The Colgate Scene
January 2006

Louisiana Journal

[Photo by Aubrey Graham '06]
Editor's note: In the wake of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, 17 students, along with Center for Outreach, Volunteerism, and Education (COVE) staff members, traveled to southwestern Louisiana to assist in relief efforts during their October break. Senior Darcy Richardson's diary entries and photos by her classmate Aubrey Graham provide personal — and unique — views of the experience.

October 8, 2005
I was surprised, at first, by how little damage there seemed to be. Many of the businesses and homes we were passing seemed to be entirely fine, and I wondered if our services would even be of use in the area. It was strange how you could then go five more miles and suddenly find yourself in, literally, a disaster area. The piles of trash that used to be the insides of houses were surreal. Having seen pictures could not prepare one for being there in person. Similarly, having seen pictures of what the area looked like while still under feet of water was still insufficient to help me imagine the houses we worked in swamped by enough water to knock them from their foundations.

I think one of the most shocking things that I saw today was the inside of the devastated preK-5th grade school. Seeing the hallways and classrooms, places usually filled with happy faces and innocence, filled with mud and overturned desks was quite overwhelming. Pages of colorful picture books soaked in mud are an image I will not soon forget. The contrast between the way things usually are and the way they are after a disaster is perhaps what is most powerful.

Another example of this is the inside of the church across the street from the school. Churches are also places that are usually peaceful and tidy, but instead there were ripped floor boards and toppled pews. I wonder if people in this church and others that were devastated were torn between desire for the stability/comfort of their religion and anger at God for allowing such things to happen?

One thing that became clear today was that many people were still not receiving the government assistance that they desperately needed. The Red Cross was there, but I still gather that these people had seen little from FEMA. The area is clearly still very disorganized. And they still have a huge struggle ahead of them. Most of the people I spoke with seemed to have little idea of where to go next. There was not much clarity about whether they were staying or going, keeping their homes or demolishing them. I can't imagine what I would do in their shoes. I think listening to their stories is perhaps the most important thing that we can do.


October 9
It seems that symbols invoke the most emotional responses in me. One of the first things that I discovered in Betty's home, as we began to remove the items that were salvageable, was an old photograph of two children. As soon as I picked it up, the ink had already smeared, the faces disappearing into a blur of blackish liquid. A few of my tears joined the blur. Photographs are symbols of the past, of good times, of special people. The loss of them seems to represent the loss of so much more. Occasionally, I found a few photos that looked like they could be saved. Those were equally powerful symbols of the hope that life could go on; all was not lost.

Betty's house as a whole was horribly devastated. It really looked like a bomb had been dropped on it, or a twister had gone through. Furniture, walls, and doors were all shifted and jammed in strange places. I found our job of removing what was salvageable both rewarding and difficult. Compared to removing rotting furniture, this job required sifting through people's lives. Clearly the importance of the CDs and records to the family, particularly the son, showed how important the so-called "little things" can be.

In the afternoon I worked in the dirtiest house that I had been in so far. The floors were covered in that thick mud, the floors were caving in in places, and there was an overwhelming stench of rot and mold to the place. The mud was so thick that a VHS tape stuck to the bottom of my foot with it. I ended up speaking with the woman, Ester I believe, quite a bit. While not everything she said seemed coherent, she clearly loved to be listened to. One of the first things that she said to me was, "Don't ever lose your sense of humor, even if you go into space." I don't really know if space was a reference to heaven, to a trip she later told me about to the space center, or something else entirely, but no matter what, I found it touching. I continue to believe that our presence is the best thing that we have to offer. We are symbols of hope that the entire country has not abandoned and forgotten them.

On a kind of unrelated but interesting note, I got to speak with several national guardsmen today who had been serving in Iraq. I have always been curious to find out what their view of the progress there is in comparison to the media-created one to which the American public is typically privy. It was hopeful for me to hear that they saw real progress being made, that at least some lives were better than they were before the war.


October 10
This morning we moved pews out of the church where we had worked on the first day. As centers of community, I see value in giving time to help churches get back on their feet. At the same time, I think working with individual families in their homes may be even more important at this early stage. At least a mix of both seems like a good idea. This afternoon a small team of us helped a woman empty out a shed. Basically everything in it was entirely destroyed. With most of her belongings gone, what seemed most important to her was the pet bird that had flown away during the evacuation. What she wanted most was for him to return.

In the afternoon we also went to the low-income housing area and went door to door seeing if anyone needed help. Most of the houses were deserted or already past the need for our help. It was kind of creepy walking along these deserted streets. One couldn't help but wonder where these people were going to go or had gone. A woman told us they were waiting for the government to build them other housing; I wonder how long that could take. It was interesting seeing this type of low-income housing compared to what you would see in a place like NYC. More spread out and designed like a suburb neighborhood, it seems. I wish there had been more we could do to help these people.

I was really glad I got the opportunity to talk with other volunteers with the Southern Mutual Help Association and their families. They were so generous in providing food and showers for us. They also had such interesting stories of their own. I guess I just like learning about other people. It was encouraging to hear how the community had responded to the disaster with what seemed like open arms, allowing people who could not go home into their own homes until other places could be found. I think that is one bright spot that comes out of a disaster such as this. People come together. The people in those towns came together. We came together with the people we helped. And as a group of Colgate students we came together. It is never all a loss.


October 12
I think it is important to add one final entry. Returning to Colgate was a bit shocking for me. I found myself thinking how trivial all my problems seemed, how I wished I could have stayed to help longer. The people I worked with were not that different from me, really. They had lives and hopes, photo albums and boxes of toys. Everything they had was swept away and buried in mud without warning. It can happen to anyone. It was an experience that I wish more people at Colgate and in the United States could have because it is a reminder to be thankful and humble. It is also a reminder to me that many people do care about each other; I saw that with my own eyes.

Before going on the trip, I had been doing research on the issues that were raised by Hurricane Katrina...poverty, race and poverty, and environment. The trip impacted my understanding of these issues in two ways. First of all, I saw that, indeed, some areas were hit harder by the hurricane than others and did not seem to be receiving all the support they needed. I do not believe I was there long enough to ascertain for myself exactly how much wealth and race had to do with which areas were hit, however. Perhaps some of the hardest hit areas had slightly lower elevations and so were less valuable and were areas where poorer people tended to live.

At the same time, the trip made it even harder for me to fathom this discussion of inequality. I tend to just see people, not poor people or white people or black people. I see lives and hear stories. It is very individual in my mind; these people in front of me need help. This is not to argue that the larger issues need not be addressed -- to the contrary. I just learned that talking with people and hearing individual stories can be the best way to really understand. These "issues" are not abstract concepts, but real in peoples' lives. That must not be lost. Their voices must not be lost in the piles of moldy furniture. That is where I hope we have really done our job.

To see a video and hear what other students had to say about their Colgate hurricane relief trip, go to the Photos and Multimedia page in the News section at www.colgate.edu.
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