Vail student’s return to New Orleans isn’t easy |

Vail student’s return to New Orleans isn’t easy

Lynnie Somes
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the DailyJocelyn Irwin, Nick Wilhelm and Lynnie Somes were among a group of 14 local students who traveled to New Orleans this summer to help rebuild Hurricane Katrina-devastated neighborhoods.

Editor’s note: In June 2007, a group of 10 students traveled to New Orleans with three Vail Mountain School teachers to help rebuild the city, many parts of which are still devastated from Hurricane Katrina.

Eight of the students attend Vail Mountain School and two attend Battle Mountain High School. They are members of Vail Mountain’s Ethically Engaged Youth, a “full immersion, service program whose mission is to offer high school students a comprehensive appreciation for the cultural, economic, geographic, and political confluence that results in endemic conditions of poverty,” according to school officials.

Some of the students have submitted essays about their experience in New Orleans for publication.

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA ” In July of 2005, a month before Hurricane Katrina hit, my family and I visited New Orleans. Although our visit was short, it was obvious that New Orleans was a place unlike any other: It was a place filled with a rich, unique culture and an alluring liveliness ” a New Orleans very different from the one I returned to in June 2007 with Vail Mountain School.

Two years ago I saw the streets filled with energetic locals and then, saw the devastation of Katrina broadcasted on the TV. On the news, I saw streets flooded, houses torn down, and people on their rooftops hoping to be saved from the rising water. This summer, when we stepped out into the hot, humid air, I initially found a normal, prosperous city ” not one filled with high waters and ubiquitous debris. In fact, I could not see any evidence of Katrina during the drive from the airport to our hotel in the French Quarter. After all, it had been two years since the storm had hit and I was curious as to what type of work we would be doing since the destruction was just not that evident.

The following morning we took a 20-minute drive to a residential area called Lakeview. The beautiful, flourishing scenery vanished instantaneously and now, before my eyes, laid a destroyed town. Entire walls and rooftops remained caved in, windows were shattered, doors ripped off, sidewalks were cracked and misshapen and front lawns were either completely bare or entirely covered in thick, substantial, bushes and weeds. The area was a wreck and suddenly I realized that the cleaning up of a home or two in Lakeview would be a rigorous and demanding task. Because Lakeview was one of the three areas of New Orleans that was hit the hardest by Hurricane Katrina, the damage was more evident here than it was in any other part of the city I had seen ” it was like looking at a Third World Country in our very own United States.

We had the opportunity to go inside one of the houses in Lake View. This is my journal entry from that day:

It was devastating to walk into that house. I could never imagine returning to the South and seeing my home, or what was left of it, like that. Shattered glass lay all over the floor next to the spilled spices and dislodged dishes. The couch was located off to one side of the room, discolored and ripped so the moldy stuffing was fully exposed. A mattress lay in the middle of the room with torn, decaying sheets. Lamps, tables, and chairs were all turned over and their fragments jutted into various walls and other broken furniture. The bathroom door had been washed off by the strength of the current and it lay bent, jammed inside the small bathroom itself. Its steel frame had been morphed to the flow of the water. The hurricane hit over two years ago, and yet, this home looked as if it had endured this tragedy yesterday.

Twenty-four hours after landing in this place that was both winning and breaking my heart, it was explained to us WHY Hurricane Katrina had caused such extreme damage in New Orleans. We learned that the absence of Louisiana’s wetlands contributed to such destruction. The wetlands used to provide protection for the city ” they were the first “speed bump” for the oncoming storms. However, the wetlands began to diminish because of the installment of the levies. In the 1930s, farmers made the levies to protect their crops from the yearly overflow from the Mississippi river. However, that overflow would provide the wetlands with the soil needed to grow. The levies interrupted that cycle, hence, the wetlands started to disappear.

Canals from the Mississippi River to the ocean were built and allowed for the saltwater to come into the lands and destroy crops as well as the remaining wetland areas. Now the wetlands cannot provide protection for the city anymore and as a result, Katrina hit New Orleans at full force, causing this unbelievable damage

One interesting characteristic about the City of New Orleans is that it is actually located below sea level. Because of this, all of the sewage, and rain water is pumped out to Lake Pontchartrain ” the second largest salt-water lake in the U.S. that stretches across 630 square miles. Most of the water damage in the city was actually caused by the breaking of the levies. By August 31, 2007, 80 percent of New Orleans was flooded and the faulty levies were responsible for at least two-thirds of the flooding. The Army Corps had built an inadequate design for the levies, for they could not withstand the conditions of a Category 3 storm.

Ninety percent of New Orleans residents left the area when they received news of the upcoming hurricane. Of that 90 percent, less than 15 percent returned to their homes The people who returned to New Orleans have grown frustrated with others who left their homes deserted. The few town members are now responsible for cleaning up all of the abandoned homes. Furthermore, plumbers, contractors, builders, electricians, etc. were among the people who fled; therefore, the process of renovating a home, let alone an entire neighborhood, takes a lot of time. Furthermore, Connie from the Beacon of Hope, expressed that she felt as if New Orleans was just forgotten about.

The nation expects the city to be cleaned up after two years when in reality; New Orleans is far from repaired. All of the money is locked up with FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) and they are having trouble finding the funds to perform simple, tasks that would make a large difference. Connie expressed that many of the city’s inhabitants have lost faith in the government because of the delay in funds. As a result, homeowners decided to take matters into their own hands and begin to clean up the city without the help of the government. The Beacon of Hope, one organization that sprang from this decision, was “just a fancy name for neighbors helping neighbors”

Through our help, we too became apart of the New Orlean’s neighborhood.

As we endured the southern heat, it brought us great satisfaction to know that we really were making a difference in this community. Whether we were shoveling the dirt off the roads to clear the drainage system, or clearing out overgrown lawns, countless locals would drive by and honk, wave out their window and shout out thank yous. Their appreciation really made us realize that our short, five-day trip had indeed, left an impact on the recovering city.

Lynnie Somes is a Vail Mountain School student.

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