Has the Gulf gotten any better yet?

Madeline Chera

Like the majority of Villanova students, Christina Kydoniefs made her way back home last May. For the junior business student, home is Kenner, La., a town located about 15 minutes away from the heart of New Orleans.

Even before her plane had landed, Kydoniefs already could see the transformation. Roofs had been replaced with blue tarps. Garbage and debris covered the streets. A best friend’s house, or what was left of it, stood as a particularly haunting reminder of the events of the year past.

This Tuesday marked the one-year anniversary of one of the most recent American tragedies, the ravaging of the Gulf Coast region by Hurricane Katrina, whose destruction has been widespread and long-lasting.

“It was a war zone,” Kydoniefs said, following her post-Katrina trip to Louisiana. “The houses, trees, everything just looked broken. The streets were empty, and there was massive flooding everywhere.”

While Kyodniefs admits that some progress has been made, she remains shocked that more hasn’t been done to clean up the streets and restore the area.

During her time home over fall break, Kyodniefs and her family often saw search teams spray paint houses with crosses to denote that the house had been searched. Numbers indicated how many people had been found dead inside.

Over her time spent back home in the summer, she noted that “many parts of the area were still the same. There was still garbage and debris lying in the streets and it’s been a year.”

The official death toll for the disaster is 1,695 people, but that only alludes to the magnitude of pain and tribulation experienced by the hundreds of thousands of people affected.

In addition to death and injury, much of the area, including the densely populated city of New Orleans, was forced to evacuate due to overwhelming flooding and its dangerous by-products, including the spread of bacterial disease and the collapse of buildings.

As a result, thousands of people suddenly became homeless, and now, even a year later, 113,664 New Orleans households remain in FEMA trailers and manufactured housing.

This statistic does not even reflect those outside of the city in government-provided housing or the estimated 134,000 evacuees living in Atlanta and Houston.

According to Kydoniefs, whose best friend’s house was destroyed, the worst part was not even losing a home, but, rather, losing family photo albums and things of sentimental value – the reminders of their family history.

After the federal, state, and local governments’ unsatisfactory handling of the natural catastrophe during and after the hurricane, the government and its citizens responded loudly with plans for aid and reconstruction. Congress approved $110 billion in funding for relief, but sources cite only $44 billion spent by federal agencies so far.

Kydoniefs reports that many of the less severely devastated areas are recuperating much of their former lifestyles, but that some areas, like the 9th Ward, feel more or less hopeless.

She notes that the prevailing attitude is one of pessimism. People have been forced to rebuild their lives, and naturally feel overwhelmed by a sense of futility in the face of such a seemingly insurmountable task.

Even some of those who seem to respond more optimistically to the rebuilding reveal the underlying structural factors that contributed to the scope of this disaster. Echoing similar reports in other news outlets, Kydoniefs found, to her dismay, that some upper-and middle- class white people she had known all her life have changed.

“Some made such racist remarks as, ‘We finally get to retake the city,’ and ‘That hurricane sure cleaned up the streets,'” Kydoniefs said. “It was just very shocking and disheartening for me.”

The fact that so many of the poor, non-Caucasian citizens of the Gulf Coast region were unable to evacuate early on in the disaster, and have still been unable to reach a level of restoration similar to that of more affluent neighborhoods, has bred hostility, racism and suspicion.

Earlier this week, President George W. Bush braved the approach of Tropical Storm Ernesto to visit Biloxi, Mississippi and Gulfport and New Orleans in Louisiana to commemorate Hurricane Katrina and publicly renew his promise to help the affected communities. In response to local frustration, President Bush praised citizens and community leaders in their reconstruction efforts.

Here at Villanova, the community has continued to follow the events of the disaster and the progress of the Gulf Coast’s rebuilding.

The University held a prayer service, established a Hurricane Relief Fund and sold Hurricane Relief Bracelets to show solidarity and support the fund. Villanova even welcomed students from the Gulf Coast to study at the University while their own universities underwent reconstruction.

Additionally, Villanova students, faculty and staff have contributed to the reconstruction effort through Habitat for Humanity. Junior Nathan Molteni, one of the co-leaders of two of these service trips, has seen the severity of the damage, but remains hopeful for the success of efforts to rebuild.

On the group’s first trip last winter to Slidell, La., about 25 miles from New Orleans, the team worked as “muckers” in the uninhabitable houses of the nearby Chalmette region. There they cleared each house of belongings, removed six to 12 inches of mud from the floors and then stripped the house to the wooden frames to prepare it for resale or rebuilding.

“It was a difficult and emotional job, often working side by side with the people whose houses we were cleaning out, watching them have to see their entire lives spilled out on a street corner, waiting for the trash trucks to come and take it all away,” Molteni said.

After their return to the University, the members of the volunteer team started an organization called Disaster Awareness and Advocacy (DA&A). Their goal was to promote awareness and compassion for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, both in Louisiana and the surrounding Gulf Coast regions through activities like fundraisers and presentations. Last year, DA&A sold Mardi Gras beads and donated the profits to the Katrina reconstruction effort.

However, the work of community members like Molteni did not stop there. Another group of volunteers from the University returned to Slidell this summer. In addition to building houses, the Villanova team also helped construct bunk beds for the church that houses volunteers. The Slidell Habitat for Humanity program plans to build 100 houses this year, a project that Molteni describes as “unfathomable.” Prior to this new venture, Slidell Habitat had built only one house per year. If the project is to succeed, the program will need a greater number of volunteers.

“There is no major change any of us can enact in overcoming such widespread destruction,” Molteni said, “but if each of us makes small changes, one at a time, it’ll eventually add up to something that can give a little bit more hope to the area.”

While many Gulf Coast natives have made great strides in repairing both their own homes and those around them, others have not returned and do not plan to do so.

“It’s hard to move back if you are the only one left in a neighborhood that you’ve known since birth,” Molteni said. “It’s difficult to try so hard to put hope into people’s hands and then watch them drop it.”

That is the harsh reality of disaster relief. In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, when the images of the storm ravaged city flooded print and broadcast media, relief poured in. However now, a year later, these life lines have dried up, and New Orleans residents are now left picking up the pieces on their own.

“There won’t be any huge heroes of Hurricane Katrina in the end I believe, just a chance at starting over.”