A helping hand, a desire to do more

Princeton University employee returns after 10 days assisting victims of Hurricane Katrina

By: Marjorie Censer
   After 10 days of helping victims of Hurricane Katrina in Biloxi, Miss., Sharon Cohen didn’t feel she had accomplished much.
   She had cleared trash and debris from one neighborhood, filled out work requests for residents with damaged and destroyed homes, and made breakfast for 150 other volunteers — but she hadn’t come close to fixing the problems of a devastated region.
   "There’s a Third World down on the Gulf," said Ms. Cohen, department manager of the molecular biology department at Princeton University and a South Brunswick resident. "I didn’t feel like I made a huge dent in anything."
   What Ms. Cohen saw in Biloxi and surrounding areas frustrated and angered her. Though she praised the volunteer groups in the area — she worked with the nonprofit organization Hands On USA — they are simply not enough.
   "We need a grassroots effort to get this thing moving," Ms. Cohen said. "We’ve got to do things in this country and not assume everything’s fine."
   She used the university’s new Humanitarian Relief Effort Policy to take two weeks of paid leave — enough for her to travel four days and spend 10 days in Biloxi. With 135 to 190 other volunteers at any given time, she stayed at a local church that has been converted into a volunteer center. She spent one night in an upstairs loft before moving outside to one of the roughly 30 to 40 tents set up. Some nights it got as cold as 30 degrees, while other nights it was 50 degrees. She slept only two to three hours at a time usually, Ms. Cohen said.
   "There’s no privacy whatsoever," she added.
   She ate breakfast and dinner at the camp and ate whatever was available for lunch. She tried an MRE — meals ready to eat — but didn’t like it.
   Ms. Cohen said she was shocked by much of what she saw — from houses without roofs to a photo of a 30-foot storm surge taken by a pastor in one neighboring town. She learned that a diagonal line in a box on a house means that it is a structural hazard, while an X in a box means the home is too hazardous to enter. Many houses were marked with a diagram that indicated the date it was inspected, who inspected it, the number of hazards, and the number of dead bodies found. The body count was the number at the bottom.
   "I was glad when I saw zeros at the bottom," Ms. Cohen said.
   Each day, tasks requiring volunteers were listed on a board in the Hands On USA center. They ranged from walking and socializing dogs for the Humane Society to clearing debris and programming computers. Many of the volunteers were college students and members of church groups. Some families and friends had come together, she said.
   Often, tasks were frustrating or seemed unnecessary. Ms. Cohen said she spent one day consolidating such supplies as food and toiletries from four tents into two tents at a refugee camp in Pass Christian, Miss. — even though there were other available tents and the supplies were well-organized. Another day, she had to rewrite work orders to make sure they were on the proper forms. Despite her dismay, Ms. Cohen said it was important to keep working.
   "This was the way it was going to get done," she explained. "They need action. You can’t just say, ‘This is dumb.’"
   And on the days she didn’t sign up for a task, she met and spoke with people. Ms. Cohen said she talked to a retired policeman whose family had lived in St. Bernard Parish, La., since 1790. He was angry and wanted more to be done. Now, Ms. Cohen said, she is committed to getting more volunteers to help out.
   "Since the government isn’t doing it, we need to do something," she said. "Otherwise, if I go back there in 10 years, I’m afraid of what I’m going to find."