‘Twas the season of giving for the brothers of Phi Alpha Delta Fraternity when they traveled down to New Orleans to help with the Hurricane Katrina effort. They gave the best gift of the holiday season: a chance to rebuild lives and a chance for several families to move on and live again.
On Jan. 6, with a fresh start to the New Year, Dan Adami, senior mechanical engineering major; Bryan Vale, senior marketing major; Joe Ramalho, senior music major; Kevin Busch and Balvir Singh, senior secondary education/mathematics majors; Nida Naqvi and Michael Strom, sophomore political science majors, traveled down south to aid in the rebuilding of the damaged area.
Strom, the leader of the group and a recently initiated member of the fraternity, brought up the idea since he had visited in the past.
“I went over the summer with a friend of mine working for Habitat for Humanity,” he said. “From that experience I was able to relay to the brothers the severity of the situation, since you can only truly feel it when you’re down there for yourself.”
A new member of the group, Strom clearly persuaded the brothers to aid in this effort since it is one of the biggest issues in the United States. Nearly every house outside of the French Quarter and St. Bernard’s Parish had been affected by the storm.
“In every single neighborhood, regardless of the property value or economic class, there were abandoned, damaged houses everywhere,” Vale, who visited New Orleans for the first time, said.
People had left their homes and remained at relatives’ houses until they could receive some assistance to rebuild. Since almost every house was damaged by water, these people were waiting for assistance in gutting their homes. Because of mold, mildew and decay, houses need to be sanitized before being rebuilt.
The men marched into an area yearning for help and gutted two houses and a trailer. The trailer belonged to one woman who had been waiting for a year-and-a-half in her moldy mobile home for a helping hand. When the boys arrived, “She burst into tears and told them all that they have a free pass to heaven,” Strom said.
From Jan. 7 to 14, the brothers had split up into two groups so that more work could be done. The second group worked on a house that belonged to a family who had moved to the Dominican Republic until they were able to rebuild.
“We were surprised to see that people were still living outside in trailers, right in front of their houses,” Singh said. These people, along with thousands of others, are still waiting for some sort of relief.
“The damage can easily be overlooked by the naked eye, but once you go into the houses, that’s when you realize that everything is not as good as it looked from outside,” he said.
Vale had similar memories: “I remember driving in on Interstate 10, about 20 minutes outside of the city itself, and the destruction was startling. Entire condo complexes deserted, with the original hurricane damage still there.”
But what is being done to help with the situation? “I went back to Saint Bernard’s Parish on the last day, to where the levy broke, and to my amazement, the houses looked exactly the same as last time, untouched,” Strom said.
Though this trip was empowering and gave hope to several families in the ravaged area, there is still a larger problem in place. Other than volunteering and telling others to do so as well, it seems that there is nothing else that can be done. It has been a year-and- a-half since the hurricane hit, but there has not been a year-and-a-half’s worth of progress. Kevin Busch, an honorary brother who traveled with the group, perceived the experience differently. “I was under the assumption originally that we were going down there to finish up what the government had already cleaned up.”
“There doesn’t seem to be a way out of the hole New Orleans has fallen into,” Strom said. “Government regulations and penalties deter people from choosing to rebuild, as does lack of insurance or loan credibility for most people. The situation gets worse on the families from year to year.”
After seeing the devastation in New Orleans, the brothers would not hesitate to travel there again. Strom and his brothers would like to revisit the area and bring as many people as possible to help with the effort. They also want to stay for a month to get more work done since so many people want and appreciate the help.
Though the main goal around the holiday season is to buy the nicest shirt or the nicest piece of jewelry for a family member or friend, the brothers of Phi Alpha Delta Fraternity gave a gift to strangers that cannot be taken away: a chance to start over.
As Strom put it, “What people need to understand is that these aren’t just houses and debris; these are people’s lives. These are real people – and just a few out of thousands – living and waiting for something to help them.”