January 31, 2007

Students help with Louisiana rebuilding effort

by K.C. Jaehnig

LA trip

Caption follows story

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Fifteen months after Hurricane Rita tore through Louisiana, the skeletons of horses still lie in the fields.

"I have horses at home, and that really got to me," said Southern Illinois University Carbondale senior Fahran K.J. Robb, who spent the week before Christmas helping a farm family hard hit by the wind and the water.

"I will always remember seeing the destruction that was still there — slab after slab of concrete where houses used to be, debris in the trees, experiencing it first hand. The media is one thing, but going down there — it's a whole other thing."

Robb, a Pinckneyville native, along with SIUC junior Christa L. Mahnken from Steelville and Curtis J. Fry, a senior from Rinard who graduated in December, went to Louisiana representing Alpha Zeta, a national college honor society for agriculture and natural resources majors. Thirty college students from eight states took part in the volunteer project, which ran from Dec. 17-22. Work centered on aiding farmers and ranchers in southwestern Louisiana's Vermilion Parish, one of two rural parishes that took the brunt of the storm.

"We built a lot of fences…" said Robb;

"…cleared a lot of brush and debris…" Mahnken chimed in;

"I found my calling driving fence poles in," Robb said with a laugh.

Beef cattle and rice have for years served as economic drivers for Vermilion Parish. Hurricane Rita put a serious dent in both.

"They went from producing 80,000 tons of rice a year to 20,000 tons," Robb said.

"There's still so much salt in the ground they don't know if they'll be able to plant this year. If it doesn't rain (and wash the salt away), they could miss three growing seasons."

The Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation organized the trip and paid some of the costs, with the Alpha Zeta Foundation picking up the rest.

"The Louisiana Farm Bureau pretty much greeted us with open arms from the moment we arrived," Robb said.

"The amount of work still left to be done really surprised me. It's going to take awhile for everyone to recover."

The SIUC contingent, along with eight other students, worked in the Abbeville area, which lies some five miles from the Gulf of Mexico and only 16 feet above sea level. Best known as the film location for the 1988 movie remake of the 1958 horror classic "The Blob," Abbeville itself is a Cajun town of about 11,000 people, with at least 600 of them named Broussard.

The students' Broussards — father, mother, two kids and the grandparents — run a beef and rice operation. The student group spent its five days in the cold and the rain, pulling out twisted, rusty fences, clearing brush and briar, and putting in new fences — punishing hand labor that both women described as "worth it."

"These people were so determined to get back on their feet," Mahnken said.

"There was no, 'I am a victim; I'm going to wait for help.'"

"They didn't even go to FEMA," Robb said.

"And they were so thankful," Mahnken noted.

The project wasn't all work. Robb said she ate her first raw oysters in Abbeville, and the Broussards, who gave the crew its midday meal, served up some regional specialties, including the Cajun dish called "debrie."

"It was basically the insides of the cow," explained Mahnken.

"It was a good experience to have, but I'm not going to eat it again."

Looking back, both women said they got as much from the experience as they gave.

"I appreciate everything a lot more — my parents, my background and the fact that I still have everything," Mahnken said.

"I haven't lost anything."

(Caption: Three for free — Taking a well-deserved break from building fences on farms ravaged by Hurricane Rita, Southern Illinois University Carbondale students (from left) Christa L. Mahnken, Curtis J. Fry and Fahran K.J. Robb say “Cheese!” The SIUC trio was among 30 students from university Alpha Zeta chapters around the country spending five days of winter break helping farmers and ranchers in Louisiana’s Vermilion Parish.)