Recently returned from the Gulf region where she contributed to relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina, Sheila Rustgi ’07 said the roar of military Hummers driving through the deserted streets of cities she visited made her feel as though she were in a developing country.
Rustgi was one of 14 Yalies who spent Thanksgiving break in Mississippi and Louisiana repairing homes that suffered flood damage. The students returned from the trip, organized by Yale’s Hurricane Emergency Relief Organization, last Friday after working in Moss Point, Miss., for six days. Despite the devastation they encountered on their trip, students said they were inspired by the positive attitudes and hopefulness of the hurricane victims whom they met.
“I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I definitely didn’t expect people to be so optimistic,” volunteer Daniel Weeks ’06 said.
Weeks said the group camped out in the sanctuary of the First Christ Church in Moss Point, where congregation members provided them with lunch every day. While Stephen Kappa ’07 said it was hard to be away from his family for the holidays, he said a Thanksgiving dinner at the church pastor’s home made the volunteers feel welcomed.
Some student volunteers said their one-day visit to New Orleans was the most difficult part of their time in the Gulf region.
“It was eerie going back to New Orleans,” said Chris Stark ’08, a Tulane student studying at Yale until his university reopens. “What was once a huge metropolis now feels more like a ghost town.”
Stark said he thinks reconstruction work is especially important for New Orleans because of its history as an epicenter of cultural diversity and lucrative port city.
But the students did not perform relief work in New Orleans and instead spent the majority of the break repairing three houses in Moss Point repainting and cleaning the homes, volunteer Madeleine Gelblum ’08 said. Gelblum said volunteering in Moss Point, a poor rural inland community, was rewarding because of the opportunity it gave her to visit a part the country she had never seen before.
Gelblum said it was unclear whether or not the damages they were repairing were directly caused by the hurricane or whether it was work that had needed to be done before.
Weeks said the work he and his fellow volunteers did was valuable, even if it was not all specifically hurricane-related. But he said the group’s lack of a professional contractor to direct repair efforts ruled out some of the more technical jobs, such as repairing roofs and cleaning up mold.
“Because we have no construction knowledge, there was only so much we could do,” Rustgi said.
All of the volunteers said that they found the work and their experiences rewarding, and many, including Weeks and Kappa, said they hope to return to the Gulf Coast either next spring or summer to devote more time to the reconstruction process, which they said is an ongoing problem that is likely to continue for years.
“This trip confirmed, in a much more real sense, the need for me and the rest of the country to respond to the problems caused by the hurricane,” Weeks said.