NEW ORLEANS – Some of the college students flocking to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast for spring break are not coming for the beaches, the booze or the all-night debauchery. But they are getting hot and sweaty nonetheless.
Instead of stripping down to bathing suits and sunglasses, thousands of young people from across the country are putting on coveralls and goggles and gutting hurricane-blighted houses, repairing roofs and hauling away storm debris.
"I figured this is one of the rare times I'll get to do something like this, to really help somebody," said Danielle VanEaton, a freshman at the University of Iowa who spent the first day of her first college spring break gutting a flooded home in New Orleans' hard-hit Ninth Ward.
Flushed and sweaty after ripping out the house's moldy carpet, paneling, plaster and insulation, VanEaton unzipped the top portion of her protective suit and waved the plastic fabric back and forth to let in some air.
"These things are hot," she said, her dust mask pushed up to her forehead.
Behind her, a dozen or so students hauled flooring and insulation to the curb with large shovels and wheelbarrows, tossing it onto a large pile of ruined furniture, clothing and other debris.
"A lot of my friends were going to Florida and South Padre, Mexico," she said. "But I knew it was bad here and that people needed help. I'm really happy I came."
Alvin Spears, a widower whose home was flooded, was grateful for the help.
"If it wasn't for God and the hearts of these young people, nothing would get done," he said as he watched the students haul to the curb moldy books and appliances. "I know it's not easy work. It's dirty, and I'm amazed. They're smiling, like they're glad to do it."
It is unclear how many students are spending spring break helping with the recovery effort. But nearly 700 students from 85 schools in 27 states will be on the Gulf Coast with Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., this week alone. Thousands of others have been here in recent weeks, and more are expected between now and the Easter holiday.
Many of the trips have been organized by colleges, some of which are offering students credits for their labor. Others have been arranged by volunteers, churches and other charitable organizations, such as Habitat for Humanity.
Some of the spring breakers are sleeping in tents, using portable bathrooms and makeshift showers. Gettysburg College students from Pennsylvania, for example, are staying in a gutted church in Violet, La., and are using a generator to heat water and hanging tarps to make shower stalls.
"At night, we reflect on what we've been through, what we've seen," said Kristen Rimany, an organizer of the Gettysburg group. "I've been impressed with the students. They're handling it very well."
Some schools are offering psychological counseling to help the students deal with what they have seen.
Students talk of finding framed pictures, flood-ruined albums full of baseball cards and other belongings amid the destruction.
"This is somebody's house, somebody's life," said Stathis Theodoropoulos, who had gray duct tape wrapped around his wrists and ankles to keep mold and bacteria from getting up his sleeves and pants.
He was among more than 80 students from Rutgers University in New Jersey who helped gut houses in Chalmette, outside New Orleans. Rutgers is offering a credit course on natural disasters in conjunction with the trip.
Duke University, which is also offering a class for credit, sent more than 130 students to Chalmette and about 70 to the Mississippi coast.
While most of the spring breakers are doing manual labor, students from the University of Wisconsin-Stout spent time with youngsters at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Pass Christian, Miss., where Katrina wiped out many homes.
"They brought arts and crafts and games to play with the kids, and they're helping some of the older ones with homework after school," said Debbie Kuylen, director of the clubs' Pass Christian unit.
Law students from the University of Oregon provided free help to New Orleans residents who had insurance or property disputes or other legal problems.