- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2008

Editor’s note: This story first appeared on April 9, 2006


Katelyn Carman said she wasn’t prepared for the post-Hurricane Katrina devastation she found in the Lower 9th Ward, but she and many of the other college students helping to clean the wreckage have been so moved by the experience that they vow to return.

“People don’t understand why we would want to come here, and some of our friends went to Cancun,” said Miss Carman, a 20-year-old on spring break in the Big Easy, “but the majority of us will come back this summer.”

She and more than 50 of her classmates from Whittier College in California paid $300 for tickets to New Orleans for a week of helping to gut homes in the poorest parts of the flood-ravaged city.

Hundreds of students have joined the cleanup efforts. Many of the 20-somethings drawn to the Gulf Coast to salvage what Katrina left behind thought they would depart the city feeling self-satisfied after a few weeks away from home, but the scope of the damage compels many of them to stay.

“I realized there’s nothing more important in my life that I could be doing,” said Annie Hostetter, 23. She quit her job at a Wisconsin cafe in January and has been living among volunteers at a base camp in the Lower 9th Ward since then, coordinating efforts for the nonprofit group Common Ground.

“It’s emotionally draining, and it’s hard work,” Miss Hostetter said, gesturing to two young women who had just returned to the camp filthy and teary-eyed after gutting a condemned home. “It’s so heartening to see people coming here when they could be doing other things. They could be in Aruba.”

Carolyn Campbell, whose home was flattened by Lake Pontchartrain’s floodwaters, credits the young volunteers with her survival.

“There are so many things Annie could have been doing, but she’s here,” said Ms. Campbell, 47, now homeless and working among the volunteers. “These youngsters jeopardize their own lives. … They are uncovering dead bodies, maggots, but they are still coming.”

The volunteers’ friends on tropical spring-break vacations might be wearing sunscreen to protect from the elements, but these volunteers don respirators to block toxic asbestos, lead and mold from entering their lungs, and thick boots and gloves to guard them from injury as they heave pieces of drywall and roofing into wheelbarrows.

By nightfall, the students “decontaminate” back at the shelter before they manage to find fun a taxi ride away in the bars and clubs along Bourbon Street. The famed French Quarter is largely recovered, though the number of visitors has declined.

Common Ground volunteers sleep on the floor of an old church and awake at dawn before starting an average day of work of shoveling what’s left of sagging homes onto the sidewalk for pickup.

“It starts to wear on you by the end of the day,” said Josh Paul, a 21-year-old San Francisco State student. “You start to get to know the person by sorting through their things, but then, it’s just wooden framework left.” One pile of rubble is topped with muddy toys, old shoes and a pair of butterfly wings, perhaps left over from an old Mardi Gras costume.

A quick lunch break provides some relief from the heat and humidity - temperatures this spring are already topping 80 degrees.

The homes are tagged with spray-painted symbols such as “tfw” for toxic floodwater, or “2 dead dogs” to warn of the carnage inside.

Miss Carman remembers a homeowner, seeing his drenched and molded possessions for the first time since Katrina hit, telling her to throw everything away.

“We were throwing away pictures, family photos and even birth certificates. We weren’t trying to go through their stuff, but we could tell what it was,” she said.

Relief groups are still seeking donations of food, clothes and money, but organizers said what they need most is more volunteers to help with the cleanup.

Stan Emerson and his church group were so overwhelmed by the condition of the Lower 9th Ward that they plan to spread the word back home in Avon, Ind., and then return with a bigger group. “It’s a wake-up call,” he said.

They realize the task before them is gargantuan - more than 215,000 homes were destroyed.

“Even if every person in America came, it wouldn’t all get done,” said Lisa Ceremsak, a volunteer from Cambridge, Mass. “I had no idea.”

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