Volunteers Throw Thousands in Storm Damage Evidence to the Curb

March 22, 2006

Volunteers clearing debris from a flooded New Orleans’ Ninth Ward grammar school had state officials in a frenzy as thousands of dollars in storm damage was being tossed to the curb before insurance adjusters or federal officials had documented it.

Police officers halted volunteers clearing Martin Luther King Elementary of flood-ruined cafeteria ovens, tables, chairs, books and even a piano that insurance adjusters and the Federal Emergency Management Agency had not yet seen.

“The money we get to rebuild depends largely on contents and varies widely,” said Meg Casper, spokesperson for the state Department of Education. “They’re trying to do good. They’re trying to help, but the work started happening before all the avenues had cleared.”

Casper said Monday the state has since been in touch with the volunteer group Common Ground, which organized the Friday, March 17 cleanup effort at the school, and state officials will visit the site this week, along with a FEMA representative, to look at the volunteers’ records.

Michelle Shin, a spokesperson for Common Ground, said volunteers photographed and documented items removed from the school and even cataloged serial numbers on appliances.

“We’ve been inventorying anything that can be identified, even the square feet of mud and muck removed,” Shin said, adding that the piles of wall insulation and other debris are still on the side the road near the school.

Common Ground has been helping with the Gulf Coast recovery effort by organizing volunteers to do demolition work, provide health care and day care services and after-school tutoring. Shin said the group had asked for permission to clear the Ninth Ward school, but was denied.

Shin said she was further discouraged by news that state officials did not plan to reopen the school until 2008.

“That’s years from now,” she said. “They just want to let it sit here and rot until then?”

Casper said because the school was heavily damaged and in an area that wasn’t repopulating quickly, it wasn’t listed among the more than 30 schools the state expected to reopen this school year.

“We’re reopening schools as we need them based on enrollment,” Casper said. “You can’t just go and open 100 schools and hope that people show up. We have to do it based on need and buildings we have available that can be repaired.”

Education officials said volunteers are welcome to help, but they have to understand the rebuilding process. Removing debris and other evidence of storm damage could hinder the school system, or homeowners, from getting insurance and federal money later, Casper said.

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