So I had the most awesome spring break ever and I thought that I would update you all on it, since I tend to do that with my trips. I spent it in New Orleans, helping out with Katrina relief with a group called H.O.P.E. (Helping Other People in Every Way). HOPE is an offshoot of Common Ground, which has been funded by money given to the founder by Michael Moore (unofficially heard through the grapevine). I got there on Friday the 24th and stayed in the French Quarter with a friend of a friend. I went with a couple of people from Berkeley, but our groups split off and I spent most of my time at the HOPE center in St. Bernard Parish with one other Berkeley student.

I can say that I tested my physical limitations and know how much my body can handle. Along with about 30 other students, most of them from UC Santa Barbara, we gutted houses (striped them down to the bare wood), denailed houses (took out all the nails so they could bleach the houses), and completely leveled a gazebo and a garage. I climbed on top of a roof and cleared it of debris. I emptied out a toolshed that was on its side and actually came from 1.5 mi away. I have tons of bruises on my legs and my arms are scraped up. All my muscles ached and my body was feeling it. I had the best sleep of my life. It was so worth it.

Talking to the people made it worth it. Southern hospitality is not a lie. All I needed to pay for was a plane ticket and car rental, if I wanted. Food and accomodations were completely taken care of. These are people who have lost everything, literally, and they just are the nicest people ever. Most of the food we ate was donated food. People would come in and cook for us or just bring 70 lbs of crawfish and crab and teach us how to eat them the "proper way." When I was gutting this house, I found envelope of money ($70) behind one of the panels in the kitchen. The owner, Helen, had been helping us clean, so I waited for her to come back the next day and handed her the envelope. She opened it, got teary-eyed, and then gave me the best hug I've had in my life. It was so full of emotion. Helen had bad kness, a bad back, and a bad neck. The day of Katrina, she was supposed to get the stiches out from her neck, but she couldn't b/c of the storm and ended up pulling out the stiches by herself. She was an amazing woman because, despite all of her physical limitations, she was still helping us clean out the house. She was trying to stop using painkillers and she said that helping us out made it easy for her to withstand the pain and sleep at night. Helen told me, "To other ppl, I may seem poor, but I have what I need and I live a comfortable life. I just know that your lives will be rich."

When we were working on the garage and toolshed project, one of the neighbors, Monroe, came by and offered us the use of his wheelbarrow and electric chainsaw. He was such a nice guy. I had to take a lot of breaks b/c it was so hot and my goggles kept fogging up, so I started talking to him and he invited me into his house. It had already been gutted and the sheet rock was put up as well. I asked him how much the sheet rock cost and he said $18000. The companies aren't giving them any discounts and the government isn't giving them any tax breaks. He had to borrow a lot of money and is now in debt, but he did what he had to do. He was so proud of his house and will be done rebuilding in 2-3 months. He got electricity back in his house and has the radio playing all the time to make it feel more like a home again; "it provides a sense of comfort," returning to a sense of normalcy.

Being there also made me angry as to why nothing was being done and why the area had been abandoned by their government. It's like walking through a ghost town in some parts. You can walk through the walls, literally. Houses are abandoned. Most of them in St. Bernard Parish aren't even gutted out yet. The houses that have been have huge trash piles on their sidewalks b/c the government mismanaged the money for the trash collectors. No one knows where it went, so the trash just isn't getting picked up. A girl told me that her 3 dogs were shot and the bullet casings were from the sherriff's dept. When the ppl were standing there for 4 days, there were gators and snakes; there was also a shark sighting on the freeway. Water was 17 ft at Monroe's house and up to 6 ft way across from where the levee broke. A house had been lifted completely off its foundation. Boats are everywhere. Cars are on top of houses, on top of each other. It's a third world country, and yet the only people there are volunteers. FEMA is withdrawing completely April 10 and the Red Cross was withdrew one of the days we were there. The Bush administration announced last Thursday it may take up to 25 years to repair New Orleans.

We snuck into the FEMA site and saw the volunteer accomodations. Volunteers had 30 washer/dryers at their disposal. The site is located right next to a track so that the volunteers can exercise, as if the additional exercise equipment they had for the volunteers wasn't enough. The had wireless internet in their dinning halls and Reese's peanut butter pies. Besides the huge plasma screen tv, they had movie screening advertisements posted on their Coca-Cola soda dispensers. At 9 PM was "Just Friends." FEMA is billing their services to the local parish, so the parish is in debt to FEMA and its wonderful services. It took Helen 3 months and "about 100" forms to get her FEMA trailer and some people still haven't gotten theirs yet. Others who have gotten theirs have not received the keys to open them. There's so much excess from the government. I lived with hippies in communal living quarters. Slept on army cots in sleeping bags, cooked/cleaned all together, 3 bathroom stalls that got clogged and were missing seats, 2 shower stalls (only one with hot water, and that was only after the 3rd day I was there). It was so wonderful. I woken up by a local kid, Drake, giving me a noogie one morning. The next, Jon banged on the drums and woke all of us up. We worked until sundown, until we couldn't see anymore. We got so close, especially bonding on the work sites (and over not showering for days on end...I didn't shower for 3.5 days, and that's with all the sweating we did while working. Just too busy. Finally took a cold shower). Hippies are some of the most well-informed people I've ever met.

I plan on going back in the summer, either after I graduate in May or in August, before most schools start. I have a group of friends who all want to help. I heard that there's a huge Vietnamese population in Biloxi, Mississippi, and they're in need of interpreters, so I might go there instead. For now, it's up in the air. One of the houses said, "Katrina You Won." Dave, one of the hippies that runs the HOPE center, said that it's not so much about gutting houses and giving food, clothes, and toys to the community. It's about letting a poor, destroyed, and nearly abandoned community know that they have not been completly forgotten. With hope, the most impossible challenge appears surmountable. With hope, NOLA will be rebuilt.

If you would like to help out, go to http://www.commongroundrelief.org/ (I think that HOPE might be shut down right now b/c of disputes with the priests b/c they thought some of the volunteers were disrespecting the church) or you can just give tax-deductible donations to the organization that I went through, Environmental Rebound at Cal. The donations to ER at Cal will go towards travel costs to ensure that other voluteers and I get the chance to go help out.