Students spend spring break rebuilding homes and lives in New Orleans

April 06, 2007

(Editor's note: This is a first-person account by a Penn State Dickinson law student who spent her spring break in New Orleans helping rebuild hurricane-damaged homes.)

By Melissa Tanguay, Class of 2009
And Team Penn State Dickinson Law: Matt Allen, Andrea Miller, Jen Prizeman, Alex Smith, Phil Taw and Andrew Tuozzolo

From March 11 to 17, I led a group of seven Penn State Dickinson law students to New Orleans to volunteer over spring break rebuilding the homes and lives of Hurricane Katrina victims. We spent the week in St. Bernard Parish, a community in metropolitan New Orleans devastated by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005 when the storm sent a 25-foot surge over the levees and completely flooded the entire parish.

Before the hurricane, the parish was home to approximately 67,000 lower/middle class residents; today, only a fraction of those people have returned home. While nearly all of the houses in the parish have been gutted or demolished over the past 18 months, the rebuilding phase has only just begun with sky-high construction costs and limited resources. Many parish residents are living in FEMA trailers right next to their destroyed houses, waiting for construction on their homes to begin or finish or just waiting for help. Some can afford to rebuild their homes, but so many other elderly and poor residents lack the funds and manpower to get the job done.

Team Penn State Dickinson Law stayed the week at Camp Hope, a gutted elementary school turned volunteer base camp run by Habitat for Humanity in the heart of St. Bernard Parish. The school was home to 650 spring breakers from colleges across the United States working on various rebuilding projects in the parish that week. We volunteered for two different projects during the five days of our spring break. The first two days we worked for the St. Bernard Parish government organizing and moving supplies -- including 1,099 shovels, 32,000 face masks, 200 cleaning kits and too many portable restroom kits to count. It was tedious work, but invaluable to the parish employees whom we helped. Our site supervisors even rewarded us with a famous New Orleans King Cake to thank us after our work was complete.

The rest of our week we really got our hands dirty as we worked for the St. Bernard Project, a new nonprofit organization that rehabs gutted homes in the parish. The project was started last fall by four Washington, D.C., professionals (including a lawyer) looking for a way to help get New Orleans back on its feet. Our team was split between two houses, where we expanded our marketable skills by learning how to install insulation and drywall, as well as the true test of operating power tools from a ladder. When I arrived at my assigned house on Wednesday morning, I could look straight through from the front to the back of the shotgun-style house as it was only a bare frame with siding. By the time my team left on Friday afternoon, the frame of the house was covered and each of the five rooms was separated by real walls. The greatest accomplishment was the realization that you could no longer hear the radio blasting country music in the bathroom from one room to the next. After we left, the St. Bernard Project would complete the rehabbing process by installing flooring and appliances and painting the interior and exterior of the house before the owners move home in April.

In addition to lending our blood, sweat and tears during the week, we had the opportunity to tour the most devastated areas of New Orleans, including St. Bernard Parish and the Ninth Ward. My most memorable impressions were of a community gym where the basketball hoop had rotted off when the floodwater settled near the ceiling, a house that was totally washed away except for its foundation (you could still differentiate among the rooms due to the various ceramic tile designs) and a shed that had been lifted up and was lodged on the roof of a house. We also spent some of our free time in the French Quarter in downtown New Orleans, which is alive and well despite the damage in surrounding areas.

By the time we departed New Orleans at the end of our spring break, we were exhausted, but satisfied with our contribution to rebuilding homes -- and, in turn, rebuilding lives. No picture or article can describe the loss the people of New Orleans have experienced, but the most important thing we walked away knowing is that New Orleans still needs help to get back on its feet and will need help for many years to come. There are dozens of great volunteer organizations to assist hurricane victims, such as Habitat for Humanity and the St. Bernard Project, and unskilled workers are always welcomed. No one in our group had ever done construction work before spring break, but by the end of the week we were using terms such as: "take the sheetrock to the left," "hand me the dremel so I can cut out this outlet" and "who took my T-square?"

In addition to construction work, hurricane victims in New Orleans need legal help, too. During our trip, I met other law students in St. Bernard Parish working for the Student Hurricane Network, an organization started by students at Tulane Law in response to Hurricane Katrina that facilitates law students helping hurricane victims in New Orleans deal with legal issues such as fair housing and insurance claims.

I am already looking forward to returning to New Orleans, hopefully bringing other Penn State Dickinson law students, faculty and administration with me to rebuild more homes and lives destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Stay tuned for more information about our next Penn State Dickinson School of Law field trip down to the bayou.

  • Team Penn State Dickinson Law is show during their first day assisting the St. Bernard Parish government. Front, left to right: Jen Prizeman, Alex Smith, Matt Allen and Andrew Tuozzolo. Back left to right: Melissa Tanguay, Andrea Miller and Phil Taw.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated July 22, 2015