Ten years after Hurricane Katrina, IU students continue to help displaced residents

Blog courtesy of Rachel Martinez, a senior at Indiana University majoring in journalism. Martinez is part of IU’s Youth Advocating Leadership and Learning, a student volunteer organization that started in response to Hurricane Katrina.

Take a second to reimagine your surroundings:

Aug. 28, 2005: You live in the Lower Ninth Ward, the largest and easternmost downriver area of New Orleans. Your house lies within a mile of a large canal and levee system. Like most people in this part of the city, your family has lived in the same residence for over 30 years. This neighborhood is your kin, and your house is the only base you’ve ever known.

Rachel Martinez

Rachel Martinez at work in New Orleans. | Photo courtesy of Rachel Martinez

The city issues a mandatory evacuation order as a hurricane works its way through Florida. It will be a “Category 5” storm by the time it hits your area. You’d leave if you could, but you don’t own a car. Even if you did, where would you stay? All of your friends and family live within three blocks of you, and renting a car and hotel room is financially impossible. But you’ve been through hurricanes before, so you stock up on nonperishables, water and extra candles, board up your windows and make do as best you can for the impending storm.

Aug. 29, 2005: Hurricane Katrina has struck New Orleans. The hurricane created a storm surge, an abnormal rise in water, which blasted through the lower-eastern coast, causing over 50 breaches in the levee system and flood walls attempting to protect the city. In less than seven hours, tens of billions of gallons of water were released, inundating 80 percent of New Orleans.

Within hours, the future of Louisiana was forever changed: 1,836 deaths, $81 billion in property damages, more than 400,000 people displaces from their homes, and 15 million people affected over 90,000 square miles.

Your house is under 10 feet of water, all of your possessions are ruined, and you’re not sure which of your neighbors are still alive. Nevertheless, you’ve survived the storm. Now, you must rebuild after everything has been lost.

Fast forward 10 years, and New Orleans and its surrounding areas are still recovering from physical and emotional hurricane scars. Much progress has been made, allowing communities and businesses to come back to the area. However, thousands of individuals and families remain displaced by Katrina, waiting to return to their homes in New Orleans.

Y'All group

Members of Y’ALL pose for a picture during the group’s recent trip to New Orleans. | Photo courtesy of Rachel Martinez.

Jan. 11, 2016. I have just finished my fifth visit to New Orleans as part of a service trip with Youth Advocating Leadership and Learning, or Y’ALL as many call it. Three years ago, on a whim, I decided to attend my first Y’ALL trip; I’ve returned four times since. I’ve become so passionate about Y’ALL and its mission that I joined the executive board and affectionately refer to each trip as “the best week of the year.”

These weeklong trips include re-building houses of hurricane victims; building relationships with New Orleans and her community members, many of whom have similar stories to that above; bonding with 45-plus fellow volunteers in heated games of euchre and mafia; and absorbing all the “Big Easy” has to offer, including food, conversation, music and architecture.

During the week, a main goal is for every participant to experience an “a-ha” moment in which they gain perspective. On my first trip in 2012, we were on the outskirts of greater downtown, and I recall a huge, abandoned corporate building, covered entirely by water damage and boards. This was my “a-ha” moment: It had been seven years since Hurricane Katrina and, honestly, I expected to still see damage in small neighborhoods, not large offices right outside a bustling downtown. This moment was pivotal for me, and entirely humbling.

Rachel and group

Martinez poses with other members of Y’ALL. | Photo courtesy of Rachel Martinez.

I have never seen that building again, but I am reminded of it in other aspects of the trip: on a tour of the notorious levee in the Lower Ninth Ward; struggling with tired arms on a third attempt to hang one piece of drywall to the ceiling; hanging out with the 45 fastest new friends I could be so lucky to meet; or simply driving through the city. I am reminded of these people who did all the right things but lived in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Our work partner in New Orleans, the St. Bernard Project, provides us with many more of these “a-ha” moments. Through St. Bernard Project, we meet individuals who have waited 10 years to move back into their homes. For many volunteers, these stories are some of the most rewarding of the trip, and they often end with a tear-filled “thank you” from all parties.

Not only has Y’ALL had an immense impact on the New Orleans community, it has helped foster knowledge and understanding of Hurricane Katrina in the minds of Indiana University’s student population. This organization has fed passion for service, in me and so many others. It is in honor of the city’s past, current and future residents that Y’ALL will return to New Orleans until the city is restored to its glory.

Y’ALL was founded in 2005 in response to Hurricane Katrina victims. Since its creation, Y’ALL has taken over 20 trips to New Orleans to re-build houses. With every group averaging 45 volunteers, Y’ALL is the nation’s largest student-run organization annually returning to New Orleans for relief work.

Students who are interested in being a part of Y’ALL can attend one of four call-out meetings happening Feb. 3, 8, 16 and 25 at 7 p.m. in Ballantine Hall 238. Another trip will take place March 13-18. More information can be found on Y’ALL’s Facebook page or by emailing yall@indiana.edu.

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