Hot Spring Break Destination? New Orleans, Say Students Eager to Lend Hand

The spring break snapshots coming out of the Big Easy aren't of tabletop dancing and beer-drinking contests. No, the photos making it onto student blogs and personal Web pages this spring show hard hats and hammers.

Hundreds of students from across the nation are streaming into New Orleans this spring break to lend their time and an air of hope to a city where years of repair work remain.

One after another, students said they've come because they haven't forgotten about New Orleans and how 80 percent of the city was flooded when the levees broke during Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

"The 20-somethings — we're a lot more aware politically, socially, culturally," said Melissa Licastro, a New Jersey architecture student helping out Friday in the funky but flood-wrecked Lower 9th Ward neighborhood of Holy Cross. Clad in a T-shirt and blue work trousers, she pulled crooked and blackened nails from old cypress planks, just a few blocks from Fats Domino's house.

She paused, hammer in hand. "I don't think the older generation gives us enough credit."

Licastro, who attends the New Jersey Institute of Technology, joined ranks with about 500 other students from Ivy League colleges and big state campuses on an all-out "spring greening" campaign to make the hard-hit Lower 9th more energy efficient and green, or, as activists want, "the nation's first zero carbon community."

Over the past week, students painted houses in bright pastels with nontoxic paint, salvaged historic homes undergoing deconstruction, painted fences and cleaned up a bayou.

Although the Lower 9th largely remains a landscape of despair and neglect, many streets, especially in the Holy Cross neighborhood, are bouncing back: There are porches lined with plants, a few churches have reopened, people stroll the streets — and there's now a restaurant.

For the students, coming to New Orleans is no easy street. They have to pay their own airfare, sleep in dormitories and get little time for Bourbon Street fun.

And once here, they're immediately put to work by charities and community groups that have spent months preparing for the influx of free labor.

Avi Edelman, a film student at Columbia University in New York, shrugged off the cost. "People pay that much to go to Miami for their spring break."

Kaley Hanenkrat, also from Columbia and studying Russian and political science, chipped in with the obvious sequitur: "It's better to spend your time helping someone than getting drunk somewhere."

Edelman and Hanenkrat helped restore a rambling wooden playground next to the Mississippi River threatened with rot because it was so badly flooded.

The wave of students brought a bounce in mood to this struggling corner of the city, and, inescapably, a bit of spring break frivolity, with the occasional water fight breaking out.

They got a hero's welcome from residents.

"It's a godsend," said Deloris Wells, a 67-year-old retiree whose home on Dauphine Street was badly flooded — Katrina's water left "the love seat on the coffee table."

"A nice bunch of kids," she said, so grateful for the gang of T-shirt-and-sneaker clad students on ladders lending her shotgun home a new lease on life with a pale yellow coat of paint.

In many ways, volunteers — students, church groups, senior citizens, old house enthusiasts, community activists — have become the backbone of New Orleans' recovery.

Said Darryl Malek-Wiley of the New Orleans chapter of the Sierra Club: "If it weren't for volunteers, we would still be back in 2005."