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"NOLA Four" Are New Orleans Bound

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December 30, 2008

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Five SPH volunteers cleaned up damage inside a house on a previous trip.

School of Public Health volunteers from a previous community service trip to New Orleans.      

Fourteen School of Public Health graduate students and four University at Albany faculty members – the "NOLA 4" volunteers – have left for a trip to the Big Easy, seeking new ways to help out in New Orleans three years after Hurricane Katrina's devastating impact.

Theresa Creten, 24, the second-year MPH student from Hadley, N.Y., who is leading this year's trip, said the group has contacted homeless shelters and food pantries, as well as Habitat for Humanity and other rebuilding organizations, as the focus of the work changes.

"Last year it was so striking. In most parts of the city probably half the buildings hadn't been touched. There were still lots of houses with an X spray painted on them," said Creten. This signified the house had been searched by a search and rescue crew. Next to the X were the details, including whether anyone had been found dead in that house, and the date of the search. 

Since the citywide deadline for bulldozing these houses has passed, Creten said she doesn't know whether there are any left to work on. Houses that are still untouched are most likely rotted, she said, adding that last year she saw one home that had only a front wall and porch remaining.

"There are plenty of houses that need to be built, and a variety of other ways in which volunteers can help, which is why we've decided to go down again this year," said Creten.

"Every year we find that our Public Health students are interested in performing community service," said Carol Whittaker, a clinical associate professor in the dean's office and director of the University's Center for Global Health. "This experience (rebuilding in New Orleans) resonates with them. They come back more committed than ever to becoming public health professionals who can help others." Whittaker has helped organized a volunteer trip every year since Katrina hit in 2005.

House damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Last year, more than half the houses in the city, like the one shown above, had not been repaired.

This year's group left on Dec. 29, driving down in rented vans, and is staying in housing provided by Tulane University.

Whittaker said the students and faculty hope to look up a Katrina survivor whom they met on a prior trip. He was among those evacuated to an interstate overpass, where he had to stay for days without either heart or diabetes medication. With other survivors, he stayed at the overpass until being transported to Baton Rouge.

"In his case, his son had no way of knowing whether he was alive or dead because of his condition and the fact that he had to leave without anything, including his medication. Thankfully, they were later reunited," said Whittaker. 

Joining Whittaker and the students are Louise-Anne McNutt, another trip veteran, Barry Sherman, and Dilip Nag. Several students from other universities will also join the UAlbany group.

Whittaker and UAlbany's SPH students have been "incredibly helpful in organizing this trip, and it wouldn't have happened if not for them…especially Carol," Creten said.   

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