RIC students spend spring break in Katrina relief effort

Ten RIC students packed their bags this spring break and headed to New Orleans – the birthplace of jazz and American home of Mardi Gras. The students, all members of the RIC chapter of Intervarsity Christian fellowship, were not going to enjoy the Crescent City’s ambiance, music and raucous parties – they were going to fulfill a pledge.

RIC Intervarsity in New Orleans.

After the devastating flooding and damage that came with Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Intervarsity, a nationwide association of campus ministries, made a promise to the people of New Orleans to help with the recovery effort, so RIC’s Intervarsity students spent their spring break painting, plumbing, clearing debris, installing windows and doing outreach work.

“It’s not all fun and games down there,” said Atiana Benoit, a member of RIC Intervarsity. “Just because the Saints won the Super Bowl doesn’t mean it’s all OK.”

RIC Intervarsity in New Orleans.
Benoit and nine others stayed in the Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans, at Carpenter’s House, a local church-based charity. From there the students split into groups that would work on various community projects benefiting areas most affected by the hurricane.

After a day spent clearing rubble and debris from a Lower 9th Ward home, Benoit ventured into a condemned house scheduled for demolition. She wanted to see what the flood damage looked like up close.

“Gutted,” was how she described the house, cupboards sagging where they had detached from the walls, lines of water damage scarring paintwork. Yet, as Benoit ventured further into the derelict house, she discovered two slept-in mattresses and clothes scattered on the floor – people lived in this house.

“Even after all that has happened, this is their home,” said Benoit.

Intervarsity secretary Alexandra Puleo said that the affluent areas are more built up now, having recovered somewhat from the flooding. However, she said, in less wealthy areas “it looks like the hurricane hit yesterday.”

Massive breaches in flood defenses built by the United States Army Corps of Engineers left roughly 80 percent of the city flooded. The system was later acknowledged to be “an incomplete and inconsistent patchwork of protection, containing flaws in design and construction,” according to a spokesperson for the Army Corps of Engineers in a New York Times article (Army Corps Admits Flaws in New Orleans Levees, June 1, 2006).

RIC Intervarsity's Adam Croft in New Orleans
Benoit and Puleo said that the stories they heard from the locals about Katrina were unforgettable. One story Benoit recalled involved a hungry and dehydrated woman and her family trying to flee the city and being turned away at gunpoint on a bridge roadblock by what was assumed to be military personnel.

“This trip showed me we have all got our burdens to bear, but to see how these people are not letting this tragedy keep them from their home is empowering,” said Benoit.

Both Benoit and Puleo said the trip was enormously rewarding. “It was really out of my comfort zone,” said Puleo. “But when I got there I was blown away. It showed me how big our world is.”

Intervarsity will be sharing their stories from New Orleans on Thursday, April 22, at 7 p.m. in the Faculty Center, Donovan Dining Center. Jambalaya and gumbo, traditional New Orleans food, will be available. The event is free.