She slogged through mud and stenchy water, opened refrigerators emitting black sludge, and dodged roaches and rats. Somehow, Jessica Grannis managed to make light of the awful conditions that she and other volunteers faced in the battered houses of New Orleans.
“Oh, we were disgusting,” Grannis said with a laugh, noting that she couldn’t wait to shower at day’s end. “One guy said, ‘I wish everybody could experience the smell of a refrigerator.'”
Other signs of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation proved utterly humorless for Grannis. She saw houses that had been spray-painted with such details as the dates they were searched and number of animals dead — as well as number of people dead.
“One house had a ‘6’ at the bottom (for people who had died). It was very sad to see,” Grannis said.
These sights, by the way, weren’t from the immediate aftermath of the late August 2005 hurricane. It was destruction still evident in January 2007.
Grannis, 19, spent Jan. 2-8 in New Orleans with nearly 50 young adults from Nazareth College — where she is a sophomore nursing major — and the SUNY Environmental Sciences program at Syracuse University. This marked the second Katrina-relief stint for Grannis, a parishioner of St. Mary’s Southside in Elmira. In March 2006 she was among 35 Nazareth students who spent their spring break helping hurricane victims by busing to Pascagoula, Miss.
Katrina was one of the worst natural disasters in United States history, causing the deaths of nearly 2,000 people and staggering amounts of property damage, job loss and other hardships. Grannis said it was vital to get to New Orleans when she did, because public officials earmarked 800 houses to soon be torn down unless they were renovated. The group worked in Chalmette, near the site where one of the city’s levees had broken, causing extensive water damage to homes.
“The water sat there for so long, it just ruined everything,” she said.
Grannis and fellow volunteers “mucked out” the houses. This involved removing all standing items; tearing out carpet that was still soaking wet; and removing insulation and drywall until only the houses’ frames were left. Once, Grannis said, a wall was torn down and “thousands of cockroaches ran out. Usually I hate bugs, but you have to expect there’s going to be some.”
She had a harder time accepting the rat that got too close to her:
“We freaked out. It was terrible,” she laughed. “Then it jumped down the next set of rafters, and we could hear people downstairs freaking out.”
Grannis said many homeowners hadn’t wanted to abandon their houses, but couldn’t do the repair work on their own and didn’t have anyone to help them. She pointed out that would-be local volunteers “are still rebuilding themselves, so they can’t go help someone out.” In other cases, people simply found it too emotionally difficult to return.
“Imagine your house with a foot of mud in it, all your possessions washed away,” Grannis said.
She added that residents were encouraged by the volunteer efforts and decided they wanted to come back after all.
“They needed someone to prove to them that it wasn’t impossible,” she said.
Although the work group gutted 10 or so houses, “We actually felt like we didn’t do enough,” Grannis said. “We just felt like we didn’t really make a dent. I wish we could have done more somehow.”
Yet as time has gone on, Grannis has come to better appreciate the value of her efforts. She remembers in particular the comment of one volunteer during morning prayer in New Orleans.
“The guy said that we’re all ‘tators.’ You can choose to be a spectator, agitator, dictator — or an imitator of Christ, helping people we will never see again,” she said.
Grannis paid for her own plane fare to New Orleans. Her expenses were reduced through the help of a $450 contribution from St. Mary’s parishioners following a bulletin plea. The money certainly didn’t go for luxury accommodations: In New Orleans, Grannis stayed on a cot in the same room with 30 young women. In Pascagoula, she slept on a floor in a room with 20 people.
Whereas New Orleans involved mostly physical labor, Grannis said that “we did a lot more emotional and psychological rebuilding in Mississippi.” There, she worked with a mostly senior-citizen population, hearing stories of how they survived a tidal surge that reached 20 feet high in this coastal city. She noted that the suicide rate had increased by 200 percent, and drug and alcohol abuse had risen sharply as well.
“Elderly people were dying; they didn’t have anything to live for anymore,” Grannis said.
She was especially struck by a Pascagoula resident named Bea, whose husband had died a few months after Katrina.
“She just wanted a door put on, had been living for six months without a door. She was bawling — it was just such a big deal to her,” Grannis said. “She said that we were her New York grandchildren. When we were leaving, the old ladies were running down the road after us. I don’t think there was one person on the bus who wasn’t crying.”
To keep the experience fresh in her mind, Grannis has added photographs from her two trips to the background on her computer.
“It is kind of humbling,” she said. “I definitely would say it’s life-changing. You look at it on TV, and there’s no comparison to what it’s actually like.”
Grannis said she loved her volunteer time, and would definitely go back if the chance arose. She suggested that others, especially those steeped in comfort zones, would benefit from the experience.
“There’s so many people who don’t do anything and need everything handed to them. You need to go out and see how lucky you are,” she said.
She considers herself lucky to have received unique lessons in perseverance from residents.
“They helped me more than I helped them; they’re such strong people,” she said.
For example, she recalled a lady in New Orleans who was determined to carry on even though she lost her house, suffered from breast and skin cancer, and had a sick child. Grannis said it proves to her that “there’s nothing that you really can’t do.”
Grannis was especially impressed by the perspective of her Mississippi friend, Bea, who refused to believe that Katrina was a wrathful act of God.
“She said this was the best thing that could ever happen to them, that everybody had been starting to get so ‘New York,'” she said. “Up in New York we’re so for ourselves — we put our heads down and walk. Down there everybody was beeping (in appreciation), especially in Pascagoula. She was like, ‘if it wasn’t for Katrina, would you have come down here and been my New York grandkids?’ If you think about it like that, it’s so much more different than ‘God’s punishing us.’ He’s telling us we are to unite.”