At 6 a.m. on a sticky July morning, Beau Babst ’08 got out of bed to start his day, and by 6:30 he was already covered in sweat. A native of New Orleans, Babst spent the summer lugging bricks alongside others from the region for Landis Construction as part of a $30 million project to rebuild Louisiana State University’s hospital.
“Talking to all these people, from the higher-ups in Landis to people who are army vets who have been doing unskilled labor for 10 years — all these people, regardless of color and creed, were affected by the storm drastically, and their lives are still being affected ,” Babst said.
Roughly one year after Hurricane Katrina hit southeastern Louisiana and southwestern Mississippi, Yalies like Babst continue to devote their summers to the people, homes and hospitals of New Orleans. And those who spent the season contributing to the clean-up returned to Yale with stories of camaraderie, frustration, anger, admiration and unparalleled love for the devastated city.
‘It was great taking all this Katrina off the walls.’
While some of their peers were wearing business suits in an air-conditioned office, Yalies who spent the summer in the Big Easy donned less formal attire as they prepared for long days of manual labor, often finding themselves thrown into situations with which they had little previous experience.
Austin Kilaru ’07, who worked with Habitat for Humanity in Slidell, La., on the North Shore — an area that he said was flooded almost as badly as New Orleans itself — spent two months doing everything from pouring foundations to putting up walls in rural and fairly impoverished neighborhoods
“It’s amazing that I now know how to build a house ,” Kilaru said.
The city’s desperate need for immediate aid allowed students to perform advanced tasks integral to the rebuilding process. Like Kilaru, Babst ended up as an integral part of the efforts to reconstruct the city, focusing on its hospitals. Because only a few hospitals were up and running when Babst arrived in New Orleans, he said his project was particularly urgent.
The hospital needed to be completely gutted, and in order to maximize the usage of the facility, the focus of rebuilding was primarily on just two floors, which would be used for outpatient services and emergencies.
“What struck me was how much the hospital needed to get back on track as soon as possible,” Babst said. “The plans were drawn so quickly that they ended up pulling me into the office to fix a lot of the problems with the architectural designs .”
Courtney Halwig ’09 also spent time gutting houses and touring the devastated areas this summer. She traveled with her church group and worked for an organization called RHINO, or Rebuilding Hope in New Orleans. Halwig said there is no experience equivalent to walking into a house that has not been touched since the storm hit last August. The houses appeared to be “just a jumble of furniture”, with mold all the way up the walls and water marks on the top of the first floor ceilings, she said. Although most people want to be part of the construction aspect of rebuilding, Halwig said she found the initial step of stripping the houses of everything inside to be very interesting and oddly personal.
“It’s weird because you’re sorting through someone’s life,” she said. “You’re picking up someone’s Xbox and throwing out people’s TVs.”
Despite Yalies’ varied activities in New Orleans, they all said they found both the work and the outcome of their labor satisfying.
“At the end of the day, I can say that my blood is in that soil,” Babst said. “I dug that up, knocked it down and put it back up. It was great taking all this Katrina off the walls .”
‘It made me angry.’
Aside from the day-to-day work, students witnessed first-hand the complexities of the politics of New Orleans and found themselves increasingly invested in the city’s future.
“Louisiana politics has always been somewhat of a sport, but now it’s just ridiculous,” Babst said.
Over the course of the summer, Babst said he observed both anger at the city’s mayor and frustration at the slow speed of rebuilding. But what he said was most upsetting was the realization that the levees themselves are not being fixed and that a disaster of this magnitude could very well hit the region and render it helpless once again. If this ever comes to pass, Babst said, the nation’s image of New Orleans would be forever tainted — the city could simply degenerate into the “sliver by the river.”
For Kilaru, the most problematic issue was the “environment of racial tension” in the city. He also observed that alcohol and drug problems have increased as a way for residents to cope with the difficulties they have experienced.
“I’ve always read the paper every day and cared about problems, but there was something there that made me want to do something about it, something that made me angry — angry at the way the government looks after the people and angry at the way the city is being built haphazardly, without a plan,” Kilaru said.
For Halwig, one of the most frustrating elements of the New Orleans situation is what she perceived as bias in news reports of the destruction. While the media often choose certain areas to focus on, she said, being there in person made her realize that nothing, from the poorest to the wealthies neighborhoods, was spared.
“It’s sort of like you’re not in the middle of civilization anymore,” she said. “To go to the bathroom, you had to drive out to a gas station where people were lining up to put gas in their cars .”
Zach Bucknoff ’08, who worked for an organization called Common Ground to help move residents of the 9th Ward back into their homes, said it was distressing to see that despite the substantial presence of grassroots relief organizations, so much is left to be done in the city.
“The bottom line is that the residents of the 9th Ward needed help, and still do,” he said. “They are extremely ill-equipped, both financially and physically, to deal with the aftermath of Katrina.”
Viewing the problems from a more academic perspective, Kilaru said the attention that the city’s problems are receiving may be good for the future of urban problems all over America. Although New Orleans is an extreme case, the city is bringing to attention national problems such as poverty and education that can be identified all over the country, he said.
‘An American treasure’
Many students said they felt an important aspect of their time in New Orleans was the collection of memories and images it left them, memories they hope to be able to share with those who have not had the chance to see the devastation first-hand.
Maura Fitzgerald ’08 travelled to New Orleans this summer with a small group of people, including history professor Glenda Gilmore, to work as a photographer for the Imagining New Orleans Oral History Project. Over a period of six weeks, the team recorded interviews with over 50 residents from various racial and socioeconomic backgrounds who had returned to their homes after the hurricane.
“No one is there by accident right now — everyone has a reason for being there, and we were trying to find out what those reasons were,” she said. “It’s hard to imagine why, after losing everything in the world that they had, [they] would come back to the city. It seemed crazy to us.”
Kilaru was able to experience some of the greatness of the city, taking part of the booming nightlife of the French Quarter in the evening. In the mornings, however, he would wake up and travel just a few minutes into debris and impoverished neighborhoods, an experience that he said was “surreal”. But he said that perhaps duality is necessary to define the nature of the current state of the city.
“I think I really understand what the meaning of a place is and the meaning of a culture is after being in New Orleans,” he said.
Fitzgerald said that with time she too began to see the undeniable pull of the city, romanticized in art and literature throughout its history.
“Even at its lowest point it’s a magical place, and it just has so much potential,” she said. “It’s really an American treasure.”
‘We’re just getting started.’
Although an entire year has passed since Katrina, most Yalies who spent their summers down south still felt frustrated by the lack of progress in the city.
“We’re still really struggling, and a lot of people in New Orleans feel left in the dark, and a lot of people are still left in the dark,” Babst said. “It seems that a year after the storm, we’re just getting started.
Fitzgerald said she was struck by the fact that there are many areas in the city that look like “parts of the developing world”, images she does not usually associate with the United States.
But while each student who was in New Orleans during the summer had a unique experience, they all tell a story of a city whose culture, spirit, food and people made the experience both humbling and fulfilling.
“I can’t think of any better way I could have spent my summer,” Fitzgerald said. “I’ve been out of the country for the past four summers, but I just felt like Katrina was a very stark reminder of the work that needs to be done at home. We interviewed someone who says New Orleans is a place you go once and never leave, and I definitely feel like that’s true.”
Babst, who also did some rebuilding work on his own house while he was home in the Big Easy, said his work over the summer was as “therapeutic as anything could have been”. Being surrounded by the “wonderful mishmash of accents” of people from Lafayette to Mississippi helped him to deal with everything that happened to his family as well as to the thousands who lived in his hometown. He said the people of the area and their culture made him understand that no matter what happened to the city’s infrastructure, New Orleans itself was never going to disappear.
“I have all the faith in the world,” he said. “It was great realizing that it’s always going to be alive in whatever way.”