Hurricane Katrina was the costliest -- and one of the deadliest -- natural disasters in the history of the United States. But now, more than eight years after the storm left the Big Easy mostly underwater, killing at least 1,800 people and doing $81 billion in damages, everything is rebuilt and back to normal, right?
Not exactly, as volunteers from Seton Hill University in Greensburg discovered this summer.
"It was pretty shocking to see what a disaster it still is there," said Nicky Pergar, 27, a Seton Hill graduate who traveled to New Orleans in June with other alumni to help Habitat for Humanity rebuild homes there.
"It seemed like there were still quite a few abandoned homes," said Ms. Pergar, of Swissvale, including those that still bore a large letter X -- a code used by search and rescue teams who were looking for survivors in the days after the Aug, 29, 2005, hurricane.
Many members of her group, called Graduates of the Last Decade -- or GOLD -- had gone on missions with Habitat for Humanity during their spring breaks as undergraduates, and they missed the camaraderie and other aspects of volunteering.
"Everyone missed that kind of public service after we graduated, so we decided to go to New Orleans when we heard they still needed help," said Liz Rettger, 25, of Spring Hill, a member of the group.
About two dozen GOLD members traveled to New Orleans in mid-June for a weeklong project to help Habitat rebuild or rehabilitate homes damaged in the hurricane and the ensuing floods.
When they got a glimpse of the infamous Lower 9th Ward of the city, the volunteers could see why help was still urgently needed.
"I wasn't expecting to see how much devastation there still was eight years after the hurricane," said Ms. Rettger, a 2010 graduate with a degree in accounting. "Some things haven't been touched. There were trees growing out of some high-rises and movie theaters. It was very shocking."
New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu acknowledged as much in a recent interview on NBC television, saying that "different parts of the city are back at different levels."
"The Lower 9th will continue to struggle as it did before Katrina," Mr. Landrieu said in response to a resident who told the Associated Press that locals were "still living in a jungle."
Still, the mayor said, the city is coming back, with tourism reaching a record high last year, raking in more than $6 billion. Levees have been rebuilt, he said, along with the city's education and health care system. More than 80 percent of the pre-Katrina population has returned to the city, he said.
"The overall message from the city of New Orleans today is the resilience of the people we are and how far we've come," he said.
The GOLD volunteers also tried to see the upside, Ms. Rettger said, although it was difficult at times.
"It kinda hit your heart because you realize nothing has been done with some buildings even today," she said.
"These poor communities can't afford to fix it themselves," said group member Sean Garrity, 27, of Swissvale. "The outlying communities are the ones that suffered these long-term effects."
The group worked on about four homes with other Habitat volunteers, doing mostly exterior work, such as painting and roofing and rebuilding a second-floor deck that had been under water.
The vibrant colors of the homes -- hues of pinks, purples and yellows -- buoyed the volunteers' spirits.
"People are so attached to their city and proud of the city where they're from," said Mr. Garrity, a 2008 accounting graduate.
Habitat maintains a bunkhouse in New Orleans, providing shelter and some meals to volunteers.
"They make it very appealing for volunteers to go down," Ms. Rettger said.
And, the group has the full support of Seton Hill.
"This is the first trip that our GOLD alumni have done here at Seton Hill," said Emily Heinicka, associate director of development for the university. "We hope they will continue to live out their missions as they did when they were students."
GOLD members said they plan to arrange another trip but haven't decided where their help is most needed.
Janice Crompton: jcrompton@post-gazette or 412-851-1867.