Say the phrase “spring break” and visions come to mind of bikini bacchanalia in Cancun, black diamond slopes at Vail, or maybe a quick cruise around the Caribbean. For some dedicated engineering students, the week was spent in rebuilding spirits and homes in New Orleans, which shows little progress even four years after the devastating events of hurricane Katrina.
Among the students taking the long, 27-hour bus ride to New Orleans in March were junior engineering students Danielle LaPointe (Biomedical Engineering), Eric Dorsey and Mike Kowalczyk (both Civil Engineering), Lindsey Fink (Chemical Engineering), and senior Danny S. Lee (Mechanical Engineering).
The students were part of several organized college groups from Connecticut making the trek. Eric, Danielle and Mike belong to the on-campus InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, while Lindsey and Danny were part of a non-denominational contingent that worked for an organization called “Rebuilding Together New Orleans.”
A second-timer who volunteered during last year’s spring break as well, Eric has worked in construction jobs during the last two summers and found that his engineering training was helpful in understanding why New Orleans sustained such devastating damage. “As an engineer, you see the real problem was the failure of the levee system to withstand the storm surge.” He said the flood damage was still widespread throughout the Ninth Ward and Industrial Canal area, where plant life has proliferated unhindered amid the ruined buildings and roads.
Lindsey agreed that she drew on muscle, more than her engineering education, during the week’s toil. But like Eric, she felt her background helped her better understand the issues surrounding the levee reconstruction and why the levees ultimately failed during the hurricane.
Eric worked in the Ninth Ward with about a dozen other volunteers and residents re-roofing a family home. He said the one-story home, damaged by 10-foot floodwaters, belonged to a family of nine who lost everything but an attic fan. The patriarch, an engineer by trade, and his three sons worked alongside the volunteers throughout the week — driven to speed by the government’s imposed deadline of 90 days for completion of certain repairs. The volunteers were shocked to learn that families who cannot meet the repair deadline will have their homes foreclosed on by the government.
The work Lindsey and Danny tackled involved demolition. Lindsey explained that the Rebuilding Together organization strives to avoid purchasing new materials in the rebuilding efforts, preferring to use recycled materials. “My team worked at taking apart an abandoned house, salvaging wood, nails, and other materials that could be reused in the construction of a house. It was neat to see that the organization was trying to recycle and reuse old materials.”
The students were all motivated to volunteer by a desire to help others. Lindsey commented, “The alternative spring break program provides a convenient way to give back and help out those less fortunate. I had an amazing experience. Not only was it great to see another part of the country and meet so many new people, I was able to help out other people in the process.” She left New Orleans with a strong sense of commitment. “Although it did take time and hard work to help others, I benefited and got so much more out of the experience than anything I could have put into it. The experience also helped to cement my desire to continue working to help others in the future and in my career.”
During the week, Eric’s fellow UConn engineering students and InterVarsity members, Mike and Danielle, respectively painted baseboards and finished a bedroom at a home in nearby Slidell, and helped to bring order to rooms stuffed with donated clothing and other goods available to families still in desperate need.
Eric rated the week’s experience a 10 out of 10 and said he plans to volunteer for the effort again next year. He summed up his experience this way: “The people of New Orleans feel forgotten. When you drive through the area, you see just how little has been done to reclaim the city, rebuild homes and lives. Entire sections of the city remain untouched. And you realize people are actually living in these destroyed homes, without utilities and basic services. So it was inspiring to be able to give something of ourselves toward making these people feel they’re not invisible.”
Lindsey agreed that New Orleans appears to have fallen off America’s radar screen as an area in need. “The hurricane took place almost four years ago, and the government funding for relief efforts has greatly decreased. As a result, the revitalization of New Orleans and the surrounding areas would literally not be possible without volunteers. Volunteering gives you a sense of purpose and self worth; the work we did made a direct impact on someone else’s life.”
Engineering students have done cleanup efforts in other parts of the hurricane-damaged Gulf Coast region as well. Senior Chemical Engineer Jane Bugbee and other members of the University’s Honors Program Council traveled to Pearlington, Mississippi during the 2008 spring break. Jane’s team was tasked with executing finishing touches — including indoor and outdoor painting and linoleum floor installation — on new houses built by the Pearlington Recovery Center for families still in government trailers. She said, “On existing houses that were salvageable, we did repairs on water-damaged parts; for instance, on one house that was on stilts, all the insulation underneath had been water damaged, so we replaced it.”
She found the experience deeply meaningful. “I gained the ability to look at my life from a different perspective. The people down there lost literally everything to hurricane Katrina but were still upbeat, welcoming and grateful just for life itself.”