By Laiah Idelson
It is time for America to wake up.
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina smacked the U.S. Gulf Coast and left 120 square miles of land completely destroyed and thousands of people dead and homeless.
Seven and a half months have passed since the storm, and the situation is nowhere near better. America has forgotten the South, and it's time for our country to step up and help our fellow Americans. This last March, hundreds of college students did just that through Hillel. Instead of taking the stereotypical spring break trips to Cancun or the Bahamas, we boarded planes, buses and cars in our dirtiest clothes and headed south to Biloxi, Miss.
We slept, ate and showered in tents in a tent city through the Presbyterian Disaster Relief. We learned how to use power tools and how to remove and then replace shingles from damaged roofs. The trip was anything but glamorous; we roofed eight or nine hours a day in the sweltering Mississippi sunlight, but it was worth it. In five days, 160 college students, most with no background in construction, replaced 12 roofs for families still confined to their FEMA trailers. Repairing roofs was a small drop in the bucket of overall work that needs to be done, but that drop brings us one tiny step closer to completion.
And each step is desperately needed. It is thought that it will take 10 years to rebuild the Gulf Coast, but that's only true if there is not another hurricane of the same, or similar, magnitude as Katrina.
Growing up, I was privileged to be able to travel to many developing in countries in Latin America to do volunteer work. I helped to build a school in Nicaragua, farmed in Honduras after Hurricane Mitch and taught English in Ecuador. Until March, I thought that the conditions in these countries were impossible to replicate anywhere outside the developing world.
I was quickly shown how wrong that was when I arrived in Biloxi. The conditions in Biloxi are unlike anything I have ever seen outside of a Third World country. On the first day of construction, I was taking a break from de-nailing shingles and I noticed a group of kids playing in the lot in front of their FEMA trailers across the street. A few of us climbed off the roof and went to play with them. And they were playing with parts of their house: pipes, boards, and miscellaneous pieces of plastic. Later, I saw them playing baseball with a pipe and a gallon jug of water. It blew my mind. I have only seen children play like that because they actually have no other options.
The images that stay with me from what I saw that week in Biloxi are: homes are gutted out because the water literally came in and ate the insides; bridges that are missing sections in the middle; staircases that lead to nowhere; casinos in the gulf, blown off their foundations; buildings are spray painted with signs that say "Do Not Demolish" and, in another paint color, the date that the home was searched. Some of these dates are as late as three weeks after the storm. Trash lines the streets, but the trash was once people's belongings and homes. The air is filled with dust, mold and lost memories. People are scrambling to get as much finished on their homes before their time in their FEMA trailers expire – and before the next hurricane comes.
Our group was fortunate to be able to travel to New Orleans for a day. Parts of that city are slowly being rebuilt. The remnants of Mardi Gras are visible from the beads in the tree branches, and the energy on Bourbon Street is filled with hope and excitement for a new and brighter future. Yet not all of New Orleans is being rebuilt. Driving into New Orleans from Biloxi, one enters the eastern part of the city. This neighborhood is a complete ghost town. There aren't even people living in trailers there because FEMA won't give people keys to the trailers unless they have electrical power. The homes are disaster zones, totally destroyed, and just sitting rotting in the sun. Our tour guide, a New Orleans resident, told us that it's not certain if they're going to rebuild because New Orleans doesn't want the poor people coming back. As our bus drove past the deserted neighborhood on the freeway, it felt eerie that the only people present were relief workers.
As much work as there is to be done, there is still so much hope at the coast. Members of our group were approached numerous times by city locals. Everyone, from restaurant cashiers to the people whose homes we were building, were so eager to tell us their stories. They paid our tabs at Waffle House. They cried on our shoulders. They presented us with as much cash as they could scrounge up. "Buy yourselves snacks," they told us. When we refused, they persisted. "And thank you," they said as they pushed $30 into our hands. "Thank you for everything."
America: The South cannot rebuild itself. It is our responsibility as Americans, but more so as humans, to help the South. Tell your congressional representative that you want FEMA removed from the Department of Homeland Security so it can effectively reach more civilians and so controversy will be avoided in the next crisis. Send money to your local faith or volunteer agency that supports the Gulf Coast region. Travel for a weekend or a week to the region. Without people helping, the job cannot get done. But most importantly, do not forget. Do not let the stories from Hurricane Katrina fall off of the media's scope. The hurricane victims are counting on their fellow Americans, and it is our job to do our part.
Laiah Idelson is a freshman at American University.