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Diplomats to the Disaster Zone

  • http-blogs-fandm-edu-wp-content-blogs-dir-29-files-2012-04-cra1-jpg
  • Skylar Franklin ’12 hard at work as Steve Hicks, a craftsman who works with the CRA, looks on. (Photo credit: Hans Gulati)

After Hurricane Kartina's powerful winds and storm surge devastated the Gulf Coast of the United States in 2005, television images and newspaper reports delivered news of the destruction to people in living rooms across the country. Similar reports revealed the ravages left by Hurricane Ike along the Texas coast in 2008.

As the members of Franklin & Marshall's Catastrophic Relief Alliance (CRA) know, nothing compares to seeing the damage in person. One year after traveling to Galveston, Texas, to aid in the recovery efforts in the wake of Hurricane Ike, the group is poised to return to Texas over winter break—its seventh trip to the Gulf Coast since 2006.

"We have the opportunity to see first hand the devastation that hurricanes leave behind, which is impossible to truly understand from pictures or videos," says Grace Gallagher '10, president of the CRA. "The trip allows us to see the human toll. People we meet are struggling every day to rebuild not only their homes, but also their livelihoods."

Led by adviser Andy Gulati, systems librarian and senior assistant librarian, the CRA launched in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The group traveled to Picayune, Miss., in January 2006 to provide physical support during the recovery effort. A gift from Trustee Anthony Kreisel '66 helped make the initial trip possible.

But the catastrophic devastation left by Katrina was so widespread that the CRA ventured south again in May 2006 for the first of two trips to New Orleans. The group also made a pair of trips to Pascagoula, Miss., before last year's journey to Galveston.

"The fact is that people still need help, and the students are excited about helping," Gulati says. "It's always a great experience."

Members of the Catastrophic Relief Alliance take a break from their work in Galveston last January. From left, Lauren Shor '11, Sam Schmader '12, Allana Skydell '11, Skylar Franklin '12, Nyssa Schlem '11, Heather van der Grinten '09, Mona Lotfipour '11, Hans Gulati and resident. (Photo credit: Hans Gulati).

The CRA received a warm welcome in Texas from the Gulf Coast Alumni Chapter, which hosted the volunteers for dinner last year. In the relief effort, the group coordinated its work with the William Temple Episcopal Church in Galveston, which Gulati says was highly organized. "It was the most well-supplied, well-funded and well-trained trip we've had," he says. "The most seamless of all our trips."

Following Ike, the University of Texas Medical Branch—the oldest medical school west of the Mississippi River—was in danger of closing. It is the largest employer on Galveston Island. "If they lost the medical school, it would have been the equivalent of Lancaster losing RR Donnelley, Lancaster General Hospital and F&M all at once," Gulati says.

As part of its preparations for Galveston, the CRA will hold a chili cookoff in the Bonchek Commons Nov. 7 at 7 p.m.

This year, Gallagher expects to perform more internal work on buildings, such as drywall, mudding, painting and flooring. But with thousands of homes in Galveston still untouched following the disaster, "we may also be doing gutting as well," she says.

Gulati and Gallagher agree that the rewards are worth the hard labor.

"The biggest reward is twofold, helping others in need and giving F&M students a unique opportunity to get to know one another," Gallagher says. "We really bond during the trips and come back to school a more cohesive group."

"Not only are you providing help, you're learning a lot about the area, its culture and people," Gulati says. "Where the weather is most extreme, the culture is most interesting."

For more information about the CRA, contact Andy Gulati at andy.gulati@fandm.edu.