our nation had just kind of turned into a blip that slowly moved off of their radar. I mean, entire neighborhoods in which homes haven't even been entered: doors sealed shut with silt and floodwaters. The magnitude is unprecedented."
Hurricane Katrina and the flooding it caused last autumn left most of New Orleans in
ruins. It devastated the entire Gulf Coast region, killing more than 1,200 people in five states and destroying hundreds of thousands of homes.
One of the visiting college students -- Elizabeth Dykes of Vienna, Virginia -- says it was eerie to see so many visible reminders of the disaster, like the lines of dirt stuck on the exterior walls of vacant homes. "That was a feeling I'll never forget -- to stand there and see the dirt from where the water sat for so long," she says. "The water line was above my head, and then you get into areas where, again, there are no water lines. You realize that's because the water was above the tops of houses. Then to be in those people's houses, helping them clean out. You really get a sense for what it would be like if your entire house was under water -- and you had 25 college kids come in and help you shovel every last belonging onto the sidewalk for someone to come and pick it up and put it into a dump truck."
The 25 students all attend the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. This month, the University offered them a two-week, intensive course examining the Katrina disaster -- and ways to avoid similar catastrophes -- by studying various disciplines like engineering, architecture, and political science.
The first week of the course was spent mostly reading newspapers and textbooks and going to classroom lectures on the Virginia campus. For instance, engineering professor Kay Neeley talked about ways to build better floodwalls. "The students recognized that there are some relatively straightforward things that can be done," she says. "There are two different kinds of flood walls that are put on top of a levee. The T-shaped wall, that has a broader base, and the I-shaped wall that has less of a base. The T-walls performed much better during Hurricane Katrina. They are not radically more expensive. So they would be a better option for rebuilding."
In the second week of the course, the students visited New Orleans with several of their professors. Students saw a lot of anger and frustration. At one point, the students went to a public hearing on the city's rebuilding plans. Tempers flared as citizens confronted city planners.
Professor Nicole Hurd says that "when the rebuilding plan was unveiled it appeared to the students to be a great plan. They all said, 'Wow, what a beautiful piece of urban planning.'" But when citizens at the hearing started a protest against the city officials for not putting enough initiative and money into the levee system, Ms. Hurd recalls that the students were stunned: "They said to each other 'Oh, my goodness, city planners just disenfranchised a neighborhood. They just took down a part of New Orleans, where those folks lived all their lives.'"
University of Virginia student Ross Baird says a lot of positive things happened on the
trip, too: the students helped in the citywide cleanup. "I removed the appliances from two different houses. I was very proud of that," he says. "I threw a couple of sinks out the door. That was very satisfactory on some level. And the ceiling fans, of course -- I ripped nine or ten fans from the ceilings, which is remarkably difficult. Crowbars were used to rip out the fans, and rusty hedge clippers for the pipes beneath the sink."
The college students helped empty out six soaked and moldy houses and several
schools - and they also taught some inner-city high school kids how to fill out applications for college admission.
Professor Nicole Hurd says the group left New Orleans with mixed feelings. "There was a lot of talk about 'this is just one drop in the bucket.' But I think they all felt like: 'if it's only a drop in the bucket, I think I'm going to make it the best drop I can,' she says.
To complete the course, the University of Virginia students met with their professors on campus one last time. Professor Hurd made it clear she was proud of their efforts. "This group has transcended all our expectations. I've never seen people take down a house the way you all took down a house, or grab somebody's hand as quickly as you all grabbed somebody's hand," she told the students. "If anything, I hope that UVA -- that what we're doing here -- is connecting your classroom life with your service life, connecting all those exams and reading to the human element. I hope you take that with you wherever you go."