Hurricane Katrina: Personal relief work

Do you ever think about Hurricane Katrina anymore? know I did not before I saw a flyer in Walton last November advertising a trip to New Orleans from Jan. 6-14 to help Hurricane Katrina victims.

I wish I could say I had a grand and noble reason for deciding to go on this trip.

Honestly, I didn’t know much about Hurricane Katrina at all. The reason I went is simply that the cost was only $150. Otherwise, I would have missed a priceless learning and life experience.

After arriving in New Orleans, our group of 17 drove to a church in Luling, Louisiana, about 45 minutes outside New Orleans.

This church hosted a Presbyterian Disaster Association Volunteer camp. People who needed their house gutted or worked on in other ways contacted them and were put on a waiting list. The camp coordinators then assigned jobs based on skill level to the volunteer groups there.

Gutting is stripping a house down to the bare studs and outer walls. When homes are flooded for long periods of time, as these homes were, mold develops. Everything moldy must be removed for the house to be livable again. The house can then be sanitized and built up from the studs. If a contractor is hired, gutting can cost tens of thousands dollars.

What I did not realize before going to New Orleans is that many Katrina victims were not covered by flood insurance. They lost their biggest investment–their house–and received no compensation.

What does this mean for New Orleans? It means that thousands of houses will sit empty, some not even gutted, because their owners cannot afford to rebuild them.

They can’t sell their property either, because no one wants to buy land sitting in a neighborhood full of empty, decaying houses. Businesses do not want to rebuild because there are no patrons, and schools cannot reopen because there are no families. It is a cyclical problem, which we tried to fix.

For five days, we woke up around 6 a.m. and made the 45-minute commute to our work site. We started our work around 8 a.m. and ended our day around 4 p.m., doing everything from hauling mold-infested couches outside to knocking down drywall with a sledgehammer. In only three days, we gutted an entire house.

I remember thinking how surreal everything seemed.

We were in a regular suburban neighborhood that looked just like the ones I’ve seen all my life. However, this neighborhood was eerily silent. There were no sounds of cars, people, or children. Every yard was a display of rusty fences, weeds and stumps.

Entering the house was also bizarre. Everything was black, brown or grey and reeked of mold.

I could not help but constantly think of my own house as we tore apart this family’s home.

Then I imagined it looking like this house, a black and brown mess of mold and decay, infested with mice, rats and roaches. I imagined some strange person from another state coming to my house and literally tearing it apart, wall to wall. I began to understand a little of what so many families affected by Katrina have experienced.

The best experience of the week was meeting the owners of the house we gutted. They were an incredibly friendly and sincere middle-aged couple. The wife cried and hugged each of us when we met. I couldn’t help but imagine how she must have felt. I think all of our hearts went out to them as they tried to express their gratitude.

Another experience I must also mention was during day five of our workweek. The camp director gave us a new mission: to help a woman named Starr, who had gutted her house on her own. This amazing woman had also been slowly rebuilding it with limited resources as she lived in a trailer in the front yard.

I cannot describe the utter joy in her countenance when we arrived at her house. Our team put in drywall for her, removed tree stumps and did anything else she could think of for a day.

She told us later that in our coming we had given her hope. That was amazing to hear.

I can now say I understand a tiny part of what the victims of Katrina went through. Meeting the owners of the house and helping Starr reminded me that life is about serving others, as Jesus did.

I also learned that God does not intend for Christians to serve alone. God intends for us to work with others for the glory of His kingdom, and I could not have found a better group of godly men and women with whom to share this work.

Going to New Orleans opened my eyes to how richly blessed I am, and I realized how much I have to give. As Luke 12:48 says, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

Pray that we who have been given much will continue to give to the victims of Hurricane Katrina and those around the world.

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