Ryan Chartrand

A small trailer has gently sunk into the damaged soil in the front yard. The wooden structure behind it, once called a home, is nearly unrecognizable. Standing beams seem to stab at the tumultuous mess that surround the frame. Children’s books and antique silverware are scattered throughout the mounds of torn-up flooring and destroyed drywall. An overwhelming stench floats in the air that has been abandoned for 18 months.

Hurricane Katrina headlined every newspaper and took precedent on each news channel, however, 18 months later, the media has put the disaster on the back burner. But over spring break, many Cal Poly students traveled to New Orleans to help out the once vibrant and thriving center of culture in Louisiana.

“I was shocked in a good way at how open the people were to share their truth,” said Lindsey Goldberg, a modern languages and literature senior. “We were an ear for these people who feel forgotten. The media has moved on and these people’s lives are broken. They need help in so many aspects of their lives.”

On March 22, Goldberg and five close friends made the 2,100-mile drive to New Orleans in two and a half days.

“We have been friends since freshman year and for our last spring break together, we wanted to do something memorable and different,” said communications senior Kara Callaway, a part of the six-person Cal Poly group.

Goldberg and Callaway ended up moving in a different direction than the others and became a part of Relief Spark, “a community-based volunteer organization that focuses on providing disaster relief to people and pets through (an) established and continued mutual aid network,” according to its Web site, www.reliefspark.org. From gutting houses to rescuing lost pets to tutoring students, the pair set out to make a difference in the community that has been near abandoned in the past year and a half.

“The areas closer to the levees and the Mississippi River are completely devastated,” Goldberg said. “Schools are in ruins and the city looks like it has experienced a war.”

With housing, transportation and food provided by Relief Spark, Goldberg and Callaway were introduced to a number of different ways to provide aid for those in need.

“We were able to work with ARNO, Animal Rescue New Orleans, and help with all the Katrina cats and dogs. The population has exploded and there are animals running throughout the city,” Goldberg said. “They are trying to put a cap on the population and find homes for these animals.”

The women also worked as tutors for youth who are trying to get their G.E.D.s.

“We were able to volunteer with a youth empowerment program through Americore. They were 16-24 year olds and most of them had already graduated from high school but all of their records were erased,” Goldberg said. “There is no proof that they have already received their diplomas so they have to go back through the process to get their G.E.D.s.”

The pair was also able to experience the reality of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina as they “gutted” a house that had been flooded and devastated.

“We went into this one neighborhood where houses had been flooded with nine feet of water,” Callaway said. “There were little shoes and books, dishes with food rotting on them. There were definitely a lot of belongings still there.”

The two joined with 16 others to form a team that would spend two days stripping the house completely down to the beam frames that are still stable enough to build upon again.

“We were the first ones to enter the house since the hurricane and it was standing just as it stood right before Katrina hit so it had been there 18 months, rotting and molding. It was pretty intense because we had to get in full-body suits and wear respirators,” Goldberg said. “The toxicity level was so high because of the mold and everything.”

The group emptied out loads of furniture and belongings along with tearing down dry wall and ripping floorboards.

Besides physical labor, Goldberg and Callaway also experienced the breakdown of emotions felt by those who lived through the disaster.

“I was really shocked to see everything and to hear the stories of the people who lived through it and are living with it,” Goldberg said. “I felt really good about being there but we were a little overwhelmed with stories and the truth. People want to share and give and give and give their stories.”

“Literally, people were rescued by their neighbors who were in boats, going down the streets getting people off of rooftops and fences. They were helicoptered to safety,” Callaway said. “We met a man with a wife and four daughters and when the hurricane hit, they were all at work or school. For four days, he didn’t know if they were alive. He was taken to Texas and had no idea where his wife and daughters were.”

With this eye-opening experience and a lifetime of stories, the group of Cal Poly students put together a documentary, detailing their journey to New Orleans and what they found there. They will be showing the film during the New Orleans Awareness Week, April 16 to 19.

“We recorded four hours of footage with interviews of people that we met. We just wanted to make a visual display of what we came across, all of the devastation,” Goldberg said.

The group will also have a booth in the University Union to promote aid for New Orleans with volunteer information and an opportunity to donate.

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