When signing up to help those affected by Hurricane Katrina, the volunteers of the Alternative Breaks program were expecting to just lend a helping hand to the Louisiana community. 

“For the trip, the first two days we were working within the community and helping out where we could,” forestry freshman Ramon Contreras said. “We worked at a rec center where we were painting doors and the next day we helped out the owners of the Camp we were staying at.”

However, three days after they landed in Louisiana, a tornado hit the town of Arabi where Camp Hope is located and where the Alternative Breaks students were staying. 

The students had a close encounter, spending time outside moments before the tornado hit. 

“My adrenaline was pumping for sure. We were like finishing the day and wanted to go outside in the rain. And we wanted to experience the rain because we’re from California, right?” agricultural and environmental plant sciences junior Bryce Nevitt said. “We didn’t really notice that the tornado watch had turned into a tornado warning.” 

While the volunteers were excited about the rain, the tornado was an unexpected surprise. 

“It was very interesting, coming from out of state, from Texas, I’ve been around a tornado before,” Contreras said. “I’ve had a tornado hit my community before but it was different.”

The EF3 tornado ripped through the community with speeds of 136-165 mph, leaving power lines exposed and major damage to the streets. 

“We all huddled onto the stage. And there was a big flash of turquoise when one of the transformers blew up. It was intense,” Nevitt said. “Most people’s reactions were to like, take their phones out and like start talking really loudly. It reminded me of like elementary school.”  

After waiting for a day, the students were surprised to see the severity of the tornado.

“The next day, we were helping clean up a guy’s property which had been just littered with wood, his roof, his fence signs,” Nevitt said. “Those street signs like the pedestrian crossing ones– those were ripped in half – like paper. It was incredible. Like, pieces of sheet metal up in the trees.”

As the damage of the tornado settled, the volunteers worked with a local church giving out food to anyone that needed it. Their schedules were packed, helping for ten hours a day. 

“There was a large group of us who went to work and help plate and move around food so it could be sent to different distribution centers around the city in Arabi as well as set up at Camp Hope where we were staying, another a distribution center for housing and food and water and roofing supplies to be given out,” Contreras said.  

While the student-volunteers found satisfaction in helping those in the community, after the tornado, there was a stronger connection between them and those they were helping. 

“We were going to some person’s house, which everyone liked even more because they felt like they really were connected with it,” Nevitt said. “I think that was the really big theme of this trip is that we as volunteers wanted to feel connected to the work we were doing and who we were helping.”

Contreras shared similar sentiments and noted that even seeing the surrounding community members unite quickly for those that needed help was “special” to see.

“With the tornado, we were really able to come together and help the community with what they really needed instead of going there and doing what we thought they needed,” Contreras added.

With the surprising events, the quick turnaround by the volunteers was an unforgettable experience.

“Definitely pay attention to your phone, if there was a tornado warning, obviously, that does not apply to people here,” Nevitt jokingly said, reflecting on when the tornado hit. “But we should have been looking at our phones because definitely close call with us being like outside in the rain and stuff like that like we should have been inside.” 

Nevitt “highly, highly, highly, highly, highly” recommends the Alternative Breaks program to others. 

“It’s a great experience for you to figure out, you know, what makes you tick, like what you find important,” Nevitt said about the program. “All volunteer work should be thought of as equal in some capacity. I just think any volunteer work is good volunteer work because it’s helping someone who needs it.”

Similarly, Contreras said that he hopes to continue volunteering more with the Center of Service and Action at Cal Poly.  

“It’s not just New Orleans that needs help, every single community, including San Luis Obispo, needs help from every little thing,” Contreras said. “And to volunteer and to build those building blocks which community grows upon, is really important.”

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