It was 105°; nails kept dropping. It was like ‘The Simple Life.’

Chronicle Staff

The plane landed on the sticky ground. I could see the summer heat rising from the black-tarred runway. Even though I was comfortably seated in the air-conditioned plane, I could feel the heat cover my body like a blanket of humidity smothering my skin. I lifted the shade from the airplane window and peered out to see the airport of a city that had fallen prey to the merciless fury of Mother Nature, and the city I was eager to help. I had landed in New Orleans.

Stepping outside, my suitcase in tow, I was unaware that the week ahead of me was about to change my life. It was unbelievable that after months of research, I was finally here. My mom and I decided to go with two family friends, Olivia Kestin ’09 and her mom Patty Kestin, for one week during summer to work for Habitat for Humanity Musicians’ Village, an organization that is trying to build 81 new houses for New Orleans’ musicians that were displaced during the hurricane. They are focusing on bringing the musical flavor and jazz back to its birthplace. 

A violent summer rainstorm left the clouds dark and thick, like a tent covering the city. Driving to the Habitat site, where I was about to spend the most important days of my life, my heavy eyes opened to the severity of the devastation even a year later.

Street after street, house after house, it was evident that Katrina had mercilessly rushed through the once thriving city and transformed it into a broken, empty place that resembled a war zone. The scars of the flooding were still clear. Instead of sweat-drenched people sitting on their shady porches attempting to escape the blistering heat, the remains of those porches had empty, eerie chairs.

Once streets overflowed with music, lights, people and culture, but I could only think of how it once overflowed with the raging water. Now the city stands as the boards fall, the grass passively grows and the trash piles up. 

The Ninth Ward surrounding the Habitat site resembled a ghost town rather than a neighborhood. To think that I could have grown up on the very street that was now overwhelmed with potholes and accumulated trash rattled me. That street could have been the same place where I learned to ride my first bicycle with pink trim, a flowered basket and the bell.

Arriving at the site, I met more than 250 eager volunteers from various church groups in the south. Many were from Texas making the drive in scalding hot cars to help rebuild the community.

The project is sponsored by Baptist church groups throughout the country, so at first the crosses and prayers were intimidating for me, since I hadn’t been exposed to that aspect of religion.

It was amazing to see people from all walks of life showing their support. Students of all ages, fit, as well as out of shape women, experienced, as well as inexperianced men all joined together despite financial, racial and religious differences to help restore the soul to a disintegrating community. 

I tightly grasped the cold metal hammer in my hand as I attempted to use it for the first time. My raggedly old tool belt sunk to my hips. Each pocket contained rusted nails that would be driven deep into the wooden structure.

I assumed it would be easy, put the nail up to the wood, use whatever strength I could to thrust the hammer into the nail, forcefully securing it in the wood.

I was greatly mistaken. The hammer hit the nail and it subsequently fell to the dirty, dusty ground.

Nail after nail fell to the ground with a clank, displaying my failure on the rusted ladder beneath me.

I was inexperienced, unprepared and, most of all, disappointed. I was stuck inside an episode of “The Simple Life,” making a complete fool out of myself.

The lunch bell rang and the thermometer in the rental read 105 degrees.

My heart sank and frustration swept over my burning body. Then, one moment changed everything.

Turning my neck, I locked eyes with little girl with braided hair accented with small pink bows and deep beaming eyes. She was carelessly riding her bright blue bike equipped with colorful streamers and white lined tires.

The bike sped faster and faster in the deserted streets, swerving and swiftly dodging pot holes and gaps in the broken sidewalk. Her crooked white smile opened my eyes.

I looked at the devastating scenery around her tiny figure and then her face. I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing at her quick movements. Here, a 9-year-old girl, in the flash of her smile, taught me that no matter the condition of one’s surrounding and how dismal and hopeless one may feel, life continues, people can overcome anything, and there really is hope.

I returned that day after lunch with a completely new frame of mind, seeing the beauty that Habitat was attempting to restore and how far they had come.

From that moment on, I worked tirelessly on the house I was determined to build for people like that little girl who truly deserved it.

Everyone has seen the pictures of landscapes and people demolished by the wrath of Katrina, and I went in thinking only of that. I left with my own set of pictures which told a similar story but with a new and more important outlook in mind.