Kevin Bock ’08 still remembers the frustration he felt in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina during the first weeks of the school year.
“We’re in a bubble, and there’s only so much you can glean from the newspaper,” Bock said. “At some point, you have to go down and get your hands dirty.”
Almost six months later, with stories of the disaster long since vanished from most television screens, the reconstruction process in New Orleans is far from complete. While most students had previously only been able to send material aid, spring break and newly available Federal Emergency Management Agency resources are offering them the chance to help rebuild the city themselves. About 30 Yalies are forgoing typical spring break destinations to go down to New Orleans during the second week of vacation.
Alissa Stollwerk ’06, who is organizing the trip, said it will provide an opportunity for students to see the devastation and destruction firsthand and to do their part to help.
“Everyone is really excited to get down there because our community was just shocked,” Stollwerk said. “Students are looking forward to getting down there themselves to help rebuild with their own hands.”
The Yale trip is being organized in conjunction with Project Opportunity, a branch of a national organization that was launched on campus in spring 2005 to combat poverty at both the service and policy levels. Project Opportunity works with Opportunity Rocks, a group formed by former U.S. Sen. John Edwards to engage young people in the fight against poverty. Opportunity Rocks is sending college students from across the country on spring break trips to New Orleans to help rebuild the city with Habitat for Humanity and FEMA. These trips fit perfectly into Project Opportunity’s mission to work at both the service and policy levels, Stollwerk said.
The trip may not be a particularly glamorous spring break vacation. Tent City, where the students will live for up to a week, is no South Beach. Set up by FEMA, the makeshift campground boasts roughly 15 cots per tent because Habitat and FEMA have not been able to support large numbers of volunteers until recently. The students will work for about eight hours per day doing whatever construction tasks are necessary, including gutting houses, laying foundation, painting and hammering.
“It’s exciting because we’ll be doing the work that needs to be done,” Stollwerk said.
Zachary Zwillinger ’07, who said he is interested in housing issues and has worked with urban poverty as co-coordinator of the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project, said he thinks that while the trip will be a fun opportunity to “get away from Long Island” and to do something physical during spring break, it is also a chance to learn and to help.
“The hurricane showed the disparity between the rich and the not-so-rich,” he said.
Zwillinger said he hopes the trip will allow him to see the current state of New Orleans and to help the city rebound in a way that will preserve its culture and history.
The large-scale public school reform project currently underway in New Orleans serves as an example of how the rebuilding process can be used as an opportunity to fix not just the physical damage from Katrina but also some of the deeper institutional problems that existed before the hurricane, Stollwerk said.
“The hope is that in doing the rebuilding, there is a larger plan,” Stollwerk said.
Though he is the current treasurer of the Yale College Democrats, Bock said the trip to New Orleans is “definitely not a partisan thing — it’s a human thing.”
While the damage caused by Katrina is already done, Stollwerk said it is important for students across the nation to show solidarity with New Orleans residents.
“Katrina was an absolute tragedy, and we want to go down there to help and show we care, but it’s also something that shouldn’t have happened and should never happen again,” Stollwerk said. “The people feel abandoned, but students’ helping is a sign of national support.”