There are a few things about New Orleans that are hard to forget, like the warm sunshine, great food and beckoning streets brought to life by the splendid variety of surrounding houses, each vying to outshine the others with unique architecture and brightly painted facades. And then there’s the occasional relic of a not-so-distant past: the haunting, ramshackle frame of an abandoned home, a ravaged, lifeless plot of land that had once been someone’s backyard or a stretch of battered fence that still stands as a souvenir of the levee that failed to hold back “the perfect storm,” a constant reminder of human failure.
There is something incredibly frustrating about trying to describe such destruction, and the realization of how futile it is strikes me even as I write. So, why even try? It is not as though New Orleans is still the picture of devastation we remember broadcasted in the media right after Hurricane Katrina hit nine years ago. It is also not as if the city has lost its carefree spirit or association with all things frivolous, such as Mardi Gras, even if it may have become better known as “the land that care forgot.”
In truth, the reality of natural disasters such as Katrina is simply impossible to fathom until one witnesses them with his or her own eyes. It is difficult not to shudder while standing in the middle of a bustling street, trying to picture what it would have looked like drowned in water several feet above one’s head. It is haunting to visualize the stories of those who congregated on roofs for several days before help finally arrived, or those who returned to homes to find and found sludge sitting on every belonging, rendering most of them completely useless. Above all, it is easy to make-believe that clearing the debris from its streets and redressing its houses with bright colors would heal the scars the storm left on a city whose plight goes far beyond Katrina itself.
For a week this past spring break, 22 of us College students, along with more than 50 others from colleges such as MIT, Colby, Middlebury and Fairfield, decided to immerse ourselves in this reality, reliving the stories of those we met and finding a place among them for our own. Split into several small groups, we collaborated with a number of different local and national organizations in their efforts to rebuild the city. Some of us laid the foundations of new homes, while others painted houses and visited schools and farms in some of the city’s poorest and least-recovered areas. In the process, we grappled with troubling questions such as the actual purpose and effectiveness of what we were doing and the reality of Katrina’s impact on an already poverty-stricken, racially divided and neglected city.
While the trip was primarily organized by the Christianity-based group Intervarsity, the religious, spiritual and intellectual diversity of its participants ensured that conversations were rich, discussions encapsulated several different perspectives and ample space for personal reflection was available to those who sought it. The work done on the sites were supplemented with daily themes, such as “Identifying with others” and “Seeing reality,” which pushed the students to consider questions on social justice, ethics and religion and extended the relevance of the experience beyond New Orleans. The questions were later discussed in nightly “Community Time,” during which students of different persuasions and faiths could bring their perspectives to the table in small discussion groups.
While the 22 of us explored reality in New Orleans, scores of other College students traveled to other parts of the country and world to find a place for their own ideas, to put a face to those whose lives they’ve discussed in class and to gauge the merit of their words when they’re finally put to action. In fact, several of these students, like me, were probably not foreign to the plight of the communities they visited. If anything, the images of destruction I found in New Orleans resonated with me as strongly as they did because in them, I saw the reality that yet stands still in about a fifth of Pakistan where a flood killed 2000 and rendered millions homeless in 2010.
What’s more troubling, however, is the proportion of students at the College who do not get to benefit from the unique opportunity these trips have to offer. Applications exceeded spots available for most of the trips this year, forcing many to be turned away. While the College offers several opportunities for its students to step out of the Purple Bubble and explore issues and places of interest, the breakout trips are a rare avenue to gain an invaluable insight and contribute to causes that we are most passionate about outside a purely academic environment. Their purely community-driven focus, in effect, allows us to evaluate our relationship to the community beyond the College.
“I think we come on these trips to learn about the world outside of our own and about how to respond when the two worlds conflict or interact,” said Sarah Wu ’16, who accompanied me on the trip, said. “The impact definitely should be made to last.”