First-Years Go to Katrina-Ravaged Gulf — and Find More Than Just Rubble

Supported by a Katrina Help Grant from the Arnold P. Gold Foundation, Kate McManus, Mauer Biscotti, Mike Bouton, Vanessa Cervantes, Will Freed-Pastor, Emily Kadar, Andres Mendez, Moeun Son, Ben Vaccaro, Sophie Wells, and Caroline Yao traveled to Mississippi over spring break and learned a new definition of “community.”

By Kate McManus’10
During spring break 2007, a group of 11 first-year medical students traveled to the Gulf Coast for a day in New Orleans followed by a week of Hurricane Katrina recovery work in Biloxi, Miss.
      Spending our first day in New Orleans allowed us to see the destruction of Katrina there and the progress of the recovery. We spent most of the day in the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the most damaged areas of New Orleans, where one of the brick houses painted with the message “HOME. This was HOME” helped us to think about the houses as more than just ruined structures.
     In Biloxi, we volunteered with an organization called Hands On Gulf Coast, which is part of the Hands On Network of 62 international nonprofit organizations. We could not help but be inspired by this group of young, enthusiastic, and extremely effective volunteers. Some of our work with Hands On Gulf Coast was physically hard, but much more of it was work that involved us in the East Biloxi community.
     On our first day, we were assigned to a local elementary school in Biloxi. That day, the school held a one-mile run/walk to celebrate an award the school received from the Mississippi governor for efforts in fitness and health. We supervised the run/walk and found the children eager to hold our hands as we ran with them. After the run, most of us assisted teachers and others helped digitally touch up storm-damaged childhood photos for use in a school slideshow. In the second grade classroom, the children were learning about organs and were confused about the intestines; we were able to apply some of what we learned in first-year anatomy to help sort things out.
     For the next two days, we helped with construction. One house where we worked was the historic Red House, which is being refurbished to become a police substation and community center. It stands in the center of John Henry Beck Park, which until recently was just dirt, fallen trees, and garbage. Over the past year, Hands On and the community have built a colorful playground, painted murals, and constructed a community garden. It was rewarding to contribute in our small part to this long-term project. This project was an example of Hands On not just repairing homes, but also helping to rebuild the community so that people will want to come back.
     We contributed to the Red House restoration project by pulling rotted siding from the house and laying floor. We also chipped paint so the original wood could be repainted, and we sanded one of the original doors. At the end of the day, it was amazing to see the door hanging in its frame because it looked like it had been professionally refurbished.
     On our last day in Biloxi, we conducted a land survey for an organization researching the feasibility of creating a land trust to provide affordable housing for low-income residents. The land we canvassed was on the easternmost tip of East Biloxi, which suffered the most damage from Katrina. We talked to residents while walking through the neighborhoods. Virtually all of them encouraged us by saying “Thank you for coming down here,” or “We really appreciate you being here.”
     It felt as though we did very little in the week we were there, but the people were incredibly appreciative of our presence and efforts. The fact that we had traveled from New York seemed to give the people we spoke with hope that they had not been forgotten. Many of us talked about feeling as though we were “bearing witness” to the state of things in Mississippi and Louisiana. Two years after the storm, much remains to be done.

P&S Students