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FROM THE LEFT, Monica Meunier, Tara Brey and Noreen Reuber joined thousands of other volunteers doing whatever they can to rebuild a smashed New Orleans.

Locals Give Their
All Down South

By Jeanne Sager
NEW ORLEANS, LA — June 2, 2006 – Spring break in New Orleans isn’t what it used to be.
Hurricane Katrina’s wrath has made trips to the Gulf Coast anything but easy – but this year, teachers Monica Meunier and Tara Brey, along with teacher’s assistant Noreen Reuber, used their break from the daily grind at the Sullivan West Elementary School in Jeffersonville to hop a plane to New Orleans, La.
Reuber’s daughter, Paige, had just returned from a trip to the Big Easy with her college classmates.
The junior at Messiah College had gone down on her own spring break to help rebuild a city that’s still very much a wasteland eight months after the hurricane swept through.
Ironically, Meunier had been thinking of making the trip.
She’d mentioned the idea in passing to her pastor at the Beach Lake Free Methodist Church, and she’d debated with daughter Heather Amato whether it was a trip she could take.
Amato is on the church’s missions committee, and she began putting together a summer trip down south.
But if Amato goes, Meunier has to stay in town to baby-sit her grandchildren.
When Reuber mentioned Paige’s trip, Meunier made up her mind.
She was going to go to New Orleans, and she wasn’t waiting until summer.
Reuber and Meunier did some research and decided to sign up for a Habitat for Humanity project right in St. Bernard’s Parish, one of the sections of New Orleans worst hit when the levees broke and water rushed into the city under sea level.
They sent out an e-mail to other Sullivan West staffers, and Brey responded.
“It just sounded like a good thing to do,” she said.
Brey had also been thinking about heading south to help – but when Katrina hit, she had to report to school to teach first grade, so she’d never seen a chance to volunteer.
Giving up spring break seemed logical.
“I’m in an OK spot now,” Meunier said. “I’ve come from food stamps and public assistance years and years ago, so the biggest sacrifice was my time.”
The women paid their own way to New Orleans, flying out of LaGuardia and arriving at the re-opened New Orleans Airport.
From there, they took a short taxi ride to Camp Premier – a base camp in Chalmette that has housed thousands of volunteers who have descended on New Orleans from around the nation.
There the women were assigned to a work crew – typically groups of nine or 10 people, there were 20 crews on duty during the week the Sullivan County women were in New Orleans.
They were working for Habitat for Humanity, but Brey said they weren’t building homes – instead they were gutting existing houses to make way for rebuilding.
“We were cleaning out houses that were originally under 8 feet of water,” Brey recalled. “You would go in, and all the ceiling tiles were dropped to the floor, caked with Louisiana mud, and you had to shovel it out.
“Refrigerators were still full with food from six months ago, because people weren’t able to come back.”
Brey, who once had thoughts of joining the Peace Corps, said she would have been to Louisiana earlier if she’d known just how much help was needed.
“You don’t realize what it would feel like to lose everything you own,” she said. “You know it was bad, but you don’t really connect with it watching it on TV.
“There was no electric on certain streets, stoplights were still not working . . . it was house after house, street after street,” she continued. “Every business was just destroyed, every little restaurant . . .”
Brey met people who compared the once great American city to Baghdad. She met a firefighter who spent a week stuck in his own home because of the floodwaters.
“It makes you sad to think America lives like that,” she said.
“We drove 10, 15 minutes to get to the house we were working on [from the camp],” Meunier said, “and on either side, the entire time you were driving, was destruction . . . and that wasn’t all of it.”
As a kindergarten teacher, Meunier was hit by numbers she found on the Internet estimating that St. Bernard Parish (just one small section hit by the hurricane) was once home to 8,000 students.
Eight months later, there are about 2,200 children – and they’re housed in just one building because so many schools were destroyed.
“There’s no grocery stores, there’s no schools to send your kids to,” she said.
Even in spots where businesses had reopened, Meunier said there were few resources to help people interested in moving back.
“Even the local Wal-Mart was being used for something else,” she said. “The parking lot was full of trailers.”
But the people who were there were happy to see the volunteers.
“People were just so appreciative,” Reuber said. “Hopefully what we did will make a difference.”
But there needs to be more volunteers, she said.
“These are fellow Americans, and my heart just went out to them,” Reuber noted. “But they just need so much.”
Meunier saw a need for manpower most of all.
“The type of work we did, it has to be done by people,” she explained. “We tore out carpet, we tore out sheetrock.
“Machines can’t do that – you can raze a house with a machine, but you can’t clean it down to its studs.”
The entire region is still in flux, Meunier said.
People who were uprooted have no jobs to return to, and thus no money to fix up their homes.
Those who have returned wait to see if their houses will be condemned, wait for answers from the government.
“The government has to decide, ‘Are they really going to reinforce those levees so people can feel safe and fix up their houses?’” she explained. “I realize the government can’t do everything, but maybe what they could do is create some kind of incentive for people to volunteer.”
The women met volunteers from Wisconsin, California, Washington, D.C., even Manhattan.
But they need more – as Reuber said, “We didn’t want those people to think they’ve been forgotten.”
Amato is currently looking for volunteers to join her for a trip south, sponsored by the Beach Lake Free Methodist Church.
For information, call the church at 570-729-7544 and leave a message for Heather Amato.

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