S.F. students join Katrina relief 

A group of 16 San Francisco high school students returned to the Bay Area on Sunday after spending five days in Louisiana building houses for people who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina.

The group, from the private all-boys Archbishop Riordan High School, spent last week constructing 12 houses with Habitatfor Humanity in Lacombe, La., about 45 miles north of New Orleans.

"Students climbed under houses to insulate, they did siding, flooring, painting, and learned a lot of carpentry skills," Marlena Johnston, an English teacher and the school’s community service coordinator, said.

"Habitat for Humanity was completely amazed. The students were working their hearts out."

With a grant from the school, the 16 students flew to New Orleans April 10 to begin their work. Also on the trip was San Francisco police Sgt. Eric Washington, a 12-year veteran of the force stationed in the Southern District, whose son, Aaron, is a student at the school. Washington declined to comment on the trip.

After returning, the teenagers said they were surprised and dismayed at how much work still needed to be done to restore the area.

One student, Michael Conti, 17, said he saw a house with the word "help" spray painted on the roof. The students worked alongside a man who had paid his mortgage for 23 years and was closing in on owning the house when it was destroyed by the storm.

"The people are still in need of a lot of spiritual building," said Nico Santiago, 16, a junior. "Their spirits were broken after the storm. People lost hope. I’m glad we were able to go down there and give them hope."

Last summer, Johnston traveled to New Orleans to help with recovery efforts and was struck by the devastation that remained.

Residents were living without garbage service, mail and public hospitals, she said. Mental health workers were nonexistent. Relief workers were far from rebuilding destroyed homes.

Katrina survivors asked Johnston to bring their message home: "We still need help," they told her.

"I made a promise to several people: I said, ‘I don’t care what it takes, I’m going to get my students down here,’" Johnston said.

At the end of each day, Johnston said the group reflected on the situation and read articles about concentrated urban poverty.

"We talked about whether this could happen in San Francisco," Johnston said.

Besides their work, students were able to visit Bourbon Street, try crawfish for the first time and listen to live music.

arocha@examiner.com

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