Students Learn Life Lessons from Hurricane Katrina Victims

SALEM, Va.-Like the other Roanoke College students who recently returned from a week of helping Hurricane Katrina survivors in Slidell, La., Joanna Hertzog is now looking at the world in a whole new light.
 “Going on a trip like that puts life into perspective,” says Hertzog, a junior at the college.  “You have a new appreciation for what you have but at the same time you realize that it is just ‘stuff.’  It’s really easy to get caught up in your car or your favorite outfit, but that's not what lasts.  Relationships last.  You also realize that the everyday drama doesn’t really matter.  There are bigger things going on in this world than work or the next reading assignment.”

Hertzog and 12 other Roanoke students volunteered a week of their time in between semesters, along with five adults affiliated with the college, to help with the Lutheran Disaster Relief Effort in Slidell and surrounding areas.  The group, which went with the goal of helping those who had lost everything, returned changed by the experience.

In the seven days the group spent in Slidell, they did the back-breaking work of clearing out debris and dirt from houses that have not been touched since the flood waters from Hurricane Katrina receded in September.  They pulled out drywall, cleared trash and rotted furniture, carted ruined appliances to the roadside, and combated the mold that covered everything. 

Their hardest job, however, was to sift through the belongings of those who fled from the hurricane, deciding what should be kept and what should be thrown away of a family’s memories.

“People left Slidell imagining they’d be back home in two or three days.  We went into their homes 128 days after the hurricane hit to begin the cleanup,” says Rev. Paul Henrickson, Dean of the Chapel and a leader of the trip. 

“These students had to decide what was important and what wasn’t among the remains of people’s lives.”
 As these students sifted through the rubble, they also listened to the residents’ stories.  The hope they heard from the survivors of Hurricane Katrina in Slidell helped changed their own outlook on life.

The story of Kurtis, the director of the tent city where the students stayed and a victim of the hurricane himself, had a profound effect on Hertzog.  He is living in a FEMA trailer in his front yard with his wife and three children.  One night, he shared his story with the students, only to be constantly interrupted by his eight-year-old daughter. 

She was not interrupting to point out all the toys she’d lost, Hertzog says, but to tell them all of the blessing that had come out of the storm.  It was a blessing, the girl said, that her family’s house had been ruined because now they could have a new start.  It was a blessing that Slidell was destroyed because now the people of the town could decide how best to rebuild the city.

Hertzog and the other students learned a major lesson about life from their time in Slidell.

“A hurricane can take your possessions, but losing your possessions can never take away the relationships you’ve formed or the memories you've made,” Hertzog says.