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EILEEN HERDEN/Herald Photo

NEW ORLEANS — More than six months after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the city is still in tatters. Entire neighborhoods of flood-damaged homes remain deserted with debris strewn through the streets.

This was the scene encountered by a group of 23 University of Wisconsin students who traveled to New Orleans to work on disaster relief during spring break.

"The devastation is mind blowing, it's just unbelievable," freshman Eileen Herden said. "It's very overwhelming all the work that has to be done because of the destruction of Hurricane Katrina."

Herden helped plan the trip, which was sponsored by UW Housing, as part of her role as the Bradley Learning Community involvement coordinator.

The students cleared and gutted damaged homes with Hands on Network — a volunteer organization that is involved in disaster relief throughout the Gulf Coast.

Before a flood-damaged home can be repaired, the interior must be stripped and treated for mold, Herden said. Everything inside the flooded house that is not part of the structure needs to be removed, including drywall, ceilings and insulation.

Some homes haven't been touched since their owners left when the hurricane struck, and still contain the belongings of the families that once occupied them.

"When we remove their possessions it's like throwing their lives out," Herden said. "Everything has been taken from these families."

The destruction from the hurricane is most obvious in the 9th Ward of the city where the homes were totally destroyed by the surging floodwaters. Houses were completely flattened and shifted off their foundations and onto the streets. For some homeowners, they have nothing to even sift through.

"I don't think anybody could understand the situation unless they have actually seen the devastation," New Orleans resident Carol Armour said. "It's hard to imagine blocks and blocks of homes destroyed like that. Parts of the city are now just dead."

There has been little progress in recovery despite the message most people outside of New Orleans are receiving.

"People elsewhere think we should be over it by now, including myself," Armour said. "When I came back in November I thought it was all repaired from what I had seen in the news."

The size of New Orleans and the lack of coordination in relief efforts have resulted in a slower recovery for the city, Hands on New Orleans project manager Toshiro Kida said.

"There is indecisiveness in what to do," Kida said. "It's just so big here, that nobody is sure what to do because there are so many interests involved."

The slow pace and confusion over what should be done to rebuild New Orleans makes volunteers crucial to the city's recovery, he said.

"The majority of the recovery process is being driven by volunteers. They are the ones doing the nitty-gritty dirty work," Kida said.

Even when the volunteers have returned home, they are raising awareness of problems and encouraging others to help out, whether it is by volunteering or making a donation, Kida said.

"They make a difference; they made a difference in my life," Armour said of the many volunteers. "I hope one day my own son can do the same in other people's lives."

Armour's home was gutted by a group of Hands on New Orleans volunteers that included UW students.

However the students realize that their contribution is small in comparison to the huge recovery job ahead, Herden said.

"What we did was just a little chip in the whole problem, but it's good that we're down there and experiencing it," Herden said. "We can come home and spread the news of the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina."