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Hurricane Katrina volunteers tell their story

By Erin O'Connor

Staff Writer

AGAWAM A forum was presented on recent rebuilding efforts in New Orleans at the library on Oct. 2 involving three volunteers and members of the public. The volunteers, from the Pioneer Valley Church of Christ (PVCC), had recently returned from New Orleans.

Maria Feuerstein of Agawam; Lisa Kowal and Fernando Alejandro of Amherst spoke of working in New Orleans in July for five days and participating in efforts aimed at rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

The volunteers stayed at Camp Hope with other volunteers from around the country. The camp is operated by Hope Worldwide and funded by Habitat for Humanity. Both are nonprofit organizations.

"I gutted homes, ripped down walls and sheet rock, ripped up carpets, tried to sort piles of trash for pick-up and sorted through belongings that could be kept and belongings that could not," Feuerstein said to Reminder Publications.

"There is a lot of work. You can't imagine it until you experience it. There is an overwhelming feeling that there is so much work to be done," she said.

"We need volunteers for the next two years," Antonio Boyd, the national director of programs for Hope World Wide, said. Boyd added that individuals across the country are invited to volunteer in the rebuilding process.

"If you can get down here we will give you a place to stay and food," Boyd said.

"I thought everything down there [in New Orleans] was okay and was getting taken care of because it was not on the media anymore," Alejandro said. "But really they just started getting things done."

"I can say a lot of them [locals] were very open and willing to talk about their experiences surviving the storm. There was bitterness about how government responded and FEMA. They were very happy to see volunteers and the most unique aspect was seeing what they had to go through," Alejandro said.

He said that residents are complaining about trouble with insurance companies that are not paying claims.

"People were very grateful," Feuerstein said. "Overall they are exhausted, down trodden, and suffering hard times."

Feuerstein told a story of a man who came into the food distribution center, "The Mustard Seed," at Camp Hope.

"He was a man that was working to get rid of the oil. It was the nation's largest oil spill. An oil tank had literally lifted up and moved during the flood and collapsed crude oil all over the parish," Feuerstein said in speaking of the damage that was done to the St. Bernard Church, where Camp Hope is located.

"Most families had left [New Orleans] but the people in St. Bernard Parish were devoted to staying," she said. "The people of St. Bernard parish were composed of an elderly population."

Boyd said if residents don't return then business will not return.

"The way that it is run down there the money that they get from FEMA is money that they have to pay back," Boyd said. "Every volunteer is money that they don't have to pay back it is helping on so many levels. You start to see that non-governmental organs are really at the grassroots level of helping to drive."

"Since we started the project we have gutted out 1,700 homes and built 30 homes. Volunteers have served 6,000 hours and 600 volunteers have come from all over the country," he said.

Boyd said that a "Musicians Village" funded by Harry Connick Jr. and Branford Marcellus through the Habitat for Humanity was a recently completed project in New Orleans.

"It includes 30 homes so that musicians can restore their economic engines on Bourbon Street," Boyd said.

As for the future of New Orleans Boyd said, "People have been devastated. I really think it depends on where they go with it to determine if it will be brought to an entertainment and tourist city."

Pictures of the camp can be seen at

The trip was coordinated through the PVCC by Dave Sweeney. Sweeney took up a collection from members of the church to pay for the three volunteers' airfare.

More information can be obtained by contacting Sweeney of Pioneer Valley Church at 244-8395 or his e-mail Individuals interested in volunteering can also contact Frank Dowd, the director of community volunteer department for Hope Worldwide at (225)-288-6662 or at

Sweeney will be leaving on a volunteer trip to Camp Hope at the end of October. Sweeney is hoping to possibly work with individuals at Camp Hope in organizing a trip with the church for every summer.

"Ninety-five percent of the work that gets done is through volunteer work,"Boyd said. "The former mayor of New Orleans was re-elected recently and can now go through the process of obtaining federal funds."