NEW ORLEANS — The first night Philip Jones and his compadres endured a backyard "hippie camp" with compost toilets and solar showers. In other words, a bucket and a bucket with a PVC pipe attached.
The next night at Light City, off St. Claude here in New Orleans, the group from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, ate a chicken nugget (yes, singular) and, as Jones says, instant mashed potatoes that they poured straight out of the box. And nighttime? "I'm sleeping with 3,000 of my closest friends who I've never met before."
Brushing aside daydreams of ski slopes and beach parties, the battered Big Easy, for some college students, is the new Daytona Beach, Fla. And it's turning into a spring break like no other.
"This is the weirdest but most rewarding trip I've ever taken," says Mr. Jones, a senior. "At first, I said there was no way I was going to give up my last spring break to come here. Now I'm not regretting it a bit."
The perhaps 10,000 college students here this month are part of a persistent wave of able-bodied volunteers who are as determined as New Orleansians to raise the city from the lingering muck and malaise of hurricane Katrina. They come to fulfill Christian duty, to understand the devastation firsthand, and to give what they can, which for many is time more than money.
"This storm involved the largest relocation of people since the Civil War, it's of historic proportions, so people want to do something about it," says Daniel Borochoff, director of the American Institute of Philanthropy in Chicago. "Americans do feel very connected to a wide scale disaster like this and they're inspired to do something."
From volunteer rescue workers who brought their duckboats and chainsaws during the flood to the college students now doing the gutting of salvageable homes, some 250,000 volunteers have come in past six and a half months since the storm struck, according to Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) estimates, though rural parishes and distant counties have seen fewer helping hands.
The eager volunteers stand in stark contrast to the continuing battles New Orleans residents are having with federal authorities about money and employment. On Wednesday, government bulldozers began tearing down the worst-damaged homes.
The spring break crowd alone has contributed a few million dollars in labor based on wages of $20 per hour. Though in raw dollar figures it is a mere pittance when compared with the billions being spent here by FEMA, volunteers give an invaluable morale boost to residents in the ravaged communities.
"Everybody talks about all these billions coming down, but on a one-to-one basis they're not seeing anything," says New Orleans City Councilor Cynthia Morrell. "It's an opportunity to go into a depression, and all of a sudden here come these kids, and even adults that come to help, and it's almost as if someone's reaching out a hand and saying, 'It's OK, we'll help you get on your feet.' "
Volunteers range from the castoffs of Cindy Sheehan's antiwar rallies, to those who come with religious purpose or social fervor, working to protect the rights of the city's battered poor. Now college students have a similar mission: get their hands dirty. In the evenings, they tour a city that still can provide a good time.
Anna Davis, a junior from Georgia Southern University says she is here "to do my part." And Regenia Moody, another student, passed up a chance to go to Cocoa Beach to come here instead. Volunteer Duane Clayton is an Army officer who recently returned from Iraq and also brought his son hereto pitch in.
"This [relief effort] is what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they built the country on Christian principles," says Mr. Clayton.
Working on a Ms. Josephine's house in the Ninth Ward, students from Georgia Southern University cleared muck out of the house and removed the sheetrock to prepare it for a restoration team. Ellie Overton, a junior and one of the leaders, says she finally realized the magnitude of the storm as the team stepped into the house on Monday.
"The newspaper from the day before was on the kitchen table and the calendars were all on August," she says. "And then I saw her collection of Sunday hats in the bedroom, left just as they had been. That's when it really hit me."
That need for emotional connection to a catastrophic event is one reason why so many have come - not to gawk but to understand, says Mr. Borochoff. "A disaster like this seems very abstract unless you're witnessing it in person," he says.
At Pat Davidson's house, a group of students from the University of North Carolina hum hymns as they pull nails.
Later, Ms. Davidson, a merchant marine cook and lifelong New Orleans resident, arrives and greets the students. She cries a little, then laughs. She tells the group that she wants to adopt them all, and promises them a full New Orleans supper. "This really gives us hope that our city is not gone," she says.