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Spring break '06: New Orleans

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Angie Braun and Pavel Hoq remove a door and carry it out to the curb.   Photo Gallery More photos

There were 11 of them, seven women and four men from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, who spent their spring break not in bathing suits on the beach but in hazmat suits in New Orleans. This is an account of their eight days on the road and in the muck, gutting houses ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, one shovel at a time.

Day 1 -- Saturday, March 18

It is 7 a.m., an hour behind schedule, when the two rented minivans pull out of the Tufts parking lot in Medford. The trip to New Orleans will be 1,535 miles. In the beige van, Josh Jones takes the first leg of the trip. Marta McLellan drives the burgundy van. Two of the students, because of scheduling conflicts, are flying to New Orleans and will meet the others there.

Marta, 25, came up with the idea, made arrangements through the Student Hurricane Network, and recruited the others. They raised $3,000 to cover expenses, chiefly the van rentals and gas, since they will be staying for free at a FEMA tent city in Algiers, just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans.

Some of the Fletcher students have been to New Orleans. Others have never traveled to the South. They range in age from 24 (Alison Lytton and Sara Celiberti) to 34 (Steve Serra). Among them, they have lived in 34 countries and speak a dozen languages. One (Josh) was an Army captain in Iraq for a year. Another (Gillian Cull) worked for the United Nations in the Sudan last summer.

Speed limits seem more like suggestions, and the miles melt away, the wintry north giving way to a nascent Southern spring. Early in the trip, at a place called Food and Books on the Mass. Pike, Alison picked up a romance novel written in 1941, ''The Heart Remembers," free with her breakfast sandwich. There's only so much of ''The End of Poverty" and ''Colloquial Mongolian" one can take. And so begins a beige-van ritual: a group reading of the dated novel.

At 12:30 a.m. Sunday, the vans pull into a youth hostel in Knoxville, Tenn., where $15 will get you a bunk bed in a common room, earplugs provided. After 17 hours on the road, no one has trouble sleeping.

Day 2 -- Sunday, March 19

The hostel's chatty owner, Al, welcomes the crew to the South with a platter of fried apples, walnuts, honey, and butter. Back in the vans, daylight reveals a riot of cherry blossoms, pansies, and daffodils.

In Birmingham, Ala., the vans stop at Josh's house. His mother, Beth, has prepared a huge Sunday dinner: platters of fried chicken, cheese grits, green beans, salad, rolls, and three kinds of pie. His grandmother has stopped by with her inimitable cheese biscuits. All of this is washed down by iced tea so sweet it makes your teeth ache.

It is dark when the vans reach the New Orleans area, and the students are quiet. Even through the cloak of night, the devastation is apparent -- darkened houses and apartments, abandoned strip malls, twisted trees, the flotsam and jetsam of Katrina everywhere.

At Camp Algiers, the Boston group receives ID tags and a bag of bedding. The women are in Tent 2, which holds 170 but is only half full this week. The men are next door. The rusty cots are lined up in close rows, military style. That night, the wind whips up something awful, causing the flapping tarpaulin to shriek and impeding much-needed sleep.

Day 3 -- Monday, March 20

The tent city for volunteers runs smoothly. There's a mess tent, showers and bathrooms in trailers, movies shown on weekends.

On a signpost, previous volunteers have written the number of miles they were from home. The Fletcher students are closer to Costa Rica (1,434 miles) than they are to Ipswich, Mass. (1,534 miles). The food is ample and decent, with huge breakfasts of eggs, sausage or bacon, grits, pancakes or waffles, hash browns, cereal, yogurt, fruit, juice, and coffee. Lunch, however, is prepackaged sandwiches.

With daylight, the reality of Katrina sets in -- mile after mile of uninhabited streets and boarded-up businesses. Every so often, a house under reconstruction sports a blue tarp on its roof. At the infamous Superdome, a banner states: ''Reopening 9-24-2006. Go Saints."

The Fletcher students are here under the auspices of ACORN, a national organization that works for social justice, and each morning volunteers meet at an abandoned shopping plaza in Gentilly. Here they are given disposable hazmat suits, masks, gloves, and tools. After a briefing -- basically telling them to be careful and take water breaks -- the group is dispatched to East New Orleans, a devastated area home to working-class African-Americans.

7721 Masefield St. is a modest three-bedroom, two-bathroom brick house in a neighborhood now deserted. Spray-painted on a nearby garage door are the words ''Already Looted Twice."

The Fletcher students must gut the house to its frame. Most of them have never done any construction work. But soon, shovels, crowbars, and hammers hack at sheetrock, while other students shovel the ankle-high debris into wheelbarrows or plastic bins, dumping it at the curb. Later, trash collectors will pick up the toxic piles.

Though someone has already removed most of the household goods -- the family? looters? -- a few items have been left behind: plastic bowling trophies, a Saints football, a mud-encrusted album that contains baby, graduation, and prom photos. In the backyard, a hot tub is filled with moss and pine needles.

ACORN workers join the effort, and by 3 p.m. the house is stripped. ''I have to admit, this is a lot harder than I thought," says Sara, who is from Italy.

The ride back to Camp Algiers is a quiet one, with the students gazing out at the ghost towns. When the National Guard checked houses after the hurricane, it spray-painted its findings: dead people or animals, live people or animals. Houses bear messages such as: ''One Pony, DOA, dog loose" or ''four Chows rescued, one left."

Billboards attempt a little happy-face psychology: ''Smile! Now Isn't That Better?" and ''Welcome Home, New Orleans!" At camp, the students shower and head to the French Quarter, which escaped the worst of it. Here, businesses are open, and Steve, who is from Connecticut, knows most of them. He has visited New Orleans 15 times over the years. He gladly assumes the role of party planner and leads everyone to the Pirate's Alley Cafe for Swampwater cocktails and absinthe.

On Bourbon Street, T-shirts hang from shop doorways, and the students laugh over them. ''Make Levees Not War" and ''NOPD: Not Our Problem, Dude" are among the tamer ones. Steve steers the group to Arnaud's Remoulade for seafood gumbo, red beans and rice, jambalaya, and turtle soup. Plates are practically licked clean. Later, Pavel Hoq would require Tums.

''I forget how good it feels to be physically tired and not just hunched over a computer in the library," says Gillian, who is from Scotland. ''I knocked down a wall with a crowbar!" The party ends at the Quarter's famed Cafe du Monde, with chicory coffee and beignets.

Day 4 -- Tuesday, March 21

The woman who lived at 5501 Christian St. loves hats, green beans, and God. She, or maybe her daughter, was married in a strapless satin gown embroidered with pastel flowers. She has a son named Stephen who is an Allen Iverson fan and a daughter named Sybil who collects Mardi Gras beads. She listens to Aretha Franklin and Bishop T.D. Jakes. Gutting a house post-Katrina is like conducting an archeological dig of a family's life.

This house is worse than yesterday's. It's as if the family planned to be gone for a few days but never returned. Dank, moldy carpet falls apart as the students pull it up. There is food in the cupboard, dishes in the washer, and clothes in the closets. The boy's closet contains a box of love letters in the round handwriting of a girl, nearly every sentence ending with an exclamation point.

In the living room, two huge, odoriferous jars of decaying pickles make Marta and Raya Widenoja gag. Raya, who is from Oregon, is surprised by a couple of mice as she knocks down the kitchen pantry. When she discovers a tiny frog in a bedroom, she takes it out back and carefully sets it down. Working in the bathroom, Steve gets a blast in the face; the water hasn't been turned off.

Most everything in the house, waterlogged or desiccated, will go to ''Mount Fletcher," the pile of trash that collects at the curb. The more personal items -- the colorful round boxes with their stylish hats still intact inside, the mildewed wedding dress, the high school diploma -- will be set aside in the garage. ''If you've lost everything, those little things might be important," Gillian says.

The task is daunting, and a group of Cornell law students joins the Fletcher group. They work diligently, falling into a rhythm: Tear down, cart out, empty. Everything -- cupboards, sinks, toilets, appliances -- must go.

Steve has arranged dinner uptown at Jacques-Imo's. There's Restoration Ale, named in honor of the city's reconstruction efforts, fried green tomatoes, alligator sausage and shrimp cheesecake, and catfish. Conor Politz, who is from Philadelphia, remarks about an overturned car he saw in a front yard. ''I didn't even think twice," he says. ''I didn't realize how quickly you get desensitized. I don't like that."

Back in the French Quarter, a Louis Armstrong look-alike plays piano and sings and thanks the students for coming down to help; his home has been destroyed. And then he sings ''What a Wonderful World."

Day 5 -- Wednesday, March 22

5501 Christian St. is not quite finished yet. Josh, Steve, Raya, and Pavel, who is from Bangladesh, coax the washing machine outdoors, to the electronics pile, where they empty it of rusty water. Soon the house is naked, each room exposed down to the posts, even the nails pulled out.

Next, the group is directed by ACORN to a nearby address. There are gasps as the vans park -- the house is literally falling down. A quick call and the students are redirected to 6900 Virgilian St. ''It doesn't look bad at all," Josh says. He would later recant.

A water-wrecked Volkswagen Passat sits in the driveway. Amid the weed-filled yard, a couple of pink petunias raise their heads. At lunch in a nearby driveway, Pavel experiments with the FEMA ''ready to heat" vegetarian meal. The heating sack begins to steam and inflate, creating much merriment. Pavel snacks on fruit instead.

After lunch, Alvin Magee, an electrician working on a nearby house, comes over. ''Y'all be careful. That black mold is bad for your lungs. And you got 'coons, rats, and water moccasins around here." The students thank him for his advice and continue their work.

At 3 p.m., Heather Binen becomes the first casualty: She has stepped on a nail that penetrated her shoe. Thankfully, she recently had a tetanus shot. Marta, who has a first-aid kit, doctors the wound until Heather can visit the camp infirmary.

That night, everyone unwinds at the Praline Connection with plates of fried okra, fried chicken, and fried fish. There's sweet potato pie, bread pudding, and, of course, pralines. Despite the hard physical labor, no one is losing any weight on this trip.

Day 6 -- Thursday, March 23

It's back to the same house, without Heather, whose foot is hurting. They drop her off at the French Quarter, where she buys souvenirs. After lunch she joins the group, though she cannot work.

The Fletcher students are filthy; unlike the other houses, on this one they were told to rip out the buckling floor and the sodden ceilings. At 2:24 p.m., Angie Braun, who is from Fairfax, Va., throws the last box into the heap at the curb. Their work is done. A FEMA worker pulls up and thanks them for ''a great job." The group later agrees that this was the worst house physically, but that the second house, with its lived-in look, was the hardest emotionally.

Purple and green Mardi Gras beads hang from the beige van's rearview mirror thanks to Angie, who calls them ''the spoils of war." In the car, aching hands are flexed, necks stretched.

For the last night out on the town, Steve has chosen Port of Call, a hamburger joint. But first, some hit happy hour while others hit the shops. Angie, who still clings to her childhood ambition of becoming a princess, appears wrapped in a turquoise boa.

Over dinner, Alison calls for a toast: ''To mold and insulation!" Everyone raises their Hurricanes, Swampwaters, and Windjammers.

The trip home -- March 24-25

It is 8:30 a.m. on Friday when the vans leave Camp Algiers, laden with baggies full of snacks from a Baptist church. In the beige van, the students take up ''The Heart Remembers." It is especially appreciated when Josh, the only guy in the van, takes his turn reading aloud.

At 1 a.m. the vans pull into the Hampton Inn in Roanoke, Va., where the group will share three very cozy rooms. Up and out at 8 a.m., they soon find themselves in the snowy Blue Ridge Mountains. In keeping with the culture, Josh puts on a country station with such songs as ''I'm in Love With a Stripper" and ''Drunker Than Me."

Everyone agrees that they mixed work and pleasure well, but Angie is still trying to sort it out. ''I don't know if I should say 'We did good work' or 'Yay! I got a feather boa!' " They wonder how New Orleans can fully recover. They wonder whether parts of it should. They marvel over those who have worked day after day for months; they've put only four days in and are achy and exhausted.

Fourteen states and 1,535 miles after they left New Orleans, the vans turn into the Fletcher School parking lot at 8:30 p.m. Bags are unloaded, hugs exchanged.

Marta reflects on how her project turned out. ''It feels nice to have a sense of service, because when I came to graduate school I had to put those kinds of things on hold for my studies. So it's good to have a vacation that was also validating."

Adds Alison: ''We rocked."