Sober spring break in Gulf

April 7, 2006

Students all over the US are taking their annual spring holidays, traditionally a time for alcohol-blurred fun on tropical beaches.

But this year's hot new "spring break" trend is to volunteer to help clean up the devastation left in coastal areas in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, rebuilding homes and helping to restore services.

"Most disasters seem so far away. Even if you want to help, the physical distance and the cultural barriers make it hard," said Adam Pulver, a first-year law student at Columbia University who volunteered in New Orleans and in Atlanta, where many Katrina evacuees are living.

"But when it's just a two-hour flight away, or a couple of days' drive, you have no excuse not to go and help."

The undertaking has been a sobering experience for many. Some students have found the bodies of victims while clearing out abandoned homes, according to Steven Glynn, New Orleans Fire Chief. Mr Glynn said one student had led officials to three bodies.

But most students have had less eventful visits, working during the day with sledgehammers in mouldy homes and partying at night in the city's reopened French Quarter under the omnipresent cameras of MTV, whose presence certifies the volunteer movement as hip and trendy. They sleep on military beds in tents or in public buildings.

Some 7,000 students were mobilised by a group called Campus Crusade for Christ, 1,000 by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Urban League, and 100 by the United Way in a campaign promoted by MTV.

The United Way volunteers, who were given chic "Storm Corps" T-shirts, rebuilt day-care centres and the offices of organisations that help the deaf and people living with HIV/Aids.

Mr Pulver joined the Student Hurricane Network, a group of students from 65 US law schools that sent 700 students to the Gulf of Mexico and other places where Katrina victims are living.

Other law students are doing long-distance legal work and running a voter-protection campaign to help evacuated residents remain registered to vote in the forthcoming New Orleans mayoral election.

"A lot of people have been floored by what they saw," Mr Pulver said. "It's like the water was pumped out and nothing else was done. For 40 miles approaching the airport, you see nothing but destruction."

"Our hope is that this will leave a lasting impression for people to be aware of civil rights issues and poverty and government responsibility and all of these things the hurricane has brought to light."

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