‘I expect a miracle to occur each time’

Kelly Petryszyn

Hurricane Katrina victim was shocked by the devastation.

When Clementine Brown first saw her house after Hurricane Katrina, she was overcome by a state of shock. The feeling didn’t leave for months.

“I didn’t react at all,” said Brown, known by the neighborhood as Ms. Clem. “I just looked. For months I just stared into space.”

Ms. Clem sat in the same chair in New Iberia, La., one of the many places she relocated, and stared for about four months before recovering.

Shock was and still is the reaction to the deconstruction New Orleans experienced. This spring break, Cuyahoga Valley Church sent a mission team including seven Kent State students to rebuild in New Orleans.

One of the team members, Natalie Domzalski, a junior deaf education major, experienced shock upon first seeing the destruction still left by the storm.

“You would think four and a half years later it would not be that bad, but you drive around and there are empty lots and houses in shambles,” she said.

Progress has occurred over the past four and a half years, but a drive through the lower ninth ward of New Orleans, the area worst hit by the flooding, reveals that much rebuilding is still needed.

In town, open businesses are speckled among businesses that remain boarded up — covered in graffiti or marked with a “For Sale” sign — leaving a remnant of what once was. In neighborhoods, houses with ripped off siding and collapsed roofs sit next to rebuilt houses.

Interspersed in between the repaired and damaged are empty lots, marked only with the remains of a concrete slab that once sat under a house. People are still living in some destroyed houses and attempting to restore them, while other houses remain abandoned and marked with “Do Not Enter” signs to curb looters from the property.

The mission team worked with the Neighborhood Empowerment Network Association to aid in rebuilding projects. The projects the group worked on included demolishing a decayed garage, clearing out a property let go after the storm and installing a chain link fence.

Wesley Hall was the recipient of the chain-link fence. Hall is still rebuilding after the storm and just moved into his house about four weeks ago. Before that, he was living in a trailer.

Hall had no flood insurance, so he had to use the money he saved up for retirement to rebuild. He did about 90 percent of the work himself and had volunteers help with the rest.

Hall didn’t evacuate after the storm because he stayed back with the house while his wife and children left for safer ground. He got in his truck and started to drive away, but the water became so high that it eventually flooded his truck. A Coast Guard boat picked him up and took him to the Superdome for four days, where he endured “nasty” conditions and witnessed multiple instances of rape and arson.

Hall said his faith in God helped him through the storm. He has to go back to work because he used almost all of his retirement savings to rebuild.

The mission team also was able to help Ms. Clem by demolishing her garage and starting to install new siding on her house. Ms. Clem wasn’t able to move into her house until February 2008. She lost everything to the storm.

Ms. Clem said she awoke from her initial state of shock when she realized that she was lucky not to lose her life, family or her faith in God.

Even though Ms. Clem was faced with irreplaceable damage, she returned because she loves New Orleans. She lived in the city her entire life and finds the southern hospitality of the area like no other place.

“People take in a stranger here,” she said. “You can walk up and strike up a conversation with people. People don’t have to know you to care.”

Ms. Clem said progress had been made since the storm, but the area still lacks some key components, such as enough grocery stores, churches and affordable housing. She attributes part of the progress to volunteer work.

“If it wouldn’t be for volunteers, a lot of the stuff wouldn’t have been done,” she said.

Trip leader Dan Marshall has been coming to help out here since December 2005. He has made 13 trips with Cuyahoga Valley Church.

He comes back each time because he wants to help people get their life back to normal, but he also enjoys watching a group of strangers unite to work as one team.

“I expect a miracle to occur each time,” he said. “And that means a changed life.”

Marshall said he enjoys seeing God work in the hearts of young people. He said students go into this trip with an idea of what they think is important and what their comfort zone is. Then the trip changes them to take on a mindset of putting others first.

The first three years Marshall went, he barely saw any progress in rebuilding. Over the last year and a half, he saw the amount of progress increase exponentially.

Domzalski said she is happy to see the progress the team made in one week. She enjoyed the trip so much that she wants to come back.

“I’d come back and do it again in a heartbeat,” she said. “There is still rebuilding that is still needed to be done and people who need Jesus.”

Contact public affairs reporter Kelly Petryszyn at [email protected].