Hurricane Katrina

College students return to New Orleans to help with recovery

NEW ORLEANS - It's more carpentry, painting and house-gutting - along with more cerebral work - for college students hitting the Gulf Coast for another spring break amid the devastation from the 2005 hurricanes, Katrina and Rita.

A group from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and other Harvard graduate schools is helping residents in the hard-hit Broadmoor neighborhood devise a long-term recovery plan. Students from a number of other schools are helping out in the local school system.

"We're not just gutting anymore," said Brittany Allen, a senior in film studies at Ohio State University. "We're moving on, and branching out. One team is tutoring in the schools, another team is putting up Sheetrock, and one team took New Orleans students on a field trip to the aquarium."

Still, house-gutting and carpentry remain the most in demand volunteer work almost 19 months after Katrina, according to various volunteer groups, who add that as waiting lists for house-gutting dwindle, waiting lists for the next step - drywalling, painting and other construction projects - are on the rise.

The same has been reported on the Mississippi Gulf Coast and in southwestern Louisiana, which was hard-hit by Hurricane Rita in 2005.

"The house I worked on, one team had already repaired the roof, so we came in and started doing the flooring, tore out old floor, put in some insulation, new drywall," said 20-year-old Adam Harris, a junior majoring in business at the University of Michigan at Dearborn.

Harris, who was in the Lake Charles, La., area working with a team from United Way, said training was provided onsite for many projects, such as hanging drywall.

The thousands of students willing to help with manual labor have been a source of joy, and relief for many recovery-weary residents - among them New Orleans resident Michael Blouin.

A group from Cascadia Community College in Bothell, Wash., arrived at Blouin's elderly parents' house in eastern New Orleans wearing respirators and hard hats. They set to work gutting the home, hauling away mold-covered furniture, clothing, books and dishes.

"I'm very, very thankful for this," said Blouin, a 47-year-old teacher who has been living in a federally issued trailer while refurbishing his food-damaged home in the city's Uptown neighborhood and the home of his parents, who are living in Dallas.

With friends and family still scattered, it's been a lonely job.

"I just got tired," he said. "I didn't know how I was going to get it all done."

The Rev. Connie Thomas, organizer of Louisiana United Methodist Storm Recovery, said spring breakers have been her biggest single source of help with the chore of house-gutting. She said they are largely responsible for knocking her list of hundreds of homes to be gutted down to dozens in recent weeks.

"Those students just come with a lot of energy," she said.

House-gutting involves pulling out smelly furniture and appliances, ripping up moldy carpet and flooring, then stripping, grinding and priming flood-damaged beams so new drywall can be hung. Fully gutted houses are little more than shells with support beams laid bare.

It's an expensive task - ranging from $10 to $15 a square foot - so student volunteers are saving residents hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on the size of the home.

It's unclear just how many students are spending spring break along the Gulf Coast, but estimates from volunteer groups indicate thousands have been to New Orleans in recent weeks, and more are expected through the Easter holiday.

Many of the trips have been organized by colleges. Others have been arranged by volunteers, churches and charitable organizations such as Habitat for Humanity, Hands On Network, AmeriCorps and United Way.

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