From the Microscopic to the Macroscopic: Graduate Students Volunteer in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Graduate School Life typically focuses on the activities of a graduate student in the laboratory. As part of a wider community, graduate students have interests and commitments that extend beyond the lab. For example, six students volunteered their time this spring to help rebuild New Orleans in the aftermath of last summer’s hurricane. Two of those students have written about the experience as an example of the Columbia tradition of community and public service.

HURRICANE KATRINA DESTROYED 300,000 HOMES AND DISPLACED three-quarters of a million people, many of
Columbia graduate student volunteers
Columbia graduate students join other volunteers for a photo after an arduous day of gutting a house. The Columbia students are Tahilia Rebello, seated, and Andrew Sproul, Serena Tan, and John Etchberger, standing at right.
whom have yet to return to their homes. In June, we and four other Columbia graduate students — John Etchberger, Priscilla Chan, Kay Cheng, and Andrew Sproul — decided we could no longer sit back and watch the story unfold on our television sets.
   After flying to New Orleans, we made our way to the Upper Ninth Ward. St. Mary’s Elementary school is headquarters for Common Ground Relief, where we would be volunteering for the week. Common Ground Relief, established just days after the storm, was one of the first groups to set up distribution centers and emergency medical aid sites. It has since grown in both size and scope, blossoming into a collection of bioremediation projects, legal aid centers, clinics, distribution centers, and, most notably, one of the largest free house gutting projects in New Orleans. What appealed to us most about the organization was its cooperative and holistic approach to rebuilding the city through tending to the immediate needs of residents and helping them rebuild both their communities and lives with sustainable measures.

Getting Started
We were hungry to begin some arduous house-gutting and renovation projects on our first day, but our team was assigned a different task: kitchen duty. We assisted the resident chef, “Grumbles,” in cooking for volunteers and residents of the Upper Ninth Ward. Although it took a good three days before the six of us stopped smelling like garlic, the experience was worth it: The feast we helped prepare fed more than 250 hungry volunteers and residents that day.
   After showing off our skills in the kitchen we attended the prerequisite safety meeting that rendered us officially certified for the back-breaking work of house-gutting, renovating, and rebuilding in the Ninth Ward. We were informed of the health risks involved in volunteering in post-Katrina New Orleans. Not only were the houses that we would renovate laden with black mold spores from being filled with toxic flood water for several months, but also most of the residences were built in the mid-1900s, when lead-based paint and insulation containing asbestos were commonly used.

Building and Gutting
Kay Chong laying down the insulation
Priscilla Chan with insulation sheet
Kay Cheng, top, and Priscilla Chan lay down the insulation at the Lower Ninth Ward clinic.
Before working in a house, we were part of the effort to help construct clinics and distribution centers throughout the city in preparation for the 2006 storm season. As our work-crew leader drove us to the clinic, he gave us a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward’s devastation. It was hard to believe that Katrina happened 10 months before because what we saw gave little indication that much time had passed.
   At the clinic, we mudded walls, put up Sheetrock, denailed old floorboards, and helped paint the fence while trying, in vain, to ignore the triple degree heat. Priscilla and Kay returned to the clinic later that week to help meet the Friday deadline for its completion. We also helped gut, clean, and repair the roof of a new distribution center. Climbing onto the hole-ridden roof with shingles, tools, wood, and roofing paper was daunting. We found ourselves balancing on the edge of a rickety roof while patching holes with old boards and rusty nails recovered from a pile of old shipping crates. The satisfaction of the work, however, was immense.
   A significant portion of our time in New Orleans was spent in Tyvek suits and respirators with sledgehammers, shovels, and crow bars in hand. Tahilia, John, Andrew, Serena, and other volunteers removed debris from and tore down mold-covered ceilings and walls in two flooddamaged homes. With the cost of gutting a house estimated at $10,000 and roughly 30 percent of New Orleans residents living below the poverty line, the free house-gutting service by volunteers meets an important need. In addition to helping expedite the insurance claims process, house gutting enables residents to begin the decontamination process and return to New Orleans to rebuild both their homes and community.
   While meticulously removing every nail from exposed wooden frames and mustering the strength and will to lift the sledgehammer one more time, we thought of the people who once lived in these homes and when they might return. During our water breaks we talked with local residents and listened to their tales of strength and survival. They seemed to find comfort in being able to share their stories and we found a source of motivation and sense of purpose that channeled perseverance and strength to our tired arms and legs.

   The life of a graduate student is often a tumultuous one, filled with moments of great inspiration and passion intertwined with moments of utter frustration and despondency. This paradox of experience, one often associated with graduate school, was echoed throughout our trip. In New Orleans we witnessed desolation, depravity, strength, beauty, faith, and everything in between. In our minds, the memories of the ravaged Lower Ninth Ward will forever be juxtaposed with the bustling, jazz-filled, neon-lit streets of the French Quarter, where we spent our last night in the Big Easy.
   The six of us — representing the departments of biochemistry, pharmacology, urban studies, biological sciences, and physiology — have already discussed the idea of going back to New Orleans next summer to work on one of the building initiatives spearheaded by Habitat for Humanity. We welcome other members of the Columbia community to support and join us.

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