By Katie Mosher
We kick open the unlocked door and stand bewildered, looking into a residential house just outside of New Orleans. Mold and shrubs inhabit the wet staircase before us. We tentatively walk in the doorway and up the stairs, apprehensive of what we are to see next. The house is packed with rotting furniture and tipped over appliances. Dirty dishes fill the sink. Children’s clothes hang wet in the closet. Toys lie rusty on the soggy carpet. The calendar is flipped to August 2005. For over a year and a half, a family’s home has been sitting here motionless, abandoned.
In the time that I have celebrated two birthdays, completed almost four academic semesters, traveled to Italy and Australia, moved to a new home, this house has been untouched and rotting away.
Twenty-nine Ithaca College students and I set out on our spring break to help rebuild homes that had been destroyed as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Arriving so long after the storm hit, I imagine entertaining a city of brand new developments, clean streets and fixed-up homes. I soon learn that my image of New Orleans will not be realized for at least another 10 years.
As I drive through the area, I see a war zone. I see an image worse than what I imagined New Orleans to look like the day after the storm hit. In some areas, fences are broken, roofs are caved in, windows are shattered and water lines stain the exteriors of everything. Fluorescent markings remain on the outside of the houses, disclosing how many people and animals were found, dead or alive, after the storm.
Incredibly, the conditions are even worse in other areas. Street names are written on plaques of wood and cement foundations are the only remnants of homes. Everything is washed away, and lush vegetation has begun to take over. It is hard to believe that people once inhabited this area.
The destruction and chaos is overpowering, making us feel small and feeble. We have five days to make a difference, to help an area that seems to be hopeless.
We put on our face masks, zip up our protection suits and head into a house that was once a home. We clear out the house - refrigerator, cabinets, Barbie dols, toothpaste. We pile everything up in the front yard.
We set aside what is salvageable - an old saxaphone, marriage papers and a few warped photographs. These are the only concrete memories that this home has left - the only items through which we can build a connection to the family who once lived here.
When the house is completely empty, we tear down the drywall and insulation with hammers and crowbars, unscrew the doors, shovel up and remove all of the debris, and take out the carpeting. We eradicate all of the remnants of the storm, so that the house can slowly become a home again.
We have to leave the house on the last day, without walls, without doors, without anything but beams. It is not yet a home; and it is no longer even a house. I wonder when the house will be touched again. I fear it will still be sitting in the same condition when I go back next year.
But the optimism of the locals and of the other volunteers helps my own optimism stay strong. At one point near the end of the trip, a resident stops us and say “thank you.” Is is all she needs to say. I can see a sense of hope in her eyes, the same eyes that witnessed her home flood.
We come back north from spring break without a tan, without a souvenir T-shirt, without photos of the beach. We do, however, come home with pride, with the knowledge that we made a difference. Thirty students, most of whom had never touched a crowbar before, helped rebuild a home. We are half a house closer to re-creating New Orleans.
Katie Mosher is a junior photography major who recently invested in a tool belt for her return visit to the Gulf Coast. Email her at kmosher1[at]ithaca.edu.