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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.