Eyes wide open

Community Featured

A natural disaster that happened almost 13 years ago in New Orleans, U.S., has left an indelible mark on an altruistic young lady.

Rikki Stevens of Pictou would have only been a youngster living some 3,500 kilometres away from Katrina, in another country, when the disaster struck on August 29, 2005. She remembered the devastating news reports of the time and now, at age 20, she got an opportunity to see first-hand the desolation left in its wake.

And she had the chance to do something to help.

The quiet, soft-spoken university student recently returned from New Orleans where she had an opportunity to help rebuild a home there that had been decimated by the storm. She was one of eight volunteers accepted to do the work through The Sisters of Charity in Halifax who partnered with St. Bernard Projects in the U.S.

SBP (formerly the St. Bernard Project) is a non-profit, disaster relief organization. It was founded in March 2006 by two people after temporarily volunteering in St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana after the hurricane, then returning permanently. The organization eventually expanded to include offices in other areas including Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Joplin, Missouri, Columbia, South Carolina, New Jersey, New York and West Virginia. By August 2017, SBP had rebuilt more than 1,200 homes nationwide, including 600 in New Orleans.

Of the eight people who went, Rikki knew no one else. She just picked up her life, flew to a hurricane-devastated state and helped someone she didn’t know rebuild her life.

“I never really had the opportunity to do volunteer work and I love to travel,” Stevens shrugged. She travelled to Europe about five years ago on a class trip with Pictou Academy. So she combined her desire to do volunteer work with a love of travel to embark on this project, which she did while on her study break from Mount St. Vincent University.

“There are still people repairing from hurricane Katrina,” Stevens said. “After Katrina, some people abandoned their houses and moved to surrounding states and those houses are still abandoned.”

On the heels of losing their home and all of their possessions to Katrina, some people were also victims of unscrupulous contractors who were taking advantage of those left devastated by the storm.

At the home where Stevens worked for a week, which had been inhabited by a mother and her two sons — ages 13 and 9 — volunteers were repairing damage caused by mould that was a result of the flood. The home owner was hit with a double-whammy: she was a victim of both Katrina and contractor fraud.

While in New Orleans, the intrepid group stayed at a residence that belonged to The Sisters of Charity. “The Sisters did everything for us — it was just amazing!”

New Orleans, Rikki said, is called a ‘city of extremes.’ “You get the extreme highs with these beautiful mansions, and then you drive out of that area into a place called the Ninth Ward and you see the extreme lows, with abandoned houses and impoverished areas.”

Of her time in the Ninth Ward Stevens remarked, “There were still houses from the flooding where you could see the water marks on the houses and you could see how high the water was, and (home owners) just didn’t have the money to fix it up. We saw all of that. It was just so eye-opening.”

The house where Stevens’ group worked to fix up was a one-storey bungalow. Her group installed all of the doors and cut and installed the moulding — “the trim and the shoe,” Stevens called it. Before working on this project, she had never worked with moulding or construction materials, so it was a learning experience.

“It was a challenge,” she laughs. “I loved the nail gun though!”

Her group had three helpers from St. Bernard Project to guide them and some work had been done on the house before her crew arrived to do their part.

“We got to meet (the family) the first day we were there which was incredible.” Referring to the single mom of two Stevens smiled, “She was so grateful.”

Despite her lack of experience in the construction field, Stevens enjoyed the physical aspect of the work. At the end of the first day she had mixed feelings: She wondered what she had gotten herself into, she thanked her lucky stars she hadn’t pursued a career in carpentry and she felt incredibly satisfied and rewarded for doing the work.

“It was 30 degrees every day and there was no air conditioning in the house. But it was rewarding in the end for sure. It was rewarding, it was frustrating, it was exhausting, it was hot … But it was a really cool experience.”

During her downtime, Stevens got to explore the famous French Quarter and particularly enjoyed a visit to the Louisiana State Museum where she received an education in human nature as well as a bit of history about the hurricane and the city.

“They have a big display on hurricane Katrina and that put things into perspective.” She learned that many people think the natural disaster did all the damage but it was man-made levees that broke and caused the flooding in the Ninth Ward. “So there is a big debate as to whether it was fully a natural disaster or a man-made disaster. But the devastation was still the same.”

It’s a debate that still goes on within the city, she said. “The museum represented the highs and lows as well because the downstairs represented Katrina and upstairs was all about Mardi Gras. But Mardi Gras is what New Orleans is all about. It caused a lot of controversy among people who don’t know about the city’s traditions. The year after Katrina they still had the Mardi Gras celebrations and took a lot of heat from it by outsiders, but it’s just part of the culture – it was the happy, extreme high and their disaster was their extreme low. It was their culture and they didn’t let the disaster stop them. Celebrating in the face of adversity shows their resilience and it’s who they are.”

The end of the week was gratifying for Stevens. “I was satisfied that I made a difference. They had a goal for us to install five doors and get all the trim done, and we got all of the trim done but we installed 11 doors! We felt pretty accomplished that we exceeded their goal,” she smiled.

She would definitely do it again — “Even if it does involve construction work, because that was a challenge!”

The project was a certain awakening for the university student.

“I would say this experience definitely opened my eyes a little bit. I didn’t expect to see abandoned houses 12 years later.”

This experience in New Orleans falls in line with her studies. Stevens graduates from Mount St. Vincent in 2019. She is completing a degree in cultural studies which, she said, teaches how to look at the world and the media with a critical eye. “I’m thinking about doing a masters in archiving records management and I’m thinking about doing it in Europe. I’m looking at schools in Liverpool, England and Dublin, Ireland because they offer the program I want. And this experience definitely helped my travel bug.”

Stevens cannot say enough positive about the experience she gained. “People are still affected by hurricane Katrina so many years later and I had no idea, and I don’t think anyone else outside Louisiana understands that. It was just the most amazing, eye-opening experience. We see everything on the news and then it goes away for 12 years, but it never really goes away. People are still affected and we don’t know. Mainstream media has gone on to the next big thing.”

For some, that story is long forgotten, something else has taken over. But those affected are flesh and blood human beings. For us, it’s a nameless, faceless town, house, family… But for those — like Rikki Stevens — who make the journey and meet the families affected, they will be forever touched.

“I’m so glad I did it,” Stevens smiled.

Anyone who would like to donate to St. Bernard Projects can do so by visiting http://sbpusa.org/.