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From Caulking to Cajun: CRA Helps, Celebrates in New Orleans

  • cra nola
  • Roberta Machin '15 seals the exterior of a home she and her fellow volunteers worked on in New Orleans over the winter break. (Photo by Andy Gulati)

By Roberta Machin '15

On Jan. 5, the Catastrophic Relief Alliance (CRA) left behind the frozen tundra of the north, stepping off a plane to 70-degree temperatures and the faintest scent of fried catfish.

The CRA, a student-run disaster-relief organization formed after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, was back in NOLA for a weeklong trip. Under the guidance of CRA leader and F&M Systems Librarian Andy Gulati, we came to work with the St. Bernard Project, an organization that has built nearly 500 homes in the wake of Katrina.

Before the trip, I fielded several questions along the lines of, "Why New Orleans? Didn't Katrina happen eight years ago?"

Many people don't realize that New Orleans still hasn't fully recovered. Many families were victimized by corrupt contractors, and several neighborhoods are still blighted by damaged and abandoned houses. Beyond the French Quarter, the lower-income areas are struggling to piece together their lives.

Doris Hall-Gulati, our CRA "den mother," was shocked by what she saw.

"The state and federal governments were not taking care of their citizens by rebuilding this amazing melting pot of an American city," she said.

This was my fourth trip with the CRA. While I and my fellow volunteers like to believe that we can frame a house on Monday and apply the final coat of paint on Friday, the reality is that the work we do is slow, and often a great deal of effort yields minimal visible progress.

Some of our crew spent a whole day walking around a house, looking for spots that needed caulking. Others scraped and primed walls for painting.  These jobs are important, but the lack of immediate results can be frustrating.

Under the advisement of CRA friend and mentor Mike Joseph, I spent a couple days building closets. Mike and Andy's brother, Hans, have spent many of their vacation days sharing their expertise and mentoring students on these disaster trips. Team Mike was able to cut, hang and screw in drywall for the closets in one day, and mud the drywall the next. At the end of our final day I left the site with my hands caked in mud and my jeans smeared with paint, feeling satisfied with the outcome of our work.

Fellow volunteer Jocy Portillo, an F&M junior, said she couldn’t imagine a better way to spend her break.

"One of the greatest things about a club like CRA is that we get the opportunity to hear about the personal stories of the people whose houses we are working on," she said. "It gives us greater incentive to work harder and it also is inspiring to be a part of an initiative that really makes a difference in an individual’s life."

Junior Kelsey Kreyche said she felt a "deep-rooted gratitude" for the homeowners who welcomed CRA to New Orleans. "After weathering eight years of suffering and disappointment, they were still able to open their homes and histories to us."

The trip wasn't all work. The 22 of us -- 18 students and four mentors -- canvassed the city after our labors, sampling po' boys, beignets, and chicory coffee at all the best hotspots. We donned Mardi Gras beads and masks and took to the streets, exploring the French Quarter and Bourbon Street.  At our lodging site, we engaged in Twister tournaments and competitive games of Monopoly and Risk.

And, of course, there was the jazz. First at Snug Harbor and then at Blue Nile, we let the smooth rhythms soothe our sore muscles after a long day on the job.  However, the music doesn't stop at the doorway of the jazz club: street performers gather at ever corner in NOLA, and CRA proved themselves worthy of being "Step Up" extras, at the very least.

First-time CRA volunteer and first-year student Caroline O’Neill said the trip surpassed her expectations.

"I went into the trip hoping to make a difference in the New Orleans community and make some new friends along the way," she said. "Not only did I gain experience about the kind of work we were doing, I also feel like I made a contribution to rebuilding the New Orleans community."

About the author: Roberta is a junior majoring in Creative Writing and German Studies. She is a native of Nazareth, Pa.