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Ada Scholar Dismantles Homes in Relief Effort

Ada Comstock Scholar Meaghan Murphy recently traveled to Louisiana for a week to join Hilltop Rescue and Relief, a nonprofit group that helps victims of natural disasters. With some 50 volunteers, the group is concentrating on emptying and stripping houses flooded during Hurricane Katrina down to their frames in preparation for rebuilding. Murphy, who plans to return for another stint with Hilltop Rescue during Spring Break, urges others in the Smith community to join the effort. She recently wrote this account of her experience.

Meaghan Murphy AC at work in Louisiana

After eight days working in coastal Louisiana, I concur with the words of Chris Rose, a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, who recently said about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina: “You have to come down here and see it to believe it.”

It’s true, and I think everyone should go there.

My sister was supposed to start her senior year at Loyola University in New Orleans when Katrina hit. She evacuated, but returned when it was safe to retrieve some of her belongings. My father flew down from Boston to help her. They told me about the devastation, and they sent me pictures. But until I went to the city myself, I couldn't truly understand how bad it was.

I signed up with Hilltop Rescue for an eight-day trip of “mucking houses.” This process entails removing all furniture, clothes, appliances, carpeting, and light fixtures; stripping door frames and paneling; taking out toilets, bathtubs, and sinks; tearing down sheetrock or plaster from walls and ceilings; and scraping tiles and linoleum from the floor. Depending on how much “stuff” was in a house, a team of about 17 could finish one house a day. It was strenuous work, and on the fourth day my muscles ached and I limped along in my work. But seeing the members of my team enthusiastically push on despite their tired bones inspired me to suck it up and work harder.

My first job was in Chalmette, Louisiana, where some houses had been under water for three weeks. Clothes saturated with slime, kitchen utensils lying in the bedroom, maggots in the kitchen sink -- this is what I found. The smells, the texture of the garments, the seemingly impossible maneuver of large household appliances -- all of this will stay with me.

Murphy chats with a fellow volunteer

I could not possibly comprehend the destruction by looking at pictures or watching the news. When you walk into your first house nothing can prepare you for what you will see. When you enter a child’s bedroom and begin picking up wet stuffed animals, moldy sneakers, and rusty trophies and then cart them away in a wheelbarrow to be dumped in the growing heap of “trash” on the sidewalk, you understand. When you are cleaning out a closet and need to literally tear the clothes off the floor because they stick to the carpet, you understand. And when at the end of a long day of hard work you walk out of the finished house and see that there are 25 other houses on the street that need to be gutted, you understand.

But what resonates most deeply inside me is the look on the homeowners’ faces when they saw their houses after our team was done with them: gutted and ready for the rebuilding process. And when one homeowner asked as we were finishing up, “Do I pay ya’ll now?” and started to cry when we told her our services were free, I felt emotions that I never knew I had.

And because of that, I am going back.

No one can possibly understand the enormity of the problem until he or she goes to Louisiana to see it firsthand. More help is desperately needed and I urge people at Smith to get involved in this relief effort. A Smithie who volunteers only one week of her time could help seven families regain hope and see that there is an end in sight.

This has undoubtedly been the most rewarding experience of my entire life, and I know it has been for many others.

For information on how to get involved, contact Murphy at, or go to

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