For some students, New Orleans is a place not to get lost, but to find a way to make a difference

Originally published: 
January, 2017

By Chase Stone MS '17

“The Mississippi was the first American superhighway, Huckleberry Finn the first American road novel. The wealth of the farms and forests, the factories and mills, everything west of the Alleghenies – all of it floated down the river. New Orleans was the city at the end of the run…the entire area was a tangle: reefs, storms, sea surges, tides, roots, alligators, catfish, and turtles as old as the world. Turn around twice and you’re lost forever.”-Rich Cohen, Pirate City

For some SNREds, New Orleans is a place not to get lost, but to find a way to make a difference.         

Last fall, Richa Yadav and I – along with seven other first-year SNRE and Michigan graduate students – set out to organize a week-long volunteer mission for our upcoming Spring Break. We wanted to apply what we’d learned in the Dana Building to a community-based, hands-on project. We also wanted to explore a city with a unique culture and history that we could bring back to Ann Arbor. With thousands of miles between us and our prospective destination, the challenge was where to go. Where could we have the greatest impact?

With some research, we identified a critical need in New Orleans for people with our skills and training. To our disbelief, even ten years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck, there are still countless homeowners displaced. Living in exile or in a trailer, they have not yet regained safety and independence after the levees breached in 2005. Unfortunately, as SNRE’s environmental justice program would predict, the populations most affected by this displacement are the city’s urban poor.

We had found our calling. This direct need, combined with the fact there are numerous post-Katrina opportunities for SNRE students interested in natural resource management and disaster-related work, set us in motion. We were going to New Orleans.

We decided to partner with Rebuilding Together New Orleans (RTNO), a non-profit organization that provides free home repairs to first-responders, veterans, the elderly, and low-income communities. RTNO has restored and revitalized more than 100,000 homes over the past 22 years and responded extensively to damage from Hurricane Katrina in low-lying areas, such as the infamous Lower 7th and 9thwards.

RTNO paired us with Charles Williams, a New Orleans local that has lived in the 7thward since 1996. In 2005, his house was severely damaged by stagnant floodwaters while the Army Corps of Engineers pumped water from the city’s streets. The water was so high that a shipping barge from the Mississippi River floated into his neighborhood! You can only imagine the damage to Mr. Williams’s home.

When Spring Break arrived in February 2016, we were ready for action. Our small-but-mighty group of nine flew to New Orleans to help Mr. Williams. Our charge was to restore his home from its significant water damage by re-siding, washing, and priming the house, scraping off years of layered lead paint.

We were assisted by Ethan, an Americorps volunteer with RTNO. Ethan had been working for months on Mr. Williams’s home restoration, as well as dozens of similar projects. He taught us to use a ladder safely in teams, then showed us where water had once risen well above our heads.

One night, we were joined for dinner in the French Quarter by SNRE alumni Damon Kirin (BS ‘93), Matt Segraves (MS ’11), and Morgan Crutcher (MS ‘11). Each spoke lovingly of the city that had welcomed them and become their home-away-from-Ann Arbor. These three SNRE alumni have brought their sustainable, ecologically friendly initiatives to New Orleans, teaching environmental law at Tulane, implementing policy to restore the coast, and working with the New Orleans Police Department.

Another SNRE alum, Drew Casey (MS ‘10), couldn’t make it to dinner, so instead he joined us volunteering! He even brought us lunch. After we ate, Drew helped us paint the eaves on Mr. Williams’s home.

Drew began his career in Washington, D.C., writing policy. He moved to New Orleans several year ago to work with the Coast Guard. Drew spoke highly of New Orleans and its ample opportunities for graduates. His environmental management work will continue to be important to New Orleans in the future, as communities along the coastline, marshes, and swamps are threatened by offshore drilling and rising tides.

Returning to Ann Arbor, we spent time reflecting on our Spring Break mission. With the help of the Class Gift Fund, we hope that our experience will inspire other groups to organize similar explorations as part of the “SNRE Cool Projects” fund in the future.