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Students aid in Katrina relief over break

Hurricane Katrina’s wrath hit land so hard that non-profit organizations and government officials still have a massive rebuilding effort going on. At the beginning of January, nine CMU students flew south to help the effort along.

This trip was the first venture of a new student organization called Alternative Break. Nuveen Marwah, a fifth-year student majoring in business administration, international relations, and Spanish, organized the expedition because he felt the area needed the group’s efforts badly. “So many do not realize the extent of the damage,” he said.

On January 3, Alternative Break sent its members to Bay St. Louis, a coastal Mississippi town with a population of about 8000. “I’m sure that no one who went had heard of Bay St. Louis before the trip,” Marwah said. “Some prospective applicants pulled out after they found out we were not going to New Orleans.”

“Brad Miller, one of our members, went to New Orleans a few days before the rest of us flew in,” Marwah said. “He told one person there where he was going, and the person responded, ‘Why? There’s nothing left there.’ ”

In Bay St. Louis, the nine students and Alternative Break advisor M. Shernell Smith, the housefellow of New House, worked for four days. A local church that worked independently for the storm-torn community served as home base for the Carnegie Mellon students.

Alternative Break participants pulled furniture and drywall out of four mold-infested houses and spoke with the homeowners about the disaster. According to Marwah, the homeowners whom Alternative Break helped had trouble with insurance companies.

But the homeowners have had to deal with more than the agencies. “The government is not progressing in many ways,” said Joseph Phillips, a senior history major. For Phillips, the experience provided more ques-tions than answers.

“The President came into New Orleans and said that progress has been made. But that doesn’t give justice to the amount of work that is left,” Marwah agreed.

Phillips expressed great respect for the victims who came back to their homes in Bay St. Louis. “I asked them how they had the fortitude to come back and try to rebuild — some came back to only a concrete slab,” he said. “They had a fervor for their communities.”

Alternative Break is planning another trip for spring break. Participants will help non-profit organizations in the San Diego and Tijuana areas with Mexican immigrants for a week.

“I hope that every student on campus can partake in experiences like this,” said Smith.

Support from the Tepper School of Business, Student Senate, Student Development, Vice-Provost Indira Nair, and Dean Jennifer Church helped to make January’s Alternative Break possible.