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Task force tackles Katrina damage

Ryan Sydlik | Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Houses severely damaged by Hurricane Katrina more than one year ago are still in need of work – and nearly 100 Notre Dame students will be arriving in New Orleans for fall break to help rebuild.

The relief mission – which supports Operation Helping Hands, an organization started by Catholic Charities to assist disabled and elderly individuals who are unable to clean out their own homes from debris – was organized by the Gulf Coast Student Task Force through the Center for Social Concerns.

Students will knock out all of the walls and ceilings of damaged houses, so that the houses can be rebuilt.

Junior Caity Schneeman, chair of the task force, said its purpose is to assist in hurricane relief and recovery efforts in the Gulf Coast by coordinating student service trips with religious and nonprofit partners in the region.

“Right now we are working on getting all the logistics for the trip figured out,” she said.

Schneeman said the students volunteering are a diverse mix of grade levels, dorms and majors. Their main areas of focus in New Orleans will be the Ninth Ward, Lakeview and the mid-city.

The students’ work will be directed at those who do not have insurance or have inadequate insurance. Schneeman said that for every house the group works on, the owners will save $15,000.

“We like working with Catholic Charities because they focus on the neediest members of the community,” she said.

Junior Radhika Deva, also a member of the task force, said that when divided into teams, the 100 students can clean out as many as 15 houses – which would save New Orleans residents nearly $225,000.

This is not the first time Notre Dame students have gone to areas ravaged by Katrina and the Gulf Coast Student Task force is an outgrowth of those previous efforts.

Schneeman, along with six other students, went over fall break last year to provide assistance. That number grew to 25 for a spring break service trip. Four students, including Deva, also volunteered their time for two full months last summer.

“I think it’s a really productive way of doing service, just to go down, gut houses … It’s a really lasting way of doing service,” Deva said. “It was a great experience, so we wanted to do it on a larger scale.”

Bill Purcell, associate director for Catholic Social Concerns and current advisor to the task force, started the group so students had an official way to get funds to the area and recruit other students to help.

“It’s a good expression of students living out their Catholic social teaching and Catholic social tradition,” he said.

Purcell said the University has donated $1 million in-kind to Katrina relief efforts.

Schneeman said it is easy to forget about the ongoing problems still facing New Orleans more than a year after Hurricane Katrina.

“Our system of media just moves on and forgets,” Schneeman said. “[Parts of New Orleans] are [still] like a third world country.”

Schneeman said when she went for the first time last fall, she asked a member of Catholic Charities if she would be able to come back. He told her that her help could be needed “for years, not months.”

College students have made a huge impact in New Orleans – thousands of students from all across the country volunteered their time last spring and last summer, Schneeman said.

The fall trip is the first of many trips to the Gulf Coast being planned by the task force. The deadline has passed to sign up for the fall trip, but the task force is looking for volunteers for future missions.

“[The Gulf Coast Student Task Force] will just keep bringing trips and more trips,” Scheenman said.