The Oberlin Review
<< Front page News November 4, 2005

Obies lend a hand in storm-ravaged New Orleans
HazMat suits not pictured: Obies break from post-Katrina reconstruction work to raise the Common Ground banner 

While many Oberlin students may have been nestled in armchairs reading the news about the reconstruction in New Orleans over Fall Break, one crew of Obies went straight to the afflicted area and, wearing HazMat suits, sorted through sludge-covered furniture and tore down molded walls.

Nineteen Oberlin students traveled with the grassroots organization Common Ground (stationed in Algiers) from Oct. 22 to 29. Common Ground drew participation from the College, initially through fundraising and then by suggesting the trip.

College juniors Randy Shafer and Kari Marboe organized the trip by advertising on campus and arranging multiple general interest meetings. They initiated fundraising before the trip so that the students were able to arrive in New Orleans with $1000 worth of supplies, 25 bicycles and about $4000 in donations, while the College administration provided transportation and traveling costs for the volunteers.

Students who attended the trip emphasized that they had been prepared in advance for the difficulty of the work and the potential impact of the experience.

“Students went in with expectations of hard work every day and were told that it would be emotionally taxing,” said College junior Claire Miller.

Still, students said they did not anticipate the extent to which their involvement would influence them.

Shafer described New Orleans as a city littered with sludge-covered furniture, saturated by the smell of death and inhabited by more military officials than locals. Another student who volunteered, College senior Miriam Lakes, had a similar impression of the devastating scene.

“For me, it’s the closest I’ve ever come to a war zone,” she said.

Participants said that most residents surviving the ruinous conditions gratefully welcomed the help.

The Common Ground helpers took various jobs. Some lent their help in the Common Ground distribution center, while others helped with tree removal, roofing, establishing a community center in the Ninth Ward and cleaning uninhabitable houses in Houma.

Students working within New Orleans homes had to wear respirators and HazMat suits to protect themselves from the black mold infesting furniture and penetrating walls. Most possessions within the houses were destroyed by toxic sludge and had to be discarded in the streets, the only place for trash disposal. Shafer said that at one woman’s house, not one belonging could be salvaged.

“Everything important to her, everything she owned, was just trash,” she said.

The houses often had to be stripped to the frames, which were still moldy and rotten but would still be built upon out of necessity. For those who had remained in their flood-ravaged homes, not accepting respirators, even this was considered an improvement over their formerly mold-filled, toxic homes.

The Oberlin volunteers said they were affected most by the people whom they encountered. In Houma, students spoke to a woman four months pregnant who was living in a contaminated house. Yet even in such devastating situations, the residents were positive about receiving help.

“Every resident that I met was incredible — very friendly and thankful. Their character was very inspiring,” said Miller.

Adam Gordon, an Oberlin College senior who will continue to give his assistance over the remainder of the semester, said that he saw a great spectrum of attitudes from the locals.

“The range of responses in the face of tragedy is enormous,” he said. “I’ve cried with people about their losses and I’ve even been yelled at for trying to help.  In the end, though, the work we’re doing is greatly appreciated by the community.”

The Bayou communities in which the students worked were heavily affected by flooding. Many say that the communities also have victims of human rights violations and neglect by the state and city. Lakes said that developers were already planning to buy land from low-income locals in order to construct upper scale housing. Common Ground is attempting to organize locals against these potential developments, which they consider dangerous.

Common Ground provided the first aid to the Bayou area. Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther, founded the collective, stationing it in Algiers. To reestablish sustainable infrastructure, Common Ground provides the materials, money, information and mutual aid, allowing community goals to drive its activity.

Students said that they returned to Oberlin knowing that in a mere week they had created a great impact. According to Miller, they had turned an “empty shell of a building” in the Ninth Ward into a “free clinic, bustling with residents.” Those in Houma could view their progress by each house they cleaned.

The student volunteers who have returned to Oberlin retain strong investment and involvement in the project. They are sending proceeds from the Nov. 4 Keep Halloween Party to Common Ground and also hope to hold a presentation collaborating speeches, photos and film to share with other students. A second, more extensive trip has been arranged as a Winter Term project and is open to any interested students.


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