Students who participated in an intersession trip to help the post-Hurricane Katrina reconstruction effort in the Gulf Coast joined community leaders from the sites they served in a crowded Lowell House dining hall last night to share photos and recount stories from the frontline.
Over the course of a week, 80 students volunteered at four sites in New Orleans and across Mississippi on projects ranging from gutting houses to working with school children.
“What struck me the most was the hope, the hope of the whole community,” said Jason Lee ’06, who worked in Ocean Springs, Miss. “It was unbelievable, the damage we saw. Everything was gone, but nobody lost faith. It was something I’ll never forget.”
The work was fully-funded by the Harvard Coop and organized by the Phillips Brooks House Association.
Moss Point, Miss. Mayor Xavier Bishop, executive director of Ashe Cultural Arts Center Carole Bebelle from New Orleans, and Executive Director of Metro Jackson, Miss., Habitat for Humanity Cindy Griffin thanked the students yesterday.
Bishop, who had only been in office for a month when his city faced the Hurricane, said the work of the students was invaluable.
“The South is a very prideful region of the country,” he said. “This has been a very humbling experience for us to have to rely on people to come and help us.”
Because Moss Point was recently adopted by Cambridge as a sister city, Cambridge Mayor Kenneth E. Reeves said that his city was also committed to helping Moss Point.
“We are not silent friends,” he said.
The evening also included a brief discussion of policy questions from students, regarding the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast, led by Jennifer Phillips, the director of National Programs at the Institute of Politics (IOP).
Students asked the guests to share their personal opinions on the policy dilemmas the Hurricane had raised.
“How can people go about their lives when they have no work to go back to?” asked Russell M. Weinstein ’07, who went on the intersession trip.
Bishop responded that “that’s just one more thing we struggle with, trying to isolate things to deal with them.”
Answering questions about why the students had been working in sites that seemed relatively well off compared to devastated areas such as New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, Bebelle admitted that there were questions about the wisdom of rebuilding particularly vulnerable areas of the city.
“It’s politics,” said Bebelle. “Part of the Lower Ninth is only ‘look and see.’”
The “look and see” areas of the City are waiting to be reconstructed while debates ensue concerning their safety, she added. Bebelle said the Lower Ninth Ward had flooded four times in her lifetime alone.
Another complication, Bebelle said, is that most of the population of New Orleans is not living in the city.
“There’s a deep and gut-wrenching discussion going on, and two-thirds to three-quarters of our population is not in New Orleans,” she said. “To be able to put the pressure on the officials, those sorts of things are not possible when you don’t live there.”
In response to the popularity of the event, Phillips suggested that a new policy group at the IOP could be formed to address the issues of reconstruction in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region.
Each of the guests reminded students that “Katrina fatigue” is happening, and that the Gulf Coast could not afford to be forgotten.
“Be reckless with advocating for justice for the Gulf Coast,” Bebelle said.
Making a direct plea, Griffin told the audience, “Please, remember us.”