Cleaning up New Orleans

Shelby Peterson

I was lucky enough this spring break to be a part of one of the three groups helping with relief efforts down in New Orleans. I was a part of the Volunteer Center group; we organized our trip with the Louisiana chapter of Habitat for Humanity.
I knew we’d be working with houses somehow, but communication was minimal at best so none of us knew what exactly we’d be doing.
We stayed in a government-run tent city, which was the first of a week of foreign experiences for me. I’ve never been much of a camper, so showering in trailers and brushing my teeth at portable outdoor sinks was definitely new.
We were living and working in St. Bernard Parish, an area that had been terribly flooded after Hurricane Katrina blew through.
We were gutting homes that had been under at least 12 feet of water and untouched for the last seven months. We had to go in and remove everything – including all floor coverings, drywall and insulation – and pile it up in the front yard. Once the inside of the house was stripped down to bare studs, we moved on to the next house.
It was incredible: The mold, the decay, the complete ruination of people’s lives was almost unbearable.
There were a lot of things that made the trip a lot of fun, though. I ended up working with Danielle Murry and 10 guys from University of Northern Florida. Not only did Danielle and I become so much closer, I made great friends with the UNF guys. And, I’m not going to lie, it was a lot of fun demolishing the insides of these houses.
My favorite part of the job was smashing apart the drywall with a flathead shovel, although I also really enjoyed taking out door and window frames with the sledgehammer.
But the best part of the trip was knowing that, clichd as it sounds, we really made a difference.
Our group was part of a team of 1,100 mostly college students who gutted nearly 300 houses. That’s almost double the number of houses already done.
Every time someone from St. Bernard Parish, from New Orleans, from Louisiana looked me in the eyes and thanked me for what I was doing for them, I knew that no amount of rancid food and toxic drywall could have kept me away.