IHCC Instructors Cheryl Redinger and Tom Reis have led nine journeys to disaster areas, including New Orleans and Joplin, Missouri
Nearly 10 years ago on Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina engulfed the Gulf of Mexico and blasted the coastlines of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, bringing sustained winds of 100–140 miles per hour and a storm surge that produced massive destruction from central Florida to Texas. The Category 3 hurricane and subsequent flooding linked to the collapse of defective levee systems killed 1,833 people. Emergency response operations at the federal, state and local levels were consistently viewed as abysmal. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) were often singled out as unprepared for an event that is ranked as the costliest natural disaster in U.S. history—property damage has been estimated at $108 billion.
Several months into Katrina’s aftermath, Cheryl Redinger, a human services instructor at Inver Hills Community College, was serving as a faculty co-advisor for VIBE, or Volunteering Individuals Brings Empowerment, a student club on campus. A number of VIBE students approached Cheryl and requested that she lead a student disaster relief team to New Orleans.
“I told them no,” Cheryl recalled, figuring that such a relief effort was not feasible. “The students kept asking me until I finally said yes after realizing how serious they were.”
Along with Tom Reis, also a human services instructor and VIBE co-advisor, Cheryl did extensive research on disaster relief and the dire situation in New Orleans. Through a collaborative effort between the academic side of the college and Student Life, Cheryl and Tom were able to secure the funds needed to finance the endeavor, which included renting minivans and making a 2,400-mile, round-trip journey to a demolished metropolis that was still largely in chaos.
That first 12-day trip in May 2006 took 20 students and four faculty, Cheryl, Tom, Laurine Ford and Steve Baugh, to the Ninth Ward in New Orleans. Both the Upper Ninth Ward and Lower Ninth Ward endured catastrophic flooding when levees failed along the Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet and Industrial canals. The Inver Hills disaster relief team worked with Common Ground Relief, a grassroots nonprofit headquartered in the Lower Ninth Ward. The team stayed at St. Mary of the Angels, an elementary school in the vicinity.
“We arrived in New Orleans in the dark and saw three houses on fire,” Cheryl recalled. “The Ninth Ward was completely devastated. Even ninth months after Katrina, the area had no running water and no electricity. We had no lights and used an outdoor kitchen and outdoor showers.”
Hurricane Katrina facts
- Deadliest and most destructive Atlantic tropical cyclone of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season
- One of the five deadliest hurricanes in U.S. history
- Nearly 2,000 people perished
- Seventh strongest Atlantic hurricane ever recorded
- $108 billion price tag four times greater than the cost of Hurricane Andrew in 1992
- Reached Category 5 over warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico
- Dropped to Category 3 during landfall
- New Orleans hurricane surge containment breakdown ranks as the worst civil engineering disaster in U.S. history
- 80 percent of New Orleans and neighboring parishes were flooded
- Floodwaters did not recede for weeks
- Worst property damage took place in Mississippi coastal communities
- More than 90 percent of these beachfront towns were flooded
The Inver Hills team members focused their work on deconstructing damaged homes, a gutting process that included ripping out ruined plasterboard and clearing out horrific amounts of post-flood trash and debris. The experience was life-altering and created a mindset in Cheryl and Tom that would launch nine more disaster relief trips, including one coming up in May 2015 that will take 20–30 students and faculty to St. Bernard Parish, a part of the New Orleans-Metairie metro area that lost roughly half its population due to Katrina.
“May 2015 will mark our tenth year of traveling to disaster areas to provide relief,” Tom Reis said. “Our first seven trips took us to the Gulf Coast to help with Hurricane Katrina reconstruction efforts. The first three brought us to New Orleans, where we focused on cleanup efforts in both the Upper Ninth Ward and the Lower Ninth Ward. The fourth year, we went to Plaquemines Parish, which is an extreme southern, rural parish that lost more than eighty percent of its dwellings due to the force of Katrina.”
Tom reported that the Inver Hills disaster relief team then partnered for three years with Habitat for Humanity of the Mississppi Gulf Coast in Biloxi, Mississippi, to assist with Katrina reconstruction efforts. In 2013, the team went to Joplin, Missouri, the site of the May 2011 EF5 multiple-vortex tornado that killed 158 people, injured 1,150 more, and dealt nearly $3 billion in property damage. The idea for the Joplin trip began when the team passed through Missouri during the tornado outbreak on their return drive from the Gulf Coast.
In 2014, the team journeyed to Moore, Oklahoma, the site of the May 2013 EF5 tornado that killed 24 people and injured 377 more with winds that topped 210 mph. The tornado caused more than $2 billion in property damage.
Tom pointed out that Inver Hills Community College has been instrumental in making the disaster relief trips possible. “Ours administrators and faculty have been wonderfully supportive,” he said. “Over the last ten years, Inver Hills faculty members have donated forty-five hundred dollars to fund the trips. More than three hundred students and about a dozen instructors have participated in the relief efforts. Many of the students had never been out of the Midwest and never visited a disaster area. The trips opened their eyes and they accomplished things they never expected to accomplish. The experience is transformative—and the students made friends for life. What other aspect of college offers that?”
by Tom Reis
We were coming in to New Orleans just after 11 p.m. Students that had been sleeping most of the day were now wide awake as we drove towards the Upper Ninth Ward. It had been 10 months since Hurricane Katrina had swept through leaving in its wake a devastated city just now stumbling to its feet. Most of our students had never been out of the Midwest, let alone ever driven in to a disaster zone the size of Katrina.
The city was eerily dark and quiet; as we entered the Upper Ninth Ward, there were no street lights on and most of the houses were dark and abandoned. There was no sign of life, not even a dog barking and there were few cars on the street. (Read more…)
Top image: IHCC Katrina Disaster Relief Trip 2012
After Katrina Reconstruction 2015
Thursday, Feb. 5, 2015
Heritage Hall Room 306
Inver Hills Community College
- Get information on applying for New Orleans disaster relief trip, May 15–25, 2015, to work on Hurricane Katrina reconstruction projects in St. Bernard Parish
- Get information on HSER1125 Action Based Learning Experience (ABLE), a 2-credit course linked to the trip
- All Inver Hills students are welcome to attend meeting and apply
- Trip application deadline: Feb. 20, 2015, by 5 p.m.