I just spent a week working to help clean up New Orleans, and I've come back both saddened and inspired. I'm saddened because 2 1/2 years after Hurricane Katrina, many houses are STILL in terrible condition and the majority of people just haven't returned. I'm inspired because I met amazing people who dedicated a week of their lives to help strangers, and people who believe in the city and value its history and future.
The thing that surprised me the most was the lack of people. I'd seen pictures of the physical destruction- that didn't shock me as much, although it was still jarring to see houses falling apart when the storm was over 2 years ago- but it was more deserted than I expected. At the first house I worked on, the person in charge told us not to go outside the property, to close the front gate at all times, and to take someone with us to the port-o-potty that was about five feet away from the gate- that's how bad the neighborhood was. There were drug dealers down the street, and a lot of sketchy people driving or walking by. FEMA is currently paying for displaced people to live in other places, and since New Orleans is still in such bad shape, they really don't have much incentive to go back.
Even though the situation is bad, I've gotta say that my week was incredible. I went on Hillel's (Jewish campus organization) Alternative Spring Break, and we stayed at Camp Coastal in Kiln, Mississippi. Part of the experience was just joining together with a bunch of other college people and feeling everyone working together and focusing on the same goal; it's amazing what you can accomplish in a week. For example, on Friday, we only worked a couple of hours in the morning because we had to get ready for the Sabbath, but in that time, I saw a whole patch of yard go from completely overgrown and littered to still-messy but manageable.
And not having internet access for a week- which was a new experience for someone who checks her email obsessively- wasn't so bad. Since we only had a week, I used my time constructively because I knew there wasn't any to waste. I really want to bring that back with me, because I look at the way I spend my time and I find a lot of holes where I waste time and just don't value it as I should. So in addition to all the new people I met- amazing people, by the way, and I feel so lucky that I got to know them, I really want to start using my time because honestly, we don't get very much.