What Became

Returning to volunteer work sites ten years after Katrina


Volunteers should try not to become too attached to their physical work. You’re there to help a person and a community. Those are often intangible goals. And evidence of the work it took to help those people fades over time.

But you do get attached. And you can’t help but wonder, “Did my work make a difference?”

I learned this lesson years ago after spending a lot of time on the Gulf Coast helping people clean up and rebuild in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Between 2006 and 2008, I worked with and helped lead Youth Advocating Leadership and Learning at Indiana University, eventually bringing more than 600 volunteers and 25,000 hours of volunteer labor down to the Gulf Coast. I spent a combined total of 6 weeks in Biloxi and 1 week in New Orleans, mostly gutting and rebuilding houses. We invested a lot of time, resources and sweat. Enough to help improve the lives of many families and bolster hope for those around them.

But given the daunting challenge after Katrina, I still wonder what mark our work left on the communities we helped. And how did that legacy hold up in the years since?

I went back through my photos of worksites and looked them up on Google Street View. Each of the photo pairs below shows roughly the same vantage point from several years ago and today. Read the captions and click the links.

Here’s what I found.


Aftermath

When I first got to Biloxi in spring 2006, the scale of destruction was hard to comprehend. Here are some photos of the area to provide context.

The 90 bridge looking toward Ocean Springs. The bridge collapsed after the storm surge lifted it off its pylons. https://flic.kr/p/govt3o
The new 90 bridge over Biloxi Bay. Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/IhV2r
Driving east toward Gulfport. https://flic.kr/p/gouXgu
Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/4ZmJz
The remains of the old Tivoli Hotel. The storm surge threw a casino barge across a highway and into the building. https://flic.kr/p/gouaMo
Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/LiKsy
We didn’t work on this site, but drove by it every time we left the volunteer camp. https://flic.kr/p/gqCiyA
Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/Gy0YK

Biloxi

Most of our work centered around Biloxi, Gulfport and the surrounding towns. Here’s a selection of homes and sites our volunteers worked on over the years.

Homeowner talking with Jimmy, Malia and Evan. https://flic.kr/p/govpd6
Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/YmIQD
The homeowners rode out the storm in the attic of this house as flooding and tornados hit. https://flic.kr/p/goqStG
Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/uUpo9
Demolition was easy. Trucking out debris was not. https://flic.kr/p/4D3GaZ
Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/mJdQP
The city required even vacant homes to keep lawns mowed or the owners would be fined. Insult to injury for survivors. https://flic.kr/p/4D3EUP
This block barely changed. Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/G7cdM
Willy’s house. We sheetrocked the entire interior. https://flic.kr/p/gqCqR3
Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/vajP2wcVFKK2
This house was gutted to the studs and beams. Our volunteers did extensive mold remediation. https://flic.kr/p/gqD8gt
Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/xWgfuMmZ9EC2
It took 4 days for our volunteers to tear down and clear the lots for these two houses. https://flic.kr/p/4MwrFP
Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/c2mPXnWrPcw
The Water St. house, as we called it. We were there for (a lot of) painting and other finishing touches. https://flic.kr/p/4D841S
Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/vaCpri4bp5L2

The house below is the one I personally spent the most time working on. It was stripped to the studs and weathered when we first arrived. During three separate week-long trips, I helped mend the roof, tear up and replace the porch, and sheetrock the entire interior. It’s an old house and, handyman’s lament, nothing in it is square. This is the house that inspired me to write this post.

Demo on my first visit to the site. https://flic.kr/p/gDEwKH
New roof looks great. Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/fgQAN
We ate and served countless lunches out of this Salvation Army site and the stadium behind it. https://flic.kr/p/gqCV2Z
The arch remains. Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/dl7ny

Below is a photo of the volunteer camp that was our home base in Biloxi. We built the bunks and bathrooms that we used. We built the tool sheds, and I knew them like they were my own. By the end of my time as a volunteer, it felt like home.

The camp closed up shop a year or two after my last week there. Funding dried up, new city ordinances effectively blocked operations at the site. The photo of the now empty lot stings the most. The place meant a lot to me.

I’ll forever be grateful to the director of the camp. He inspired a lot of volunteers. He put a lot of faith in our ability to keep our volunteers organized and get the job done. By the end, I knew I had earned his trust and friendship. It was privileged to have both.

Mark Jones, wherever you are, thanks.

We built the tool tent on the right and operated out of it season after season. https://flic.kr/p/gqC79d
Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/R6upY64DfdT2

New Orleans

Conor looking majestic.
Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/VUiKq
This warehouse focused on upcycling materials from destroyed homes and donating profits back to communities. For us volunteers, that meant stripping nails from thousands of boards. https://flic.kr/p/gDLREW
Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/G25qjGJ3VKM2

We did not work in the Lower 9th. At the time of this trip, December 2007, much of the cleanup there had been done and the rebuilding process was slow and uncertain. Volunteer efforts were being directed to other parts of the city. Late one evening, a few of us drove through the neighborhood.

Looking toward the new levee. https://flic.kr/p/gDM3SW
Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/76bQQtyJhB72
These structures were part of “The Pink Project” by Make it Right, Brad Pitt’s organization. https://flic.kr/p/gDMAVK
Source: Google Street View https://goo.gl/maps/K2hmP4BtN3y
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