University of Oregon senior Emily Shankman, who participated in Oregon Hillel's Alternative Winter Break trip to the Gulf Coast, shared her experiences in this letter to friends and family.
Dear Friends and Family,
Early Monday morning, I returned to Eugene, Oregon after having spent a week on the Gulf Coast. I participated in Oregon Hillel’s Alternative Winter Break Program, in which we took one small step toward helping to rebuild New Orleans. I am writing to share my experience with you.
Over two years after hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, devastation still runs rampant-- entire neighborhoods rest in shambles, those who once owned homes still live in FEMA trailers, and the job market and educational system continue to suffer.
Before I left for New Orleans, I felt confused as to whether or not the service I would be providing was worthwhile. Many asked me, “Why rebuild New Orleans, if another hurricane is going to hit, and destroy the city all over again”? I am an idealist, and hesitate to think in such apathetic, though perhaps realistic, terms. Needless to say, I was discouraged by this seemingly impersonal analysis, and looked forward to delving into the issue firsthand.
Throughout my experience on the Gulf Coast, I became more and more aware of the injustice that had been committed against Katrina victims. Billions of dollars can be spent on the war in Iraq, yet within our own country, it takes days, even months—and now years--, for the US government to provide aid to their own people. And it was only when the government realized that much of the devastation, caused by levee breaks, had been the fault of the Corps of Engineers, that any serious action to help the citizens took place. Many of the victims were poor and black, and within their own country, were called “refugees.” Even Barbara Bush said, in reaction to the New Orleans evacuees taking refuge in Houston, "So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." To even say that a devastating—and fatal-- hurricane would *help* the “underprivileged,” is appalling, undermining the victims’ suffering, and ultimately reinstating racial and socioeconomic prejudices.
Given that we were only able to stay for the duration of a week, our work on the Gulf Coast was limited. However, in the time that we were there, we were able to help work on three separate houses, primarily “flushing” nails and painting outside surfaces. We were able to make personal connections with the homeowners, and hear their stories. One of the homeowners that we helped build for had found refuge at the top of a tree during flooding. Another homeowner told us of his connection with his property, whereupon he had lived his entire life alongside his grandparents, his parents, and his sisters and brothers. This deep-rooted, familial connection with the land was a phenomenon that struck me as being very particular to the South. Although the victims expressed resentment and frustration at the way in which the government dealt with their plight, their hearts had not been hardened. Every one of the homeowners expressed overwhelming gratitude for the fact that we were on the Gulf Coast over two years after the storm, still caring and still willing to help get citizens back on their feet.
As I left the Gulf, I no longer felt discouraged by arguments against the rebuilding of New Orleans. We cannot ignore hopelessness and suffering, and we cannot submit to our government’s apathy. Simply reading about the devastation, and even seeing graphic footage of the storm, does not compare to working one-on-one with those who survived Katrina. Although at times I felt frustrated that volunteers, and not the government, were those rebuilding the city, my experience was profoundly meaningful.
All the best,
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