By Melissa Etehad, 15, Santa Monica HS
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When I told my friends that I was going to New Orleans this summer to help Hurricane Katrina survivors, they seemed puzzled. “You know, you’re not going to have fun,” one told me.

It’s hard to explain why I signed up for a week of construction work in New Orleans with my church youth group. I think it was the memory of those images on TV after the levees broke and the city was flooded, the desperate people pleading for help on their rooftops, and bodies laying on the street, covered with towels, because there was no way to bury them. I wanted to be part of the solution to rebuild New Orleans. I wanted to make a difference.

When our group of 16 teens and five adults flew to New Orleans in July, we were optimistic. I figured that there would still be some areas in the city that needed help, but a year later, that things would be getting back to normal. As we drove from the New Orleans airport to the church where we would be staying, we learned the truth.

Everyone in our van was quiet, looking out the windows. My mouth dropped open as I saw houses with missing roofs and shredded siding, still marked from the high flood waters and rescue operations. The rescue workers had spray painted each house with a large “X” and a number to indicate how many people died there. Many survivors were still living in trailers or even tents. There was so much destruction, I almost felt like I was watching a movie. My friends were shocked too:

Wrecked houses still dominate the landscape in New Orleans, Louisiana, a year after Hurricane Katrina hit.
Photo by Melissa Etehad, 15, Santa Monica HS


“Oh my gosh.”

“Look at that house—it’s completely gone.”

That night we laid out our sleeping bags at Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church, which has set up its choir room, youth room and lounge areas as a type of hostel for volunteers who have come to help since the hurricane. We were hungry, excited and ready to get to work.

The next day, we went to Bethany United Methodist Church nearby, where the pastor greeted us with hugs and a wide smile. Our church, First United Methodist Church of Santa Monica, has been trying to help Bethany through this crisis by sending donations and volunteer help. Our team quickly got to work on the landscaping, removing rocks and weeds and planting trees, grass and flowers. While we were working, the local newspaper, The Times-Picayune, came to photograph us and interviewed several members of the team.

I didn’t get interviewed, though. I spent the day on my knees, pulling out weeds in the rain. By the end of the day I felt exhausted and my back was aching, but I was happy. Seeing the pretty green grass and flowers in the middle of a ruined neighborhood, I felt like it was sending a message of hope to the whole community.

As we were finishing up, a man from the church approached us. He explained that the church was everything to him, and we were making a difference, and he started to cry. Even though we were all covered with mud, he gave everyone a hug and kissed us.

That evening after dinner, we all came together in a circle. One by one, we stood, holding candles, to describe our most memorable moment of the day. It was emotional as some people talked about finding the inner strength to do this work. One said she had regained her faith. I talked about the man who had approached us in tears. A lot of us were teary-eyed. We were beginning to realize what a big deal it was, just for us to be there and help out.

The house was devastated

The next day our work began on the house we were assigned to. It was awful to see the damage. The floodwaters had been more than six feet high and everything in the house was still there, the pictures, furniture, clothes and dishes. Our first step was to put on our safety gear—respirators, goggles and Tyvek suits, which are kind of like space suits. We had to protect ourselves from the toxic flood waters that had soaked the house and the mold that was everywhere.

As we gathered our crowbars and hammers, the owner of the house showed up. The expression on his face was numb and his eyes seemed glazed. His voice was hollow and monotone as he politely thanked each of us for being there. He asked us to just throw everything away. He stayed for 15 minutes and left. It seemed like he didn’t want to be there too long.

Before we could get to demolishing the house itself, we cleared the debris—everything that was destroyed in the flood. We made huge piles on the front lawn of furniture, his wife’s wedding dress and fancy clothes, a collection of hats, towels, dishes, bills, cans of food, toothbrushes, medications. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would come by later to pick up the trash, which we had to sort into clothes, wood, ceramic and glass, and drywall, which is the stuff walls are made of.

In spite of what the owner had said, we saved the family photos, a Mother’s Day card, Biblical scriptures that had been tacked to the wall, and the ornament from his wedding cake. Our counselor put them in a box to give the owner later.

Then we started the actual demolition—we had to remove everything but the bare wood structure of the house. Our counselor assigned two people to each room. In my room, I didn’t really know where to start. My friend took the hammer and slammed it into the wall and I copied her. After about four to five hits, I took the back end of the hammer and pulled the drywall toward me and half of the section of the wall suddenly came down. It was fun to see the walls crash down, but after an hour, my Tyvek suit and respirator were drenched with sweat. Feeling claustrophobic, I took off my face mask and the sour, decaying smell of the house hit me. I had to step outside to get a breath of clean air.

The volunteers posed for a group shot, some still wearing the masks and white Tyvek suits intended to protect them from the mold and toxic substances left by the floodwaters. Melissa is in front.

We spent the next four days demolishing walls and floors, shoveling the debris into a wheelbarrow, and rolling the heavy material outside. Each time we finished a room, our counselor would call us over to do a “jig,” a funny dance where we hopped around in a circle, which was a great way to keep our spirits high. We sang songs and checked on each other to make sure we were doing OK. That was important because two of my friends actually collapsed with heat exhaustion and had to rest in the car with the air conditioning on.

When people drove by, and saw us with our face masks and Tyvek suits, they would honk to show their support, or drive slowly, say “Hi” and wave. Some people stopped their cars to look through the debris on the front lawn for anything usable.

At the end of each day, I was exhausted. None of us had ever worked so hard in our lives. My counselor, who had been doing such service projects since he was a teenager, said this was the hardest one he had ever done.

The scene of the disaster

One day after work, we drove through the Lower Ninth Ward, which is the neighborhood right next to the levees. The unreal images I saw that day will haunt me for the rest of my life. Entire houses had been taken off the ground and slammed on top of cars, and shoved next to other houses. One house was laying on its side, exposing its basement. A year before, the whole place had been under water. We saw the holes people had chopped in their own roofs and climbed out so they wouldn’t drown in their houses. The lawns were scattered with clothes, bikes, wood, tires and rusty cars with broken windshields. Four-lane roads stood empty of traffic.

I saw a busful of tourists, taking pictures. One tourist got out and posed, smiling, next to a house smashed by a tree. We saw signs such as “Tourist free zone,” “Not as seen on TV” and “Need Help and Donations.” Some homeowners had spray painted red or black messages on their houses, such as “Where’s FEMA?” and “This was my home.”

But that wasn’t the worst of it. The area close to where the levees broke was like a ghost town. The houses that once stood there had been shoved back hundreds of yards and all that was left were the foundation bricks and scattered wood. It was literally block after block of nothing. I felt a surge of emotions—shock, fear, sadness. I imagined the thousands of families that had nothing. I thought about the destruction stretching for hundreds upon hundreds of miles, and nothing was being done to fix it. It made me want to help even more.

After four days, our team had finished all the rooms. We left the ceilings and some floors for the next volunteer crew. Once that was done, the house would be ready for new floors and walls and be liveable again. I was relieved that it was over and really proud of the work we had done.

Looking back, I can honestly say it was fun. Not fun like going to the movies, or the beach, but in the sense that I know I made a difference. When I was working with everyone on our team, I felt so connected and powerful. Even though we’re not used to doing demolition, we did it the right way and we got a lot done.

Seeing the losses that people in New Orleans suffered has also made me appreciate what I have. It has made me more aware of how fragile life is—not just our lives, but our communities as well. One day, everything could be normal, and the next day, everything’s changed and won’t ever be back to normal. But I also know that if it happens, there will be people out there who do care. Maybe not FEMA, but someone will care.