BY MICHAELE TURNAGE
Ten third-year Harvard Law students spent flyout week doing relief work in Bayou La Batre, AL and New Orleans, LA after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit on Aug. 29th and Sept. 24th respectively, displacing an estimated 1.5 million people and causing more than $34 billion in damage.
“We wanted to go and help out in any way we could – whether it was giving people food and clothing, pulling out tubs and toilets, or tearing insulation out from houses,” said Maya Chawla, a student from Los Angeles, CA.
Indeed, there was plenty of work to be done. “Every [New Orleans] homeowner is responsible for essentially gutting their house – not just removing the furniture, but taking out wood paneling, walls, and moldy insulation and stripping it to the [wood frame] so that the inspector can determine whether the house can continue to stand or will have to be leveled and rebuilt,” said Kelly Gardner, a student from Chicago, IL and Atlanta, GA.
After donning face masks, gloves, and protective eyewear, the students helped gut three homes in the Lakeview area of New Orleans East that had been under about 12 feet of water and helped rebuild a Sunday School in Bayou La Batre, Alabama that had been hit by a six foot wall of water. The students also helped distribute meals as well as packaged food and clothing to 1,000 workers and residents in City Park in New Orleans East. There were also impromptu donations – Devika Kornbacher, a student from Baton Rogue, LA, gave away her shoes after a man came looking for a “treinta y ocho” and there was none. The workers, many of whom the students spoke to in Spanish, were living in tents or RVs, relied on portable toilets, had no access to restaurants or stores for food, and often lacked clothing and other basic provisions.
“It was [hard work] both physically and emotionally,” said Sanetta Ponton, a third-year student from Englewood, NJ. “Even now, I cannot comprehend nine feet of water even though I saw the water marks; I still can’t comprehend a person losing everything in their house; I still don’t understand what you do when you have nowhere else to go.”
Blaire Malkin, a third-year student from Wichita, KS, who helped move waterlogged personal belongings out of a home that had just been drained after sitting in standing water for almost 20 days, can still see “the mom pulling out and holding up her daughter’s prom dress from the debris we had piled outside her home; the girl’s room; the magazines pasted to the floor – it so easily could have been my own room as a teenager.”
“Before even entering the house we could smell the awful stench. Outside, there were piles of rubbish with mosquitoes circling everywhere. When we entered the house, everything – from the walls to the floors to the items inside – was moist and moldy. Even larger items of furniture came apart so easily because it was rotting and rusty. Cupboards and closets were open with items all over the floor. There were insects crawling throughout the house and in and on various items. Even the floor below us did not quite feel sturdy,” said Chawla. “The church we worked on [in Bayou La Batre, AL] looked fine from the outside. But on the inside, the wood was molding, the nails were rusty, and the structure had to be gutted from the inside.”
“The image that most continues to run through my mind is the fluorescent orange paint. It has the date that the house was inspected for survivors, the body count, and the initials of the agency or person who inspected the house; it’s on every single house and everywhere you go [in New Orleans],” said Gardner, who helped shovel sheetrock, concrete, insulation and wood with third-year student Dean Allen Floyd, of Columbia, SC, and other students.
Malkin recalls speaking with the daughter of the woman whose home she was helped to clean. “She said she had passed by her elementary school and saw “7 DB” sprayed on the senior citizen’s home next door. It had not been there the week before and it meant that they had found 7 dead bodies inside.”
“You could tell that she was a little shaken,” said Jessica Maroney, a third-year student from Fall River, MA. “Seriously, to spray paint something like that on a house or any place that people have to go by and see…”
Despite the devastation, the students met with plenty of southern hospitality. “One of the first things the owner said was, ‘I am sorry that you are coming to our home for the first time in this condition. I wish I could offer you coffee and cake,'” Chawla said. Another homeowner “was watching her house be demolished and offered us all Thanksgiving dinner at a relative’s house – which really blew me away. After all of this, people are still kind, warm, and open,” said Chaz Arnett, a third-year student from Baltimore, MD.
The relief expedition was the culmination of more than a month of research, emails, meetings, fundraising, and long distance phone calls. Five thousand dollars in donations from Dean Kagan and BLSA, lodging organized by Rev. and Mrs. Rawls of the C.H.A.S.M. Family Resource Center, and relief organized by Rev. Sapp of the International Relief Friendship Foundation and A.L.E.R.T., a disaster relief group, made it possible for the group to converge upon Atlanta, Georgia and Montgomery, Alabama from six different locations around the country on Tues., Oct. 25th and Wed., Oct. 26th and drive an average of five hours each day for the next five days through Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana to do hurricane relief work.
The trip also gave the students an opportunity to learn about the history of the civil right’s struggle in Selma, Alabama. Renowned civil rights attorney J.L. Chestnut told of March 7, 1965, when Alabama State Troopers attacked civil rights demonstrators with clubs and tear gas on Selma’s Edmund Pettus bridge in a televised tragedy now known as “Bloody Sunday” that helped prompt the nation to adopt the Voting Rights Act.
“After he heard the screams and the bones cracking [on “Bloody Sunday”], he thought to himself that he didn’t think white people could be saved, or more importantly, [were] worth saving,” Arnett recalled. “It shows the enormity of the problem that we will be trying to tackle.”
“We crossed that bridge every day and were reminded of the history of Selma. We stayed in the Alabama State Troopers’ barracks – presumably the same barracks where state troopers who were beating black men, women, and children stayed,” Ponton said. Ponton found it ironic that the same week that Rosa Parks died, an interracial, socioeconomically diverse group of students would sleep where less than a half century earlier such hatred had existed against people of color.
“I think it’s important that those of us – especially at Harvard Law School – who may be in positions of influence, learn and understand what is happening in our world, ” said Kim Ravener, a student from Glen Cove, NY. “[We] want[ed] to make a gesture to show that [we] care and identify with these people even though they are going through a different circumstance than [we are]; there is a common humanity in that.”
With reports from the Associated Press.
The 3Ls relief workers will present photos and reflections of their experiences at 7pm on Mon., Nov. 7th at the BLSA meeting in Langdell North.
Donations can be sent to C.H.A.S.M. Family Resource Center, PO Box 781, Selma, AL 36702. Men’s socks, underwear, and jeans are especially needed in New Orleans, LA.