Don't Stop Believin' - Habitat '09
I am back! Man, this past week has been one of the most amazing weeks of my life. It definitely alternated between really fun happy events and some very sad ones. 150 people from my school's chapter of Habitat for Humanity set off for Mississippi to build houses for people affected by Hurricane Katrina. I was on Bus 2 (of 3) with about 20 of my friends, which made the whole trip very interesting and lively to say the least.
We started off with an almost 36 hour bus ride from Halifax and drove through 2 provinces and I think 13 states to get to Ocean Springs, Mississippi where we stayed at Camp Victor. I love travelling in the states, so I was superpumped to be doing a roadtrip. There's so much more variety, especially in grocery stores, and everything's bigger and cheaper! We stopped in Fishkill, NY on our way down and everyone was seriously in awe of the Shop Rite. Also we ate at three different Cracker Barrels which we don't have here in Canada and it was delicious. But despite the many movies and singalongs ( Don't Stop Believing by Journey being one of our main songs), everyone was ready to get off the bus and start working after almost two days of being squished together on a bus.
The first day we worked was the most emotional for sure- we worked on a house that hadn't been touched since the hurricane hit in 2005. Our task was to gut the whole house, and we started in on it right away. After working all morning, we managed to take everything out of the house- furniture, toys, papers...pretty much everything was covered in water but we saved as much as we could and put all the salvageable items on a tarp outside the house. We then came back from lunch on the beach to find a little old lady digging through the her life possessions spread out on the dirt ground beside her house. It was unbelievably sad and there wasn't much to say, so we were standing around awkwardly when her daughter walked by and said "That's someone's life right there...". She had stayed through the hurricane but was forced to evacuate the next day and hadn't had the chance to come back until that day. It was hard to have to watch that, but we had to get back to work anyways and so we spent the rest of the afternoon gutting the inside of the house, which was very cool. We took out everything until just the frames were left. My friend Matt lifted me up and I punched out a wall! It was all very physical work that day, but it was tons of fun.
After we finished work that day, our site manager came on our bus and took us on a tour around the neighbourhood in Biloxi. There were still buildings that were severely damaged standing and we got to see where the water had hit, and the water lines on some of the houses. It was just incredible how much work there is still to be done, but it was also good to know that slowly but surely, things are getting better.
The next day was Mardi Gras, so our group got the day off and headed into New Orleans to celebrate. It was insane and crazy, but so much fun. Everything was so colourful and awesome, it was basically a huge party on Bourbon St. It was a very long day, we left Ocean Springs at 6:30 am and didn't get back to camp until about 10 pm, and I'm sure everyone had a very good sleep that night.
The next three days, the busses were split up- two went to build sites and did construction work, and the bus I was on went to a building site and did finishing work which means the houses are already built, but we fixed up everything to make it livable. There was some construction going on too, siding on the houses and building sheds and whatnot. I was assigned to clean out houses and I was somehow put on a team with three of my best friends, making the time go by even faster. We accomplished a lot in those three days- we cleaned out two houses. It's amazing how many little tasks have to be done in order for the house to be ready- we spent 8:30-3:30 every day touching up paint, installing appliances, putting on doors and doorknobs, caulking, cleaning, sweeping, vaccuuming, cleaning windows and putting on screens (which, incidentally, is how I found out I am terrified of being 15 feet in the air on a ladder). There are new laws now stating that new houses must be built three to seven feet off the ground, which was really cool to see- the houses are standing on wooden poles and we were able to walk right under them.
We worked with a team of Americorps and general site/construction managers which was a blast. Y'all are so nice down in the south! They have the cutest little accents and everyone we met was so friendly and welcoming. Also, we Canadians very much enjoyed Mississippi and Louisiana's 70 degree weather (that's 21 degrees Celsius)- we were romping around in shorts and tshirts even late into the night. It was hilarious because everyone we ran into just stared at us incredulously and told us we were underdressed for the weather. One of the team leaders on the job site told us one day that it was "finally beginning to warm up to spring weather". We all started laughing because that chilly spring weather is our middle-of-the-summer weather. At the end of every day, most people would head down to the beach and just chill. It was an amazing way to unwind after a long day of working.
Despite the fun factor though, there truly is still so much work to be done on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Four years later, there are still buildings that haven't been touched since the hurricane hit. One night we travelled into New Orleans, and on the way drove through the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest hit areas. Some of the buildings still had identifying marks on them- X's, codes as to which organization had checked the building, the number of how many live people had been found and how many bodies were found. It was devastating to see, and a slap to reality. Four years is a long time, and people are still suffering from the aftermath of Katrina.
It wasn't all bad though- we heard some very uplifting stories from the workers at Camp Victor and witnessed some ourselves. One of the toughest guys in our group went into a grocery store just to pick up some food and came back nearly in tears because he had gone in wearing his Habitat shirt and a man had went up to him and slipped him grocery money. He of course tried to refuse it, and the man had told him to take the money or he would consider it an insult because we were rebuilding the community. Another group was thanked by an old woman who used a walker to get out of her house just to talk to them. It's amazing how people who have lost so much can still have so much faith in God and humanity and still be joyful and hopeful.
A big thank you to the hospitable staff at Camp Victor and everyone we encountered along the way- as our site manager said "It's been an incredible week seeing everyone work together- for a few days our countries merged together. There's no big difference, just a little border to hop across... with a passport and no illegal substances or drugs, of course ;)" Truly the last week has been a life-changing experience, and I absolutely cannot wait to go back and do it again next year.