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My first visit to New Orleans was for a weeklong immersion trip during my senior year at Santa Clara. It had been four months since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast.
The chaos that ensued in New Orleans after the levees broke violated the image I had of my own country, of its abilities and its priorities. So after graduation, I returned to New Orleans, together with Anna Kolhede ’06 and Lindsey Ott ’06. By that time, the first anniversary of the storm, the question of whether the city could rebuild had been answered: Yes.
Anna, Lindsey, and I volunteered for Habitat for Humanity and the St. Bernard Project, a group that rebuilds homes owned by the elderly and disabled in St. Bernard Parish, just east of downtown New Orleans. For a little over a year, I lived in two gutted elementary schools that were converted into recovery camps, and finally in a FEMA trailer, all the while doing photo work on the side to make ends meet.
After I stopped volunteering, New Orleans’ pull on me was too strong to let me leave. Today, I live in a normal, intact house and am working as a photographer. I have been fortunate enough to work for the Associated Press, and many of the local news photographers whose photos initially compelled me to visit the city have become mentors and friends.
In one sense, New Orleans is back: A visitor can come to “America’s most interesting city” and never have a sense of the lingering damage—because the French Quarter and the scenic Garden District were never flooded. Bourbon Street is hopping every night, and this June the historic streetcars returned to the Uptown District.
But the service workers who keep the restaurants and tourist destinations buzzing return home to low-lying neighborhoods that are still slogging through recovery. Tens of thousands of homes still sit uninhabitable, and more residents suffer from anxiety disorders today than did a year ago.
Yes, the city is being rebuilt by citizens and volunteers. But if you’re ready to help, there’s work to do.
Pat Semansky’s photography has appeared in newspapers including the Washington Post, Boston Globe, and USA Today.