Mission of Muck

Denise Watt

Denise Watt

This spring break, I received an assignment.

I asked for it, and it was one I was happy to receive. I couldn’t be more honored.

Last week, I traveled to New Orleans for a mission trip along with a group of more than 50 people from SDSU, Northern State University, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and the University of South Dakota. We went to work for Lutheran Disaster Relief, an organization of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.

After more than 20 hours on a bus, we arrived in New Orleans last Sunday. We prepared for four hard days of work in which we would “muck out” houses damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Although far from “mucking” experts, we eagerly donned white, protective suits, goggles, gloves and boots before entering the homes we cleaned-homes filled with mold and stale, humid air and traces of people’s lives.

We began by removing all personal belongings from the house. Then we stripped cabinets and removed appliances. We tore Sheetrock off the walls, all the way down the studs, and removed the ceiling and any damaged flooring.

The work proved physically difficult. But even more difficult, and perhaps rewarding, was meeting the homeowners we helped.

We carried people’s possessions to the curb in wheelbarrows. But once in a while, we would find something that had been preserved, something that could be salvaged, something that escaped the tide of toxic flood water.

When we left camp, we were told to share what we saw with others. As a journalist, I am trained to observe. But what I observed seemed to go beyond my understanding, beyond my comprehension.

As we worked and traveled in New Orleans, we witnessed the devastation still present more than six months after the storm. Entire neighborhoods empty, like ghost towns. Waterlines, still visible, nearly reached the roofs of many buildings. Convenience stores closed, and cars washed up in trees.

But, like the vibrant azaleas that greeted us, hope bloomed in New Orleans. Hopes to rebuild, hopes to repair.

Amid the destruction, I witnessed people caring for other people, selflessly giving of themselves so others could have the chance of a new beginning.

Our group managed to work on five houses in our four days of work in New Orleans. At camp, we were told an area the size of Kansas had been affected by Hurricane Katrina. Five houses did not seem like much, but to a few homeowners, we made a difference.

Let’s remember New Orleans and her people, still in need. More than 1,000 miles away in South Dakota, we can forget about the disaster. The media has, for the most part. Until last week, I had. But we simply cannot.

I know I left a piece of my heart in New Orleans. Bruised and tired, I have never felt more fulfilled.

I couldn’t have asked for a better assignment.