Picking Up the
Rachel Wilch ’04, whose been working in the Gulf Coast since Katrina hit, says “There is a sense in New Orleans that what might not be possible in other places is uniquely possible here.” It’s a sentiment echoed by other recent Reed grads who have forged connections with the city since the hurricane.
Wilch had just begun her master’s degree in city planning at MIT when the storm hit. “It was all we talked about,” she says. With the help of one of her professors, she got a job in New Orleans surveying community organizers for the Unitarian Universalist Church’s philanthropic group. She and another student set up meetings with pastors and community leaders in flooded homes, empty restaurants, and abandoned buildings. By the end of the month they had a network of a hundred people and an understanding that they hadn’t even begun to scratch the surface of the city’s need. Wilch stayed for a semester, producing three reports for the church—and revising many of her long-held views about the South. She then decided to take a year’s leave of absence from MIT and is now working for the nonprofit group Neighborhood Housing Services, where she advocates for federal housing dollars for renters.
Everything in New Orleans is wide open. There are jobs to be had
everywhere, no barriers if you’re a self-starter, and a real chance to do things differently.
The city needs an approved recovery plan before it qualifies for any federal recovery money. Andrew Rumbach ’02, a master’s student in Cornell University’s urban planning program, is a field coordinator for the planning team chosen by Mayor Ray Nagin to do that planning in the Lower Ninth Ward and Bywater neighborhoods. The team, a partnership between ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now) and universities, focuses on community-based planning. “We really wanted this to be a resident-driven process,” says Rumbach. That’s quite a challenge, as Ninth Ward residents are currently dispersed across eleven cities in several states.
Earlier, Rumbach, who is simultaneously writing his master’s thesis on evacuation planning for vulnerable populations, organized several volunteer trips to the Ninth Ward. The volunteers, including Jesse Mischel ’02, Keith Malik ’03, and Austin Brown ’05, gutted houses, assessed damage to neighborhoods, and helped displaced residents.
Since then, Mischel has been teaching at the Neighborhood Story Project, where he’s had middle school students writing homecoming stories and, more recently, stories about rebuilding. Mischel hopes to get funding for a two-year writing project with prisoners. “Everything in New Orleans is wide open,” he says. “There are jobs to be had everywhere, no barriers if you’re a self-starter, and a real chance to do things differently.”
Sam Vigersky ’02 was shocked by the “totally inadequate mental health response to the hurricane.” He came to this conclusion after a 24-day stint running a Red Cross financial distribution center in Gulfport, Mississippi, and another “hellish” nine days gutting houses (along with Anthony Vinci ’00) for Habitat for Humanity in St. Bernard Parish. These experiences motivated him to enroll in a master’s in social work program at the University of Michigan. One of his first academic projects will be to return to New Orleans to make a documentary about the mental health consequences of the disaster.
Current Reed students are also lending a hand in the recovery. Twelve Reedies traveled to New Orleans in October as part of a week-long alternative fall break program organized by SEEDS (Students for Education, Empowerment, and Direct Service). Heeding the call of Heidi Reich ’05, the group flew to New Orleans, stayed at a local school, and gutted houses for about six days. Students also had a chance to tour the region, including the infamous levees. Check out stories and photos from the trip at the SEEDS website.