New Orleans Remains A Volunteer Hub For College Students Five Years After Storm

Five years have passed since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city of New Orleans, but much of the city remains in shambles. In the years since the storm, several college students from across the country have dedicated their spring break to helping rebuild the area. Brian Small, of the Syracuse University Hillel, a Jewish student group, just returned from his third annual trip to New Orleans. Small tells guest host Allison Keyes about students' experiences volunteering with the organization Rebuilding Together New Orleans. He is joined in the conversation by Alyssa Provencio, that group’s volunteer coordinator.

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ALLISON KEYES, host:

I'm Allison Keyes, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, a special performance from an Ethiopian singer who mixes poetry with music.

But first, it's been nearly five years since Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast and ravaged New Orleans. Since then, thousands of residents have moved on and the donations that poured in immediately after the storm have dwindled. People in New Orleans are still dealing with the aftermath, including neighborhoods that haven't recovered and fewer schools and hospitals. But the city has remained hopeful, in large part because of help from a strong volunteer force: college students.

They've come from all over the country during their spring break to help the people of New Orleans rebuild. Joining us to talk about this is Brian Small. He's the coordinator of programming at the Syracuse University Hillel, a Jewish student organization. He just got back from a weeklong trip to New Orleans with 13 other Syracuse students. They partnered with the organization Rebuilding Together New Orleans, and we're joined by that group's volunteer coordinator Alyssa Provencio. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BRIAN SMALL (Programming Coordinator, Syracuse University Hillel): Thank you for having me.

Ms. ALYSSA PROVENCIO (Volunteer Coordinator, Rebuilding Together New Orleans): Thank you for having me.

KEYES: Brian, you've been leading these trips to New Orleans for the past three years. What made you want to do this? And what did you think when you first got there?

Mr. SMALL: Well, the trip had started the year prior to my getting there. And students who had been on the trip told me about the devastation that they had seen, even a year, a year and a half after the storm. I understood that the program had to continue. It had to be something that we were going to move forward with year in and year out because the amount of construction and work that needed to be done was still significant.

KEYES: How has New Orleans changed from the first time you got there to what you saw this year, Brian? My first year down there was quite shocking. I remember from the ride from the airport to where we were staying in Mississippi, it was really quite remarkable to look at the roofs. The roofs of the houses had holes in them still from where people had been trying to escape from the rising water.

KEYES: Wow.

Mr. SMALL: We also noticed, driving through the neighborhoods, that there were essentially only three types of businesses available for the people who had come back, who were constructing. There were Home Depots and other home improvement centers, there were dollar stores and there were fast food. If you went around the neighborhoods, you didn't find any grocery stores. It was very clear to us that it was a health concern, as well as an engineering concern, as well as an environmental concern. And the community was very, very hurt and devastated.

KEYES: Alyssa, has the population come back?

Ms. PROVENCIO: It's estimated that about 50 percent of the population is back, or just under 50 percent.

KEYES: What kind of things still need to happen to make New Orleans a livable city again? It sounds like it's still not.

Ms. PROVENCIO: Well, I definitely think that reaching out to those communities that really haven't had the strong neighborhood associations like some of them have. And then, also, you know, doing the new construction in areas where there are no homes to rehabilitate. And I think overall, it's just increasing awareness across the country as well, because a lot of people around the country are under the impression that we have come back and that we are rebuilt when, in fact, we are not. And, you know, it may be 10 to 15 years before we are even back to the place that we were pre-Katrina.

KEYES: Alyssa, why do you think perceptions are so skewed? Is it just people are seeing the touristy areas on television and they're rebuilt, but the rest of the city isn't?

Ms. PROVENCIO: I think that's part of it. I think that people come down and, you know, they come for a convention or they come for an event and, you know, they see the French Quarter and they see those great areas of our city that are beautiful. But then they don't take the time to actually go out into some of the outlying communities and see how they've been impacted.

And, you know, obviously, the French Quarter and those tourist areas are of great importance because they stimulate our economy and allow us to get to those areas. But I really think that if tourists do come down, I do encourage them to volunteer while they're here as well and see those areas that need to be helped.

KEYES: Brian, you and your students are coming from outside. Do you have the perception that people in the city are angry about this?

Mr. SMALL: Absolutely. And there's also a great deal of hope. And that's one of the points that we try and express to the students is that, you know, with them down there, with others like them down there willing to do the work, the sentiment really changes among the locals and more and more people will move back if we make a small difference even in a small neighborhood.

KEYES: Alyssa, a couple of the major players on the reconstruction there are saying they're pulling out. It's the United Methodist Church, the Salvation Army and your organization is thinking of pulling out. If everybody goes, or the major organizations go, what happens?

Ms. PROVENCIO: I think that, you know, it's a lot of it is volunteer driven. And if you don't have the organizations there to facilitate the volunteers and to guide them in the right direction, then we're going to be in a really bad state.

KEYES: Brian, your students are mostly wealthy, white and Jewish. It's a kind of a different demographic than you're helping out in New Orleans, how is that working out between them?

Mr. SMALL: Well, we do a lot of education before the trip. And one of the things we do is we watch "When the Levees Broke" by Spike Lee. They talk about some of the other storms that have hit the area, and when they do, they show a whole bunch of pictures from, you know, storms in the '70s and well before. And one of the pictures that they show is of Cohen's grocery store underwater. And I talk to the students a great deal about how at one point it was our demographic...

KEYES: When you say our demographic, you mean...

Mr. SMALL: Specifically Jewish and also Caucasian, white and also socioeconomic perspective. So, you know, we make it clear to them that these were, you know, working class people who had aspirations and hopes and that they deserve help and assistance and that we are here and have the ability to do so. And that we should do it because we owe it to the people to be there for them after they were let down.

KEYES: Alyssa, last question: There are some the eternal optimist sorts think that there's some sort of silver lining in this tragedy. It's a way to basically rebuild a city almost from the ground up. What do you think about that?

Ms. PROVENCIO: I think that it's a double-edged sword. I think that that is true in some respects. However, I think that it's important that we preserve what makes this city unique and what draws so many visitors and people to not only visit, but live here as well.

KEYES: Alyssa Provencio is the volunteer coordinator for Rebuilding Together New Orleans. She joined us from member station WWNO in New Orleans. Brian Small is the coordinator of programming at the Syracuse University Hillel, a Jewish student organization that spent a week in New Orleans. He joined us from member station WAER in Syracuse, New York. Thank you both.

Ms. PROVENCIO: Thank you.

Mr. SMALL: Thank you for having me.

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