Students Aid in Hurricane Relief
Occidental College senior Nina Braynina and 17 other Occidental students headed to the beach for spring break this year – but it was no vacation.
The Oxy contingent traveled to the devastated town of Waveland, Miss., on March 11 to aid with cleanup in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. After witnessing mile after mile of devastation in the Gulf Coast city of 6,700, Braynina redoubled her resolve. “There’s so much work to be done, it’s incredible,” the biology major from Tarzana said. “I personally feel a social responsibility to help out if I can, and there’s such a strong need.”
The students originally hoped to travel to Mississippi this winter with the American Red Cross, but snarled logistics mired that attempt. The Oxy group took it upon themselves to raise money for a spring trip, holding lunchtime bake sales on the quad and securing some funding from the College. Rotoract, a Rotary-sponsored service club for men and women ages 18 to 30, provided additional financial support. The relief effort was coordinated by the nonprofit Community Collaborations International, which also oversaw nearly 600 volunteers from other American colleges and universities during the week of March 11-17.
Braynina, who coordinated Oxy’s trip with junior Yohualli Balderas, said the pair began planning the expedition shortly after Katrina’s 125 mph winds lashed Mississippi and Lousiana on Aug. 29. The hurricane killed at least 1,600 people and was responsible for $75 billion in damage, the costliest storm in U.S. history . The young women extended an invitation to the Occidental student body asking for relief volunteers. “A lot of people were shocked by the disaster and we’d hope they’d respond,” Braynina said. “And they did.” At least eight volunteers couldn’t be accommodated for this month’s trip.
Students lived in Army tents, ate food that was merely tolerable and endured mosquitoes and humidity. Still, they were minor privations compared to the seven-mile stretch of ruined Waveland beachfront that confronts year-round residents. Endless wreckage and empty foundations assaulted the students’senses at every turn. “If you’re there awhile, it almost oppresses you,” Braynina said. “How do the residents handle it? We were only there a week and we were dejected.”
The Oxy group broke into smaller groups that fanned out across Waveland. While some students piled debris by the roadside for pickup by the Army Corps of Engineers, others helped residents retrieve buried photographs or other sentimental items. Braynina helped convert a damaged roller rink into a storage area for construction crews. The elderly couple who owned the rink were killed when they were washed out to sea during the storm. At the end of their seven-hour shifts, the exhausted and grimy students met as a whole to reflect on and process their experiences. “We discussed what we had done and how it affected us – our frustrations with perhaps the government or the situation itself, and we talked about the nature of volunteering,” Braynina said.
“I don’t even know how to put into words what we saw,” said Balderas, a biology major from Harbor City. “I figured by the end of the week it would not have the same effect on me as it did at the beginning. It ended up being the complete opposite – it became more real as we dealt with the families and went to our work sites. Those piles of debris ended up meaning so much more.
“The weekend we got back was weird,” Balderas added. “I was really unable to get back in the groove of things. I sat there really out of it thinking how I would be if my house was gone, and I realized how amazingly lucky I am to have my house standing there and to be sitting in my family room.”
Students are already talking about making a return trip to Waveland next spring break. “It’s been hard to see pictures of destruction six months later look exactly like it did a week after the hurricane. Not nearly enough is being done,” Balderas said. “ I was able to go out there and make a difference. I gave up sleeping in and hanging out with friends and family, but it was worth that and so much more.”