Return trip to help rebuild
Chico State students who head back to New Orleans get surprised by what they see
A decaying Taco Bell with shattered windows and rotting furniture was only one of the many ruined and still vacant buildings 55 Chico State students passed as they drove through New Orleans in January.
Eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina, grocery stores were still empty, and the life the city had enjoyed before the deluge remained just a memory.
For some of these students, it was the second time they’d journeyed south to spend a week reconstructing the devastated city. Last March they participated in the Rebuild New Orleans Project, headed by adviser Terry Battle, working construction on a nearly empty city. Residents who had fled the city when the hurricane struck were just beginning to trickle back.
The group of College of Engineering, Computer Science and Construction Management (ECC) students aided in the rebuilding of churches and other community centers. These facilities provided people with shelter, food and water where no other accommodations were present.
This January, Josh Deadmore, the student leader of the project, saw life in the “ghost town” he visited 10 months earlier. Residents had returned to the Big Easy to find their homes still unlivable.
“It looks and feels like a disaster still … like a permanent state of chaos,” he explained. Shopping centers were empty except for debris and trash that had not been removed; even Wal-Mart stood silent. A Burger King opened for the first time in 18 months, drawing a line of customers around the block, said Joel Amato, another second-year veteran.
“People lived out of trailers in their front yards and ate in volunteer shelters,” said Deadmore. This visible lack of comfort was everywhere evident—and turned to joy and relief when people were able to move back into their homes.
“When you see the person you help is benefiting, it makes you work that much harder,” Amato explained.
And they did work hard. Assigned two homes to rehabilitate, they restored 18, far surpassing the expectations of Habitat for Humanity’s St. Bernard Project, the local coordinators of the project.
The Chico effort didn’t start in New Orleans. In 2006, the Associated Students had donated $8,000 to the cause, but this year the student government decided it was not a local concern and shut off the funding tap. That’s when, Ken Derucher, dean of the ECC college, and professors James O’Bannon and John Schwarz stepped in, shelling out money from their own pockets.
The students also managed to raise a total of $40,000 for supplies and transportation by writing letters to businesses, Battle said.
In New Orleans, the students shared an empty elementary school with 407 volunteers. The walls were paper thin with no heating, and for two days the gas line was broken, so showers were chilly. Lunch consisted of a sandwich made from thawed bread and a slice of cheese.
The harsh conditions had no impact on the students’ eagerness. They quickly put their construction management skills to good use. Deadmore sensed that the directors of the volunteer project had little knowledge of construction management, and the group quickly organized its own workload and completed it with astonishing efficiency.
Deadmore, O’Bannon and Schwarz would end each work a 12-hour day, ending with a leader meeting to plan the work for the next. O’Bannon was an invaluable resource, teaching students everything from electrical wiring to drywall installation.
“He always began a sentence with, ‘Let me show you a trick,’ “ said Amato. “He can do anything.” Skeletons of former homes became full-functioning living facilities.
Amato also credited Deadmore for their accomplishment: “This project would not have been possible without Josh. He’s a great leader.”
Despite the students’ success, it made only the tiniest of dents in solving New Orleans’ problems. Tens of thousands of residents are still unable to move into their homes.
This week, as if to add insult to injury, a tornado struck the city, hitting the outskirts of Breaux Bridge in St. Martin’s Parish, directly across the river from the area Chico State students worked on. About a dozen homes were damaged and several FEMA trailers were thrown through the air.
“It’s sad to say that it probably doesn’t look much different than before. People in that area will need assistance for some time to come,” Deadmore said. The students are already planning a return trip.
"[New Orleans] doesn’t look like Bourbon Street after a Saints game,” said Amato. “I wish people realized how bad it is and that people who have lived there for generations have lost everything.”