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Local college students help clear Katrina aftermath

One house almost done ... Jackie Smith, far left, and other volunteers pose in front of a house that was damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Note the spray-painted markings on the garage door and the information tags on the pole.

While many college students enjoyed their week-long spring break, two Philip High School graduates gave their time, sweat and humility to help survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

Maggie Coyle, a student at Northern State University, with 53 other students from SDSU, SDSMT, USD and NSU, bused from Brookings to New Orleans. They had volunteered to “gut out” damaged houses and to generally help with the on-going cleanup made necessary by the natural disaster that hit the Mexican Gulf coastal state seven months ago.

Two weeks later, Jackie Smith and nine others from Augustana College traveled in a van for 22 hours to Ocean Springs, Mississippi, to work for the same program.

“An hour north of Jackson, MS, we could already see the debris. Trees were knocked over or split in half. Debris littered the remaining trees – clothing, dolls. Signs were mangled,” said Smith. “The bottom two floors in a many-storied hotel in Jackson were still not available since Katrina. No swimming in the ocean was advised because of the furniture, cars, sharp objects and other things in the water.”

The two girls were offering assistance through an organization called Lutheran Disaster Relief, which is otherwise comprised of pastors and long term volunteers from across the United States. Many of the group’s members have been in the Katrina-ravaged area since shortly after the disaster first hit, and they will continue to work there throughout the summer.

“This experience really opened my eyes and made me realize how truly fortunate I am to have my little dorm room and cafeteria food,” said Coyle. She was there March 5 through the 10th. “The work that we did mainly consisted of “gutting” people’s houses. This involved removing all of their destroyed personal belongings – clothes, keepsakes, furniture, appliances, etc. We then took down the wall material, insulation, carpets, ceilings and anything else that was ruined. All that was left of the house when we were finished was the “skeleton” – the framework.

“In those houses, there was mold a good inch thick that covered the walls from floor to ceiling. The mold was actually a major health concern, so we had to wear white Tyvex suits, gloves and masks. While working, we frequently came across cockroaches and rats. I’ll admit that they scared me and disgusted me at first, but as the days continued, they simply became a part of the working process.”

While Coyle’s group worked on the sorrowing and sobering task of throwing away peoples’ destroyed belongings, Smith’s group helped prepare structures for re-habitation. “We rebuilt a floor in one home, and tore down a large wooden fence at another. We prime-painted the entire interior of a three-bedroom house.”

Coyle and Smith are the best of friends and compared notes. Coyle cleaned out the stuff that represented people’s lives. She saw and felt so much of the sorrow of the families who had lost everything that she would almost bawl. Smith saw that too, but in preparing places for people to move back to, she saw more of the hopeful side. They both saw tremendous thankfulness for their efforts.

Coyle said, “Out of the six houses that our group gutted, we met three of the owners. They were very welcoming and incredibly grateful for our work. One homeowner kept asking how she could ever repay us. This kind of gratitude and appreciation made the difficult work a little bit easier. It definitely made it worthwhile.

“We talked to different city workers and officials about how the hurricane affected New Orleans and its people. They estimated that the population had been reduced to half. The majority of the those who left had gone to live in Baton Rouge or other surrounding cities and states.

“The likelihood of homeowners rebuilding was stated by one man, ‘It is hard to say. It depends a lot on FEMA and how substantial the new levy will be.’ I must say that it was eerie walking through neighborhood after neighborhood with no one there but the workers and volunteers.

“I think that it is obvious that many homeowners will simply not be able to rebuild because of the extensiveness of the damage. This is especially true in the Ninth Ward where the entire neighborhood was simply bulldozed.”

Smith said, “All houses were spray painted, marked with the address and the insurance company’s name. One homeowner said many did not have flood insurance, because they were not considered to be in the flood plain. His house had a water mark inches from the top of the front door.”

There are three or four families living in the one-family houses that are still livable. Some families are living in very small FEMA trailers. The volunteers sleep in their “tent city.” There are very few remaining local jobs. Still, there is so much more hope than seven months ago. Smith’s group listened to a 911 recording taken during the hurricane. People trapped in attics by the swiftly rising water quietly said, ‘We know that you can’t help us, we are just calling to say that we are going to die.”

Many people waited until the very last minute to try to leave. They thought that the previous Hurricane Camille was as bad as it could get. They were wrong.

Smith also worked one day at a distribution center. People were so grateful. A family of five could receive two boxes of items every