Name: Jessica RuggeHometown: Annandale, NJBirthday: May 27, 1984Year: SeniorMajor: Environmental StudiesFavorite Memory: Scooping up the last of the debris from a home and seeing the homeowners' reactions when their house was finally complete.Astrological Sign: Gemini
Stepping off of the bus and onto the work site, all five senses are immediately shocked with what they encounter. The brain is trying to make sense of what has happened and what is surrounding you, but the aftermath of Katrina is almost too much. First the eyes take in all the destruction. It has been four months since the hurricane landed in New Orleans but it looks as though it could have been last week. Trees have fallen on rooftops, shrubs and small trees are stripped of life, abandoned cars are left in driveways of houses that are no longer filled with the daily routines of so many residents. And that is just the beginning. The reality of what has happened in these people’s lives sinks in while walking through their homes. The water lines are easily visible, usually four or five feet, followed by dark mold covering the walls. Furniture, toys, clothing, instruments, records, pictures, electronic equipment, dishes, cans of food, and family heirlooms are all scattered about. Very few things are salvageable. The looks on the homeowners’ faces vary. The expressions range from nervous, discouraged, grief, excited, and happy, but by the time we are finished with their home every homeowner is thrilled and energized to have a clean start. The nose is overwhelmed with odors coming from all directions. Even outside there is the overpowering smell of mold. Inside lay many hidden smells that wait to be unleashed as you open that plastic container full of moldy clothes in the back of the closet or busted cans containing an assortment of rotted food. The carpet smells, the walls smell, the sheets smell, the clothes smell, but by far the worst smell of all is the refrigerator. Luckily we only had to remove a couple of these because most had already been taken out of the homes. It is a smell that cannot be described or mimicked. The four months of built up rotted food, rancid water and growing mold cause everyone to clear the room. Duck tape is wrapped around in order for the doors to stay closed, but unfortunately in one instance there was not enough tape and water started spilling rapidly out of the bottom. One home had been under ten feet of water for three weeks which caused everything to move around so much so that the refrigerator was laying on the kitchen floor, door side down, which did not allow for the almighty important taping of the doors. Our tasks would not have been possible without gloves. At first people were a little uneasy of really getting down and dirty because everything you touch is soggy, slippery, or just flat out disgusting. Nothing is completely dry. Everything is heavier due to the water. Gripping the hammer and wonderbar are things we got used to quickly because those were the main tools used, other than our hands. It is amazing that a house can be stripped down to the frame by using those two tools alone. The tastes of New Orleans are unlike those of any other place. The food is unforgettable. We were very fortunate to have church ladies who wanted to share the local cuisine with us one or two nights a week. Red beans and rice with sausage was one of my favorites. Homeowners sometimes provided us with lunch while we were on the job, giving us a break from the usual turkey or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches we packed every morning. One couple stayed up late the night before cooking up a family recipe of New Orleans famous gumbo. There was everything from chicken to crawfish to sausage and much more in it. Lunch in the French Quarter was at the Napoleon House where I tried the local muffuletta sandwich, which is made with various meats, cheese, and olive salad, accompanied with jambalaya and a cold Abita amber, a Louisiana beer. One night we went out to dinner downtown and I tried blackened alligator, fried alligator, fried crawfish tails, and blackened catfish with a crab stuffing. One family thanked us for all of our hard work by taking us all out to eat at a small restaurant where we tried every New Orleans food imaginable. The highlights of this meal were the crawfish pies, jerked chicken, seafood stuffing and red beans and rice. One of my favorite things about traveling is eating the local food, and boy is New Orleans a great place for that! The absence of sound in the neighborhoods we worked in was not noticeable right away, but when I became aware of it I started noticing the same thing at every worksite. There are none of the normal neighborhood noises. There is not a single dog barking, child laughing, or parent yelling. Very few cars drive by and those that do are most likely workers, not homeowners. Inside the homes there is a constant clank of the hammers and wonderbars. Some sing in order to keep spirits up and help keep the work going at a steady pace. The best sound of all is the voices of all the people we helped. Everyone had stories to share, but most importantly their expressions of appreciation when the job was complete made all the hard work well worth it. Many were on the verge of tears, if not openly crying. We were called angels and blessings over and over again. Even those that were more quiet and shy and perhaps apprehensive about what we were doing really expressed the degree to which we helped them in the end. After a couple of days of hard labor, the few moments at the end of a job when the homeowners looked us all in the eyes and told us how much we had done for them made it more worth it than I had imagined.