Lessons in the ruins

Union College students traveled to New Orleans to help victims of Katrina. They expected to see recovery, but they found devastation and desolation. They also found insight into themselves.

TOM KEYSER Staff writer
Section: Main,  Page: A1

Date: Sunday, December 11, 2005

NEW ORLEANS - Jen Libous peers into the room that is unlike any room she's ever seen. It is dark, like a dungeon. The green blinds hang three quarters of the way down. The windows are coated with thick, gray dust. And it smells.

It smells like fishing worms in wet dirt. The walls, once pale green, are covered with mold - black circles of varying shades and sizes that bleed into one another like a psychedelic poster. Jen, a petite, robust 20-year-old from near Binghamton, is cloaked in head-to-toe protective gear - goggles, breathing mask, white bodysuit.

An object under the rubble on the floor, the jumbled filth of destroyed books, notebooks and teacher's files, catches her eye. She picks up a small ceramic cat, not broken - a cherished find amid the household ruins.

Earlier, Vickie Pellecchia, 58, the high school teacher and administrator who owns the house, announced to the students from Union College in Schenectady who have traveled to New Orleans to help victims of Hurricane Katrina: "If anybody sees a little gray ceramic cat, about this tall, I want it."

Jen steps gingerly over floorboards jutting upward as if smashed from below with an ax. She carries the cat to Pellecchia who stands in what was her living room. Pellecchia's eyes fill with tears.

"Thank you so much," she says, battling the gasps in her throat. "My sister gave me this in May, just before she died. ... She'd had it since she was a girl. ... It's not worth anything, but it's important to me. ... Thank you. ... Oh thank you so much."

The students high-five one another. Kate DeSorrento, a senior from Schaghticoke, says "Good job, guys."

The students resume the grim task of hauling moldy possessions out of the house and tossing them onto a growing pile at the curb.

The pile, multiplied thousands of times, defines New Orleans three and a half months after Katrina bulled ashore on the way to becoming one of the country's worst natural disasters.

Twenty-eight Union College students, knowing nothing more about the hurricane than what they've seen on TV and read in newspapers, devote one week of their winter break to fly down and help.

The trip is possible because a graduate of the college, requesting anonymity, donated the majority of the $15,000 required.

Some 65 students wrote essays applying to go. These 28 were chosen to join one more Union student who lives in New Orleans. They stay at her family's home and a house next door. Girls in one house, boys in the other. They sleep on mattresses and in sleeping bags on hard, drafty floors that become almost intolerable when nighttime temperatures drop into the 30s.

They arrive in New Orleans on Nov. 29, a Tuesday, and discover that one of the homes still has no heat or hot water. Trees, including a massive pecan tree that smashed into a bathhouse, are down in the backyard.

The students aren't prepared for what they see. They expect New Orleans and surrounding communities to be well on their way to recovery. Instead they find homes still in ruins, homes residents haven't come back to, even though Katrina struck Aug. 29, and it's now nearly Christmas.

And it's not a few homes on isolated streets. It's all the homes in neighborhood after neighborhood, for miles and miles and miles. That stuns the students. Their experience is so intense they feel guilty going home to their comfortable lives where the holidays beckon.

Corinne Simisky, a sophomore from Shrewsbury, Mass., pledges to cut back on her Christmas shopping and send money to students in New Orleans. She asks her family to follow suit, even though her father, an executive at a plastics company, "always wants to see his girls get everything they want."

John Moore, a junior from Westport, Mass., who only thought about going into the Peace Corps after graduation, says now he'll go for sure. Amy Seusing, a senior from Merrimack, N.H., says the students should look harder for people to help around their campus in Schenectady. Others say they need to encourage more people to help in New Orleans by contacting newspapers, TV stations, their high schools and other colleges. Still others plan to return to New Orleans because there's so much left to do.

Above all, the students find that they share a bond with the people whose lives were altered forever. Every encounter at a destroyed house or damaged school brings declarations from victims that they're lucky because they have life. They might have lost their house, their possessions and their job, but they have life , and because they have life they have hope.

The students see themselves in these people. They see their homes in the people's homes and their neighborhoods in the people's neighborhoods. They come to New Orleans not knowing what they'll find, but they find the value of life, of family, of relationships. They find themselves.

Most students didn't know each other before this journey, but their underlying ambition to help others now unites them.

"If we had met casually at school, it probably never would have come out," says Jake Lebowitz, a sophomore from Roch ester, who is flying back to New Orleans today to continue helping victims.

"But this experience was a vehicle to project it. It's such an important part of who we are that it overshadowed all our differences and became our one overarching commonality."

Still, now that they're here, they don't know exactly what they'll do. They have the seed of a plan from their supervisors, Todd Clark, director of residential life at Union, and Viki Brooks-McDonald, campus Protestant minister and interfaith chaplain. That seed is to help schools they learned about from Laura Eyman, the Union student from New Orleans, and her father, Carl.

On Wednesday, the first morning, they divide into work crews. From their base in central New Orleans near the Fair Grounds, Clark drives one group at 6:30 a.m. in a rented 15-seat van to Benjamin Franklin High School in northeastern New Orleans. Two hours later, he drives the second group to Lusher Elementary School in the southwestern part of the city.

The van stops often - nearly every intersection has broken traffic signals that have been replaced with stop signs. The medians are flooded with a sea of paper signs advertising "Storm Clean-up," "House Gutting and Cleaning," "Mold Removal," "Home Loans ... We Want To Help You!," "Attorney," "We Will Re-Open Soon" and "We Print Signs."

The students gape at the closed stores, vacant houses, broken windows, abandoned vehicles, downed trees and omnipresent trash and debris.

"I don't feel like I'm in America," says Corinne Simisky. "I feel like I'm in the Third World."

The Lusher school escaped serious damage: Its bottom floor was flooded. One of the city's top public schools, Lusher needs to reopen next month so nearby Tulane University can reopen. Tulane employees need a school for their children.

Kenny Martin, who's overseeing the construction, greets the students and starts them painting. He is a white-haired former high school coach and athletic director whose home was flooded with 15 feet of muddy water.

Some students grumble. Painting classrooms isn't what they came to New Orleans to do. They want to help the people they saw on TV, the people in the neighborhoods. But they warm to the task, especially Adam Chused, a senior from Concord, Mass., a captain of the baseball team.

Adam's mother has been an elementary school teacher for nearly 30 years. Every summer, Adam helps get her classroom ready, and every summer, when the new parents stop by, Adam's mother introduces him. Some had her as a teacher and tell him she was one of the biggest influences in their life.

The classrooms at Lusher re mind Adam of his mother.

The school year was just a week old when Katrina hit. So far, only one of New Orleans' 116 public schools has reopened.

The small desks in the Lusher classrooms remain as they were that Friday before Katrina hit with crayons and glue sticks in the drawers, and new composition books waiting to be cracked open.

Later that week, at the group's nightly meeting where the students hash out plans for the next day and reflect upon what happened that day, Adam celebrates their work at the schools.

The students have finished eating and cleaning the kitchen and now they gather in the living room of the Eyman home. It's a tight fit, but they squeeze together, sitting cross-legged or sprawled on the floor with their feet intertwined like pretzels, or on chairs and a couch, on each other's laps.

"Walking out that door today was what it's all about," Adam says. "We started something, worked through it, and we finished. ... I look at how many lives my mom's touched by being a teacher. Just think how much impact we made here, helping get those classrooms ready for teachers who can have the same influence on children here."

Before leaving Lusher, where the students painted seven classrooms, Adam and others arranged desks in a giant "U" for Union. They painted a white line connecting New York to New Orleans and a "U" pinpointing Union College on a map of the United States in the playground.

"Who knows how long that paint will last?" Adam says. "But when those students come back and ask what the `U' in New York is, teachers will be able to say, those are the kids from New York who came down to help."

On Friday, the students get their wish of helping people in neighborhoods. They return to the homes of people they met in the first days while working at Benjamin Franklin High. The school's bottom floor was flooded, and neighborhoods around it are devastated.

Pellecchia, the woman with the ceramic cat, works at Ben Franklin and lives two and a half blocks away. When the levees and flood walls gave way, muddy water poured into neighborhoods all over New Orleans and surrounding communities.

Water flooded Pellecchia's modest, one-story home nearly to the ceiling. It settled halfway up the windows and stayed there for about three weeks.

Officials kept residents out for weeks, even months. Pellecchia made it home in about four weeks. The same devastation that greeted her now greets the students.

Abandoned cars and trucks sit in front of houses and in driveways, tires flat, windows shattered. A battered boat rests on its side in the median. Except for the students, no one is around. It's eerily quiet.

A car occasionally glides past, avoiding debris in the street. The yards, too, are filled with the junk that settled when the waters receded or junk is piled at the curb in front of houses where residents have returned and gutted their homes.

The interiors look as if someone picked up the house, shook it violently and set it down in a muddy pond, where it stayed, rotting, for weeks. Wearing protective clothing given to them by workers at the high school, the students carry out Pellecchia's clothes, couch, mattresses, desks, bureaus, TV, lamps, bookcases, refrigerator, washer, dryer, vases, stuffed animals, photographs - everything - and dump them next to the street.

"We're throwing a whole life out on the curb right now," says Amy.

Clark, the 32-year-old supervisor from the college, picks up a photograph left on a counter. It's a "Happy Holidays" card from Pellecchia's great-nieces and -nephews. It was on her refriger ator. Mold is eating away at the faces.

Clark stares at it. His face begins to quiver, and his eyes well up with tears. Still, he studies the picture.

The students say goodbye to Pellecchia and pile in the van with Clark, who drives them back to the high school for lunch. He is silent, his eyes fixed on the cluttered road ahead.

The students devour their daily offering of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, Power Bars, pretzels and water. Clark walks toward the back of the school and disappears.

After lunch, the students walk a half block to meet Julie Reed Bogan, whom they met on an earlier walk through her devastated neighborhood. They volunteered to clear out her house.

Bogan, 61, a receptionist at a New Orleans law firm, grew up in the two-story house with pale-blue siding. Her father, 93, and her mother, 84, own it. They lived here for 62 years.

Her father, she tells them, refused to evacuate and had to climb out a second-floor window onto a porch roof to be rescued by a Coast Guard boat. Bogan, her mother and other family members evacuated to a relative's house about 100 miles away. Now Bogan's back to clean up, but her parents stayed behind, living in a FEMA trailer.

Bogan watches belongings pass through her life for the last time.

`Oh, that's daddy's chair," she says. "Mom had a pacemaker. That's her little machine. ... That was her dressing table. It was all so neat. ... I'm just remembering some of this stuff. I think my grandmother made this old quilt. ... My bronzed baby shoes ... My mom's prayer book ... "

At that night's meeting, the students are dragging. It's been a long day. Those who cleared the two houses started working about 7 a.m. and didn't stop until after 3 p.m. Still, they're excited, because Clark and Brooks-McDonald are taking those who want to go, which is nearly everyone, to the French Quarter. It's Friday night.

First, though, they talk about the day. Clark explains why the photo of the children at the first house upset him.

His wife is a teacher, like Pellecchia, and they live in Schenectady about as far from Union College as Pellecchia lived from her school. And they have a 15-month-old son. This is the longest Clark has been away from him.

His voice is breaking: "When I walked into that house, I saw me."

Some students lower their heads, choking back tears. Others purse their lips and nod knowingly.

Meagan Keenan, a freshman from Ohio, is glad they got the refrigerator out of Pellecchia's house. But they had to knock down part of the back porch to do it.

"It took eight of us 45 minutes to pull out one refrigerator," she says. "An entire city needs refrigerators pulled out."

By Monday night, the students have gutted three houses, helped clear out two more, helped clean out a church, painted seven classrooms and a cafeteria, helped clear a fallen tree, cleared debris from a high school and rebuilt a school library.

Now they're cooking food for the people they helped this week. The students give out hammers they signed as parting gifts.

"What you have done is amazing. ... If every college in the country did the same thing New Orleans would be rebuilt already. ... You all are saviors ... special, special people," says Charlie Firneno, a teacher and coach working tirelessly to reopen his school, Ben Franklin High.

Firneno hugs Kate, the student from Schaghticoke, who presents him with his hammer.

Not everyone helped by the students could make it tonight. Missing is Julie Reed Bogan, whose elderly father climbed out of the second-story window to safety.

After the guests leave, and the students wash dishes, the final meeting begins. It's nearly 11 p.m., and tomorrow's journey home begins early. But Clark asks the students to contemplate the week.

Up to now, Jake's biggest accomplishments were winning a wrestling tournament, graduat ing from high school and pledging a fraternity.

"This is at the top of my list," says Jake, who plans to enlist in the Marines after graduation. "I have my goals in life. I don't see anything topping this off."

Clark asks the students what they've accomplished. They greet his question with silence. Then, exhausted voices begin rising up.

"We put smiles on faces. ... We created a sense of normalcy, or a path back to normalcy. ... Showed people they weren't forgotten. ... Tried to help in recreating some community. ... Laughter. ... We listened. ... Painted seven classrooms. ... And a cafeteria. ... Shared someone else's burden. ... Three refrigerators, three washers and three dryers. ... I think we figured out what it really means to make a difference."

The next morning, five students get up in time to ride with Clark on their final journey into a neighborhood. The van leaves at 7. The sunlight casts a rich golden glow over the broken landscape.

When they reach Julie Reed Bogan's house, they file out one by one. Kate leads the way into a side door. It's not locked. Amy follows with the hammer.

They step over the rubble and the warped floorboards. Amy stops at a table in the largest room. It's impossible to tell what the room was.

"Should I put it on top of here?" Amy asks.

The others nod. Amy places the hammer on the table along with a hand-written note thanking Bogan for letting the students into her life. The table is filthy and cluttered like the floor, the yard, the street.

Then the students leave and climb into the van. They ride back to the house, where they'll pack for the airport. No one says a word.

You can reach Tom Keyser at 454-5448 or by e-mail at tkeyser@timesunion.com.