Exhibits on Devastation and Celebration: The Louisiana State Museum

On our first day in New Orleans we visited the Louisiana State Museum located in the historic French Quarter. The two exhibits that resonated with me the most were “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond” and “Mardi Gras: It’s Carnival Time in Louisiana.” The first provided me with a lot of the history of Louisiana and its experiences with hurricanes in the past. The subdued lighting, wind, and news reports playing in the background helped give a sense of the chaos that was occurring during the storm. It was interesting to learn about the science behind the hurricane, but also the human errors that made it worse. Levees were not constructed correctly, rescue operations were inefficient, and there was miscommunication among city officials and the media.

I also gained some insight into how citizens banded together to support one another in the face of such destruction. I liked that the underlying theme of the exhibit was the idea of resiliency. Despite the havoc Katrina wrought, people coped with humor or by making signs with phrases like “we are coming back.” The museum had a display of some really powerful artifacts including banners and a garage door with an x that firefighters would use to mark that they had checked the house. There were also seats from the Superdome where many sought shelter, and Fats Domino’s piano from his flooded Ninth Ward home. One of the most moving displays was a video montage of residents describing the physical and emotional devastation the storm brought and how this affected them personally. It ended on a positive note, however, by describing the cultural traditions that have continued to be symbols of positivity and hope for the city. Many of the citizens commented upon the history, the food, and the diverse group of people that make the city so special.

It was interesting to juxtapose this somber exhibition with the more festive one on Mardi Gras. The museum displayed some really elaborate costumes, ball gowns, and crown jewels from the various carnivals. This exhibit was really informative for me because before this trip I had a misconstrued idea of what the festival entailed. While I always associated it with drinking and partying, the festival is actually very family oriented and definitely not as crazy as it is portrayed in the media. Ornate floats and marching bands are showcased in parades, and families gather to barbecue while children sit in ladders with built in seats to watch the festivities.

Overall, the museum provided me with an in depth environmental explanation of Katrina, the human failures that occurred, and how the city began the recovery process. I liked that the exhibit mixed in some positive aspects as well. For example, it displayed costumes made from blue tarps used to cover roof damage after the storm. The resilience and celebratory nature of the culture were also reflected in the Mardi Gras exhibit which gave a taste of the history and traditions that make it so unique.

Kelsea Brewer

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Kayaks and Bayous and Gars, Oh My!

We spent an excellent morning kayaking in Shell Bank Bayou. I liked paddling along in my little boat to get a first-hand look at the famous bayous and swamps of Louisiana.

Our tour centered on environmental issues in the state, guided by Marie, John, and Lindsay of an organization called Louisiana Lost Lands. The environmental focus added another meaningful layer to our few hours on the water. We learned that Louisiana loses a football field’s worth of land every forty minutes, which translates to a loss of landmass equal to the size of Manhattan every year.

There are all kinds of negative outcomes that result from this land loss, affecting not only New Orleans and Louisiana, but also the nation. Louisiana serves as the habitat for 90 % of the fish found in the Gulf of Mexico, and 75 % of migratory birds in North America. The Mississippi River has also made New Orleans one of the most important exporting cities in the United States, with more networks than New York or Los Angeles. Losing this area of the country would certainly have harmful effects for all species—birds, animals, fish, and humans.

We did interact with some non-human wildlife during our tour. Most exciting, and most terrifying, were the gars, big alligator-like critters. Some of them tried to overturn our boats, but we all made it through without taking a dip into the swamp. We also saw some alligators, frogs, osprey, and plenty of dragonflies. The bayou is beautiful, with Spanish moss covering tall Cypress trees spreading their many roots right into the water. We learned that Cypress trees are incredibly beneficial to the Louisiana wetlands because their roots stretch deep into the muddy land, providing reinforcement for the earth to prevent erosion and land loss. One of the best things to do to prevent the loss of land is to plant Cypress trees!

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Louisiana gar

Marie and Lindsay also got us thinking about how some areas of the U.S. seem to receive more hype and concern than others. Efforts to address land loss in the Everglades in Florida, for example, seem to have more support than those that target Louisiana’s pressing environmental problems. I do not mean to say that the environmental degradation of the Everglades is not important, only that Louisiana seems to get the shorter end of the stick, being more of a low-income state and a less popular tourist destination.

It was inspiring to see the reverence Marie, Lindsay, and John have for the natural resources of their state, and the passion with which they defend it and educate others about it. Some people do care about this, and are fighting hard to raise awareness. But I still can’t help but think of the lyrics to a Randy Newman song: Louisiana…they’re trying to wash us away

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Cypress trees and our guide, John.

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Some of our group kayaking in Shell Bank Bayou
Maura Magistrali

Sightseeing with a Fellow Gettysburgian

Samantha Greenspun, a Gettysburg alum, was able to meet up with the group to lead a tour around New Orleans. Sam, who graduated from Gettysburg College in 2005, came to New Orleans to work with a nonprofit organization that works with the Latino community in the area. She currently is attending Tulane to receive her PhD studying social justice in the Latino community. We first visited the new Louisiana Public Heath building that was under construction. It was massive and took up multiple city blocks. She then brought us to Charity Hospital that was closed after the hurricane, due to flooding and vandalism. The hospital shut down for financial reasons in spite of an effort to keep the hospital open as a community landmark. It is the birthplace of the lower income residents surrounding the area as well as celebrities from the city. It is also the staple of healthcare for the uninsured. It was strange to see a developing construction site across the street from the abandoned old buildings. There seemed to be a gap in the middle of the city.

She also discussed the culture of New Orleans with us. We learned about the similarities to Haitian culture, including shotgun homes and serving red beans and rice on Mondays. We also learned about the vast network of plantations that still stand today and the mausoleums that are necessary to prevent sinking remains. The importance of the neighborhood affiliation and community for many residents and their own identity made the flooding in certain areas even more devastating.

We went to the Lower Ninth Ward, which was one of the hardest hit neighborhoods within New Orleans.  To discuss the effects of Katrina, we parked within the neighborhood and then walked to the top of a grassy hill. It came to many of the group as a surprise that we were standing on top of a levee. Many expected a giant cement wall, but instead it was a grassy mound. On the levee, we learned about the division within the neighborhood and the distrust between the seventh, eighth, and ninth ward and the rest of the city. We drove around the neighborhood and saw the gaps in neighborhood and many overgrown areas. We discussed some challenges associated with trying to rebuild, including failed community gardens and the Make It Right Organization. We visited a park with information about the Make it Right Organization, founded by Brad Pitt and a few of the foundations that used to exist in the area. Among the group we discussed our surprise about the similarities of poverty to Gettysburg and our own hometowns. It became clear that the issues of poverty were not created by Katrina but merely highlighted.

Francesca Nolen

Un-“chartered” Territory: An Educator’s Perspective on New Orleans

On Tuesday May 13, Amy, Kelsea and I met with Alex, a sixth grade social studies and English teacher at a New Orleans charter school. She has taught at a public school as well as two charter schools. The charter school where she teaches now is specifically for Hispanic students. We were ignorant to the charter school system when we first met with Alex so we had many questions. She described how charter schools are becoming a huge part of the school system in New Orleans. In the upcoming years, New Orleans is supposed to become 100% charter. This is the first area to ever do this.

We soon learned the difference between the charter schools and the public schools. Alex said that teachers should be able to teach more creatively at a charter school. The main difference, though, is the ability to choose what school a child can attend. There is the idea of “school choice” that allows anyone who does not want to attend their local public school to choose what charter school to go to. This strives to stop discrimination and divisions in schools. Alex shared with us a negative side to this. She said that she has seen first hand parents taking advantage of this system. She said she has seen parents switch their child’s school so many times that they child has no consistent environment for their education. The parents think that if the child has one bad teacher that they need to pull them out of that school; this happens multiple times and places.

She also mentioned how charter schools are more known for grades K-8. The charter high schools are more similar to the public high schools because there is a more fixed curriculum. Every student in every high school has to take the same basic courses to prepare to eventually take the SATs or ACTs.

What I found to be most interesting about our conversation was her response to our question asking where she would send her kids to school. After she taught at the charter school and said many positive things about it, we expected her to say a charter school. But when she answered, she said she would send them to public school. When asked why, she responded simply, “I believe in the public school system.” I wondered then how many other New Orleans citizens felt about this transition of the school system becoming 100% charter.

Liz Broske

Sustainable Food, Sustainable People: Grow Dat Youth Farm

Sustainability is a popular topic today, as people are trying to find new ways to make improvements to our society and deal with issues that have arisen while making those improvements last and continue to better society for future generations. One of the better ways to ensure that a project is sustainable is to incorporate some form of education about the issue for young people. That way, as those young people grow up and become leaders in society, they will have knowledge that can help them make informed decisions to better the lives of people in the future. An organization that works toward this goal in New Orleans is the Grow Dat Youth Farm.

This program prepares high school students to become leaders in their communities. It teaches them skills that can be applied to many areas of life and many different fields—in this case agriculture. These are skills will be valuable tools for the students’ futures, as their leadership abilities can help them get jobs and therefore decrease the chances that they will end up in poverty. This is one way in which the organization is sustainable, because it aims to improve the future as well as today’s society.

The project is also sustainable because of the specific avenue through which it teaches these high school students to become leaders: food. The farm employs the students, and they learn how to grow a variety of cash crops using specific techniques such as irrigation systems and cover crops. Then, they learn to wash and pack the produce and how to sell it to consumers at places like CSAs and farmer’s markets. This is sustainable for the community and the environment because it encourages people of the city to buy and eat local produce. Having local produce is significant because many impoverished communities are considered food deserts and the residents are unable to get good, affordable produce to eat and gain nutritional benefit from.

The students employed by this organization spend half of their time working directly with the plants and crops, but the other half of their time in the project is spent in the classroom. They learn about things like food deserts and other aspects of food justice as well as nutrition. This education is sustainable because it will help the students make informed decisions and better understand what is going on in their communities as they get older.

It is very important to realize that while the food issues are great for the students to learn about and be actively involved with, the main goal is that they become leaders in their communities. They are able to do so, because through their work on the farm they learn skills such as public speaking and entrepreneurship, which can easily apply to any future job the students will pursue. As we volunteered with the Grow Dat Youth Farm, it was amazing to learn about the program and hear some background about how it has grown over the last few years. And it was really exciting to actually work firsthand with the organization.

They make a point to not have volunteers working on busy work. Instead, they bring their volunteers directly into the project and have them set up the next projects that the student workers will do. We took out irrigation systems, lettuce plants that had gone to seed, and kale that had been eaten by bugs. It was really interesting to learn about why each of those jobs was important and hear how the workers will build on our work as well as the environmental factors that were benefiting. For example, taking out the lettuce plants allows the students to plant cover crops that will enrich the soil in the off season. It was really exciting to learn about this organization and work so closely with the program that I believe is very valuable to both the community and the individual students involved.

Amy Violante

Ventures into Carpentry

I have a new respect for carpenters. Honestly, I didn’t think it would be so difficult to cut a piece of wood correctly. Today at the St. Bernard Project we finished applying a second coat to all of the rooms by 11am. Since we were going to be at the house for the rest of the day we broke up into groups and either worked on base boarding or windows.

When the two people who worked for St. Bernard Project were demonstrating how to do these tasks it seemed really easy. But it turned out to be rather difficult. Measuring angles and distances was more challenging than I imagined. The worst part of it all was when you realized you made an irreparable mistake and had to start all over again—then consequently walking in shame back down the stairs with a long piece of wood that didn’t quite fit.

However, by the end of the day everyone seemed to have learned from many of their mistakes and everyone started to make real progress. In away that is a lot like the city of New Orleans. After Katrina the city of New Orleans was devastated and after nine years the city still hasn’t fully recovered. But in the last few years there has bee substantial progress and there is an increasing amount of liveliness in the city. People are learning that the lesser-known problems, like the lack of a central local hospital or the receding swamps, are often the most important issues. Working on the house was long, difficult, and tiring but in the end it was worth it.

Nate Kumar

Making a House a Home

For the last three days of the trip, our group spent our mornings and afternoons tirelessly working to rebuild a home for a man named Harold and his family who desperately needed and truly deserved it. With the generous aid of the St. Bernard Project (SBP), we painted walls as well as measured, cut, and installed decorative trim to make the once devastated house look, once again, like a place to live. In this effort we hope to return a sense of normalcy to a family that has been without it for nearly a decade. Believe it or not, Harold and his family were actually one of the lucky ones who were chosen by the SBP. Driving down the very same neighborhood it was less than a rarity to see houses similarly ravaged by Hurricane Katrina but which lacked the support from an outside party. Nine years later and there are still many homes that look just as they did after the storm, if not worse. It is truly amazing that after all that time there is still so much to be done.

While there are obvious issues concerning the sustainability of rebuilding houses that remain in such “hurricane hotspots,” the work we did felt necessary nonetheless. Until a fundamental change in both environmental and governmental policies take place to make sure such a travesty doesn’t simply take down every effort to rebuild from the previous one, there will remain skepticism about the value of organizations such as SBP. To families like Harold’s however, the work we did was absolutely essential regardless of its sustainability.

The construction work, cutting trim specifically, seemed an especially good way of providing benefit for everyone involved. It helps the host family in the most obvious way, the site managers by giving them work and a sense of giving, and us volunteers by teaching us a useful skill that many of us might not otherwise learn. Measuring and cutting base board was a task unlike any I’ve done before with tedious math and trial and error techniques that proved exhausting yet rewarding. I was trusted with power tools that gave me a real sense of responsibility and leadership. The whole thing was much more rewarding than I could have imagined especially when looking back and seeing that what I truly enjoyed doing the most was the hard work. This trip got me excited to do more like it through Gettysburg and elsewhere. At the risk of sounding cliché, I felt like a new wall in my life was being put up that I didn’t have there before.

Elliott Hirsch