Reviving New Orleans

5/18/2011 9:00:38 AM

Chris Kenny and Jon Pawson prepare the ground for a sidewalk. They are two of the 16 students from CNA who are in New Orleans helping rebuilding areas destroyed by hurricane Katrina.

By Ashley Fitzpatrick
Reprinted with permission from The Telegram
(Published May 14, 2011)

The image of a phoenix rising from the ashes has a suggestion of rapidity which makes it a poor metaphor for the slow, painstaking recovery of New Orleans post-Katrina.

The hurricane that struck in 2005 and - combined with the flooding, following subsequent breaches in the protective levees around New Orleans - resulted in the reported deaths of about 1,500 people in Louisiana, although the official count is still being disputed.

The devastation drew the attention of the director of the St. John''s campus of the College of the North Atlantic (CNA), John Oates. He wanted to help.

"Originally we came down the year after the hurricane and we looked at what types of things needed to be done," he said in a recent interview, during his fourth trip to New Orleans.

"We looked around the different neighbourhoods perhaps we could work with. We hooked up with Broadmoor (community association) because their revitalization plan for their neighbourhood sort of matched our philosophy. Their idea was to develop what they call an educational corridor - build a good school, build a good church, build a good community centre and people are more likely to move back into the neighbourhood."

Oates found accommodations for a CNA volunteer team at the Episcopal Church of the Annunciation in the heart of Broadmoor - between Tulane University and the French Quarter. The second floor of the church was converted into a dormitory as part of a community mission following Katrina.

The doors have been opened to thousands of people who were eager to help with the work that needed to be done, once the water was pumped out of the bowl of old New Orleans.

CNA students have been making the trip to the city for a couple of weeks each year since 2008. Even with the work put in, there is still much work to be done in Broadmoor and the city as a whole.

"There are parts you wouldn''t know a thing happened, but many areas are still extremely devastated," said CNA civil engineering technology student Justin Greeley, who also spoke with The Telegram from New Orleans.

"Many areas, as you travel around, are still in ruins there. Houses still boarded up with an ''X'' across a window or a door - indicating a search party or from the day it happened, how many people were found, how many animals were found.

"Properties are still vacated. Many houses are just totally gone and the land hasn''t been occupied since.

"What you see on television is far from the truth sometimes. Many people, I think, are led to believe that was back in 2005, everything is fine now. But it''s far from it."

CNA students from campuses throughout the province have been able to contribute to the recovery work, in part due to financial support from the Fry Family Foundation. This year, 16 students have made the trip, more than ever before and from a broader range of programs (46 have made the trip in total). Their focus for 2011, is constructing space for a new pre-school within the church building.

"Carpentry students have been going flat out doing some flooring work in there, putting up some walls," Greeley said. On the day he spoke with The Telegram, he had been working on a new cement walkway outside.

Students have been put to work in other parts of the community as well.

"The geomatics students, they''ve been out surveying people''s properties, surveying some land and getting some known points, because they lost everything here a few years ago," Greeley said.

The information is given to local engineering and architectural firms.

"Broadmoor had 7,000 residents pre-Katrina. It has the same socio-economic and racial breakdown as the city of New Orleans and we are the comeback neighbourhood for New Orleans, despite a 34 per cent poverty rate," said Duane Nettles, executive director of the Church of the Annunciation mission.

Nettles said the neighbourhood had everything from million-dollar homes to households with incomes less than US$14,000 a year - all hit by between eight and 10 feet of flood water.

"This church had water up to the light switch plates on the first floor and it''s a raised building, three feet off the ground."

Since 2005, the church mission has housed over 11,000 people. "(These visitors) have contributed about seven million dollars in re-building labour to the city," Nettles said.

"Because the neighbourhood has just come together and worked - and with all of these volunteers coming down - we''re back 85 per cent. So we''re back more than any other wet neighbourhood."

Nettles is a lifetime resident of New Orleans, growing up in the mid-city neighbourhood, just north of Broadmoor. He is married with two children and, like most other residents of the city, he and his family did not escape Katrina unscathed.

"We lived with my wife''s grandfather in a house built by her family in 1908," he said.

"Our house took on about seven feet of water."

He said the locals working with him at the church mission, since he took the reins there in 2007, were similarly affected. "And so, for us, this isn''t about just doing good work. It''s personal. This is my home town."

Telling the story of the Newfoundland and Labrador CNA students'' contribution to the recovery was assigned to journalism student Gage Miranda during the latest New Orleans trip.

Given a laptop and a video camera and sent on his way, he was required to file daily reports on New Orleans and the surrounding area and, once he returns, produce a full-length documentary.

"It''s been almost all of my work for the year in different courses, combined into two weeks, compact and compressed down," he said, on the phone to St. John''s following an interview with a shrimp boat captain at the marina in Venice, Louisiana.

"I think a lot of people have kind of come to terms with the way the community has been piecing back together. So right now I think people are a little more open about it and a little more willing to share their experience."

The population of New Orleans - a place Nettles calls "the smallest city you''ll ever visit" - now stands at about 350,000, compared to between 425,000 and 450,000 pre-Katrina.

Yet, "considering everything, I think we''ve come a long way," he said.

As for CNA students returning in 2012, no decision has been made on the continuation of the annual volunteer trip.