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Students use Break to help out in the Big Easy

VIOLET, La. - Darlene Fuqua's trailer has seen better days.

The white metal frame is rusting, the kitchen sink is broken and there is a bucket of murky water in the bathroom in case the tub stops draining again.

But she hasn't complained.

"I don't want to say anything because I'm afraid they'll tell me I have to get out and then I'll have nowhere to go," she said.

Fuqua has lived in this trailer-provided to her by the Federal Emergency Management Agency-for the better part of three years, ever since Hurricane Katrina flooded her house in August 2005.

But that is about to change. In June, a local nonprofit organization called the St. Bernard Project decided to reconstruct the house. And since then, Fuqua has watched a steady stream of volunteers flock to the property, slowly transforming the crumbling structure back to its pre-Katrina form.

This weekend, while many of their classmates traveled home or settled deeper into their dorm rooms for Fall Break, a group of Duke undergraduates became a part of that effort when they traveled to New Orleans to volunteer their time reconstructing houses in the region, including Fuqua's.

"It's messy and it's hard," said Donna Lisker, associate dean of undergraduate education. "The thing that struck me is how long it takes to restore even one house, and then you multiply that by hundreds and thousands. The amount of work left to do is staggering."

It was that very demand for work that led Lisker to organize the trip to begin with. She said the idea came to her after hearing about the St. Bernard Project's volunteer reconstruction work in a segment on National Public Radio. And when she discovered the organization was running a program called Women's Rebuild Week during Duke's Fall Break, she immediately began to secure funding for 20 female students to participate in a trip led by staff of the Women's Center and the Baldwin Scholars program . And there was no shortage of interest.

"Instead of sending money or gifts I wanted to be a part of the rebuilding itself," said Iyanna Atwell, a junior who went on the trip. "I can't see what my money does from Durham but if I'm here I can see exactly what my work is doing."

And in St. Bernard, the parish just outside New Orleans where the city of Violet is located, there is much work to be done.

When Katrina struck three years ago, it completely submerged the area, which sits precariously below sea level just off the Mississippi River. All 27,000 homes in the parish were damaged or destroyed.

Then came the slow process of returning and rebuilding. Fuqua and her roommate Ronald Ragan spent five months living in a casino in northern Louisiana while they waited for FEMA to send them home. Eventually, they received word that they would be moved into trailers on their property in Violet. But their house was uninsured and they were not given money to rebuild.

So they waited. Meanwhile, volunteers and relief organizations poured into St. Bernard, distributing everything from food to free medical attention to residents. The house, however, sat unattended as water damage continued to rot the structure from the inside out.

"The whole nation did better for me than FEMA," Fuqua said, "at least that's how I felt."

Without any prospect of federal assistance, Fuqua said she and Ragan began to clear the house themselves. But progress was slow, so they turned to the St. Bernard Project.

When the organization agreed to reconstruct the house, footing the bill of $12,000 for building materials and providing free volunteer labor to do the job, Fuqua said she was in shock.

For Duke students seeing St. Bernard and Fuqua's house for the first time, the feeling was mutual.

"I thought it couldn't be nearly as bad as it is," sophomore Yasmina Chergui said.

The participants' route to their construction sites each morning took them through many of the most devastated areas of New Orleans, past boarded-up houses and empty strip malls. On some streets, nearly every house was still marked with the red-and-yellow "X" used by FEMA to designate damaged property after the storm. And at the construction sites, students said they saw the storm on a personal level as they talked to local residents about what had happened to them.

"We go to Duke and the majority of us are from really privileged families and there's a lot of people in this city who lost everything," sophomore Sarah Lumsden said. "It really just puts your life in perspective."

As for Fuqua, her house is expected to be completed by December, but there is still a great deal of work to be done, both for her and for the region, she said.

"Shoot, it's all still a mess here," Fuqua said, watching from her doorway as the students painted streaks of white mold-retardant onto her walls Monday afternoon.

But she couldn't keep her eyes off the sky, where a haze of gray clouds was gathering in the distance. When the first drops spattered against the metal shell of the trailer, she stepped back inside.

"Rain still gets to me sometimes," she said.

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