NEW ORLEANS – Trista Wright was spending her spring break cleaning out hurricane-damaged homes when she discovered some unusual papers among the moldy plaster board and debris.
"I started raking it out of the air conditioner vent. I thought it was garbage and I was going to shovel it up, but I bent down to pick it up, and it was a stack of $100 bills, and then more and more kept coming," the 19-year-old said Tuesday in a television interview.
By an unofficial count, it was more than $30,000.
Wright and fellow students notified the organizers of their church mission, who told the St. Bernard Parish Sheriff's Office.
The woman who owned the house, who has asked that she not be identified, was as shocked as Wright.
Deputy Gary Adams verified the identity of the woman who owned the home.
Adams said it's not uncommon to find weapons or medications behind the walls of homes, but this was the biggest sum of hidden money he had heard of. "It's good to see someone find something like that and turn it over to proper authorities and the rightful owner," he said.
The homeowner said she suspects the money belonged to her father, who was wary of banks. The home had been in the family for generations, she said.
"I had my suspicions about the money at first, but once I met the family and talked to the woman, I have no doubt she's telling the truth," said Aaron Arledge, one of the organizers of the mission. "She said her father grew up during the Depression and must not have told anyone in the family about it before he died."
The one-story house was flooded to the eaves by Katrina and, aside from the hidden money, none of its contents could be saved, church officials said.
"To see that woman's face when we told her about the money, that's the kind of positive story that makes all the hard work worthwhile," said the Rev. Warren Jones Jr. of New Salem Baptist Church in the Ninth Ward, which has served as a base for church missions. "She said it was a miracle. And when you think about it, it was."
Haley Barton, a fellow student who was in the house with Wright, said there was never a question of keeping the money.
"I think that it's expected of us as young people, or people of any age this day, to go in and take it and not be faithful or trustworthy in turning it in, but that wasn't even an option for us," she said.