From Caulking to Cajun: Catastrophic Relief Alliance volunteers in New Orleans

By Roberta Machin

On Jan. 5, the Catastrophic Relief Alliance (CRA) left behind the frozen tundra of the North, stepping off the plane to 70-degree temperatures and the faintest scent of fried catfish.

CRA was formed shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in order to support and participate in relief efforts for the area, and this year the group made a weeklong return trip. During the past semester, CRA’s fearless leader, Andy Gulati, has worked tirelessly with the executive board to pull off our most expensive and logistically challenging trip ever. We would be working with the St. Bernard Project, an organization that has built nearly 500 homes in the wake of Katrina. Before the trip, I had fielded several questions along the lines of, “What’s the point of volunteering in New Orleans?” and “Didn’t Katrina happen like nine years ago?”

What most people do not realize is that New Orleans still has not recovered. Many families were taken advantage of by corrupt contractors, and several neighborhoods are still littered with damaged and abandoned houses. Past the French Quartier and the infamous Brad Pitt homes, people who live in the lower-income areas are still struggling to piece together their lives. Doris Hall-Gulati, our CRA “Den Mother” who went on her first trip this year, was shocked that “the state and federal governments were not taking complete care of their citizens by systematically, or even in a somewhat chaotic manner, rebuilding this amazing melting pot of an American city.”

Four relief trips with CRA have taught me that to the St. Bernard Project, a group like ours, showing up at 6:00 a.m. to orientation, enthusiastic and caffeinated, really does mean more than the amount of work we can accomplish during our stay. The CRA would like to believe that, on our trips, we could frame a house on Monday and apply the final coat of paint to it by Friday afternoon.

In reality, the work we do is slow, and, often, a lot of time and effort yields very little visible progress. Some of our CRA members spent a whole day walking around a house, looking for spots that needed caulking. Others scraped and primed walls for painting. These jobs are incredibly important, but the lack of obvious progress can be frustrating.

Half of our week coincided with the polar vortex that was ravaging the northeast. Although Louisiana temperatures did not drop to negative numbers, exterior painting in 20-degree weather is still no picnic. Under the advisement of CRA’s indispensable friend and mentor, Mike Joseph, I spent the last two days building closets with some of my fellow students. Mike and Andy’s brother, Hans, have spent many of their vacation days sharing their valuable expertise and assisting students on these disaster trips. Team Mike was able to cut, hang, and screw in drywall for the closets in one day and mud them on the next.

Before two weeks ago, I thought mudding was what you do on your way to D-Hall after it rains. Despite the occasional moment of frustration, I’m glad that I can add another skill to my CRA tool belt. At the end of our final day I left the site with my hands caked in mud and my jeans smeared with paint fingerprints, feeling satisfied with the outcome of our work.

Fellow executive Jocy Portillo ‘15 said that she couldn’t imagine a better way to spend her breaks than participating in CRA trips.

“One of the greatest things about a club like CRA is that we get the opportunity to hear about the personal stories of the people whose houses we are working on. It gives us greater incentive to work harder and it also is inspiring to be a part of an initiative that really makes a difference in an individual’s life,” said Portillo.

Another executive member, Kelsey Kreyche ‘15, said that unfortunately she didn’t get to meet any homeowners, but she did “feel a deep-rooted gratitude for them. After weathering eight years of suffering and disappointment, they were still able to open their homes and histories to us.”

But CRA is never all work and no play.  If you throw eighteen students of varying classes and majors and four adult mentors into one house, you will bond more than freshmen playing the human knot during orientation. We ate fried chicken, Po-Boys, Beignets, and Chicory coffee at all the “best of” hotspots. We donned Mardi Gras beads and masks and took to the streets, exploring the French Quarter and Bourbon Street.

At our lodging site, we engaged in twister tournaments and competitive games of Monopoly and Risk. And, of course, there is the jazz. First at Snug Harbor and then at Blue Nile, we let the smooth jazz rhythms soothe our sore muscles after a long day on the job. However, the music doesn’t stop at the doorway of the jazz club: street performers gather at every corner in NOLA, and CRA proved themselves worthy of being Step Up extras, at the very least.

First time CRA participant Caroline O’Neill ’17 said that the trip surpassed all her expectations.

“I went into the trip hoping to make a difference in the New Orleans community and make some new friends along the way,” said O’Neill. “Not only did I gain so much experience about the kind of work we were doing, I also feel like I made a contribution to rebuilding the New Orleans community and I made new friends with whom I am now very close.”

CRA painted, caulked, tiled, framed, and otherwise left our mark on nearly a dozen homes.  Of course, this trip couldn’t be possible without the help of the college. We would like to thank everyone who supported us by buying baked goods and t-shirts, providing transportation and other necessary assistance, and pledging donations, all of which allowed our club to make a positive impact in NOLA.  In the wise words of Andy, “everyone we met, from homeowners to shopkeepers to musicians to relief work organizers, gave us the good feeling that New Orleans can and will always bounce back.”

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