I imagine that Tuesday, Feb. 6th was a pretty typical day for most Yalies. But as a native New Orleanian who brought 12 of her Yale friends home for Mardi Gras, Tuesday was in no way typical.
For us, Tuesday Feb. 5th was a day that began as soon as the sun rose. Dressed in costumes, plastic beads and face paint we took to historic St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans and celebrated the 136th Mardi Gras. At Uptown parades, few reminders remain of the storm that touched down just over two years ago.
But the live oak tree-lined avenues and 18th-century French Quarter balconies far from reveal the state of New Orleans since Katrina. Only minutes away from these sights, neighborhoods sit static; the lucky ones with houses gutted and stripped, the unlucky ones with houses still full of festering mold.
And the physical damage is just the beginning of the legacy Katrina left on the city. Almost every sector of public services is in reconstruction mode. The injured health care system is struggling to meet basic needs for the insured, not to mention those without private health care. And as the backlogged criminal justice system battles to get a handle on crime, citizens have become all but desensitized to the murder reports and violence that occur nearly every day. Perhaps most damning, many of the essential geological tasks that must be completed to protect the city and its surrounding wetlands from future storms have yet to begin.
It is rejuvenating these essential city infrastructures that have taken center stage in today’s recovery effort, and young people have taken charge. Their work has led to the most ambitious charter school experiment in the nation, as well as to a dedication to rebuilding environmentally friendly housing. The influx of youth from around the country has prompted the creation of such youth networking groups as NOLA Yurp (Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals) to help organize the movement. Universities from around the country have responded to this shift in the recovery as well, as week-long spring break trips have given way to school-sponsored summer internship programs at such institutions as Harvard, MIT, UPenn, Duke, Bard and Notre Dame.
I’m pleased to announce that Yale students have developed a program that will follow suit under the guidance of the Bulldogs Across America program. Bulldogs in the Big Easy is designed to provide Yale undergraduates with the opportunity to participate in the most exciting non-profit work in the city, where each internship will give the opportunity to make a powerful impact on the city as a whole. Although the program lacks the funding to provide compensation to those who participate, its commitment to free housing and lively programming will provide an amazing summer for all who are involved.
It is difficult to overstress how much a motivated young person can accomplish in New Orleans right now. Katrina’s devastation left a gaping hole in our country’s urban landscape, and as the government, both federal and local, has failed to fill it, we bear witness to the most exciting grass roots urban renewal movement our country has ever seen.
Now is the opportunity for smart, energetic young people to come to New Orleans and remodel the urban landscape.
With all of the sorrow and setbacks New Orleans has experienced since Katrina two years ago, it brings me much excitement to know that people have been inspired by our story and are willing to help. The battle of rebuilding New Orleans is far from over, but I am confident that with the enterprising and self-starting nature of our country’s youth we can do much to make Mardi Gras in New Orleans a unique day for generations to come.
Kezia Kamenetz is a junior in Davenport College. She is the founder of Category 3, a New Orleans recovery group.