the Princeton undergraduates who traveled to Louisiana during
fall break to assist in hurricane relief efforts were, from
left, David Valentine '08, Anna Lineback '06, Kamilla Hassen
'08, Jamie Ausborn '08, Stephanie Feldstein '08, Mark Stevens
'06, Jamie Blackburn '08, Brad Milligan '08, and Tom Zingale
December 14, 2005:
Coast journal Stephanie Feldstein ’08
reports on students’ hurricane relief work during fall break
During fall break, 20 undergraduates from the Student Volunteers
Council traveled to sites in Louisiana and Alabama to assist residents
and clean up the damage left by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Stephanie
Feldstein ’08 of San Diego, one of 10 students volunteering
in Abbeville, La., kept a journal of her experiences for PAW (a
condensed version was published in PAW’s Dec. 14 issue).
Sunday, Oct. 30
Flight 225 from Newark to Baton Rouge was ready to land. Half
dozing, I watched the tray-tables being returned to their upright
positions, the seatbelt sign blinking, and the flight attendants
scurrying about the cabin. Excited and nervous about our trip, I
stared out the small airplane window, trying to imagine what I would
see once we touched down. For weeks my mind had been in overdrive,
processing all the images of hurricane destruction: houses torn
apart by wind and water, animals drowning in floods, stranded people
in desperate need of help and supplies. Walking through the airport,
I imagined myself entering a war zone. I wonder if my fellow soldiers
shared my surprise as we stepped outside and saw that the world
looked … well, normal. People drank coffee and laughed
while the sun shone brightly overhead – where was the apocalyptic
scene I had envisioned?
After driving 45 minutes to Abbeville, we stopped by the local
Baptist church to meet some of the people we would be helping this
week. Still recovering from my first Southern meal (a fiesta
del fried: not one alligator, shrimp, crab leg, or mushroom
had been spared the deep fryer), I listened to the congregation’s
enthusiastic worship, played with the pastor’s daughter, and
was overwhelmed by our positive reception. Everyone was glad we
were there, even people whom we wouldn’t be directly helping.
We went to sleep that night full, happy, and ready to work.
Monday, Oct. 31
The town of Erath, a few minutes from Abbeville, had opened its
arms to the victims of Hurricane Katrina, providing them with food
and shelter after the disaster. Just weeks later, Hurricane Rita
hit them hard, and though no lives were lost, a quick drive to our
site showed the physical damage it had done. As we turned a corner
I could almost imagine a normal Southern street, lined with houses;
a second look revealed, however, that the houses were no more than
empty shells, their flood-damaged contents piled on the curb. The
foundations were there, but little else survived. Yellow “X”s
had been scribbled on their front doors to show that they had been
checked for survivors.
We soon met Melba and Charles Tibideaux, an elderly Cajun couple
who had lived in their home for 38 years and raised 11 foster children
in it. They loved their house and wanted it saved, and we wanted
to save it. Wearing masks to protect us from the pervasive smell
(and spores) of mold and mildew, some of the boys helped remove
their furniture while the rest of us took out the floors. With only
a few shovels and a crowbar for tools, it was tough manual labor.
Perhaps a little too eager to help, we shoveled until our hands
were covered with blisters and our arms had progressed to a near-arthritic
state. By the end of the day, we were tired and sore, but the floors
were almost gone.
Tuesday, Nov. 1
Munching on some Red-Cross provided snacks, I listened as Melba
told me stories about picking cotton on her father’s farm
as a child, about her daughter’s beauty pageants and her little
grandaughters’ report cards (straight As, incidentally). Soon
the conversation turned to the hurricane.
“I had so many photos on the wall, all ruined,” she
said. “My daughter’s wedding dress, her wedding photos,
all gone. Our house is all we have left, and we don’t even
have the money to rebuild it. FEMA said they would give us a trailer,
but it hasn’t come yet. Maybe in a year – maybe two.
Either way, a trailer isn’t home.”
I knew this story had been told hundreds of times already, but
sitting on the porch, listening to the 80-year-old woman relate
it in her melodic Cajun accent, I began to understand. We could
rebuild and we could restore, but we could never recover the little
pieces of people’s lives that were lost. Some things were
gone forever. It was up to us to do the best we could with what
was left, and hope that eventually, new pieces would come to replace
those that had been washed away.
Wednesday, Nov. 2
We had to wear masks just stepping out of the car. I almost gagged
as the smell of our next house, the stench of mold and decay, wafted
toward us. Inside, there was still toast in the toaster and dirty
dishes in the sink – the 84-year-old owner had left in a hurry.
Our job was to get the floors out and to separate the items ruined
by mold from those still salvageable. Unfortunately, this lady was
an amazing packrat, and along with sorting through the normal pots,
pans, and food, I found myself examining butter containers, soda-can
tops, and gallons of water stored everywhere – under the bed,
in the living room, even in the bathroom. In one room of the house,
the windows had been closed since the hurricane, and without any
ventilation, it had reached a new level in olfactory offense. There
was still water on the floor, and we had to hold our breath in order
to move the moldy books, chairs, clothes, and sofas to the curb.
In addition, there were many items stored in cardboard boxes on
the floor that were just soaked through. Peering inside one box,
I saw it held the family photo albums. Wedding pictures, baby pictures,
and honeymoon pictures were made unrecognizable by the water and
colored mold that had infested them. I almost cried as I looked
through the impressionistic mess, trying to make out a face or a
We kept them all, of course. It’s what I would have wanted.
Thursday, Nov. 3
We drove to Pecan Island, about 20 minutes south of Abbeville,
a town that had been utterly devastated by Rita. For 15 minutes
straight we saw the same strange sites: houses moved 30 yards from
their risers, roofs on top of trees, tractors overturned, and front
steps with the house nowhere to be seen. Two houses had smashed
right into each other; enormous trees had fallen and crushed the
earth below. Next to most risers we saw just piles of rubble. The
entire island was dead. There was nothing we could do to help –
there was nothing left to rebuild.
Friday, Nov. 4
The mud was almost to my knees. Today I found myself in a flooded
tool shed, looking for the hand-made Christmas ornaments that had
extreme sentimental value to the owner. Shoveling mud out the door,
I saw something blue. It was an ornament. There were seven more,
and only one was broken. I smiled.
The local senior center, our next site, was also filled with mud,
and we spent most of the day throwing away furniture, TVs, and bingo
cards encased in mud and mold. Sometimes I would open a box still
full of water, and the smell would make me gag. This was hard, dirty
work, but we were proud of what we were doing for the community.
At the end of the day, Elbert, our boss from Vermilion Faith Community
of Care, helped us clean the floors with a hose and mop. I wondered
why we were cleaning, since the floors had to be taken out anyway.
“So people aren’t afraid to come in here anymore,”
Elbert told me. “They can look and see it fairly clean and
think, ‘Maybe things aren’t so bad after all.’
Saturday, Nov. 5
After saying our goodbyes to everyone we worked with, we were
back on the plane, headed for Princeton. No one wanted to leave.
There was so much left to be done, so many people in need. I had
seen houses destroyed, lives changed, mementos forever gone –
but more importantly, I had seen triumph. I suppose adversity brings
out the best in us, but the cooperation and hard work I witnessed
was utterly amazing. No one was afraid of getting dirty; everyone
wanted to do everything they could to help those who needed it.
We may not have rebuilt Louisiana during fall break, but we had
some impact on the lives of the people we were able to assist.