I spent a few days in Louisiana and a few months trying to justify my trip.
Some didn't seem to understand why anyone would want to spend their vacation doing manual labor with a bunch of college kids.
But I piled into the van anyway, along with about 20 other students and fellow alumni from the University of Toledo, last week to help rebuild a house destroyed by hurricanes and flooding.
Part of what drove me, I'll admit, was curiosity.
I spent time in New Orleans with the same group during spring break about six months after Hurricane Katrina tore through the Big Easy -- making life there anything but. I wanted to see how things looked four years later.
While there were clear signs of progress, many of the towns we drove through were still a shell of what they'd once been. Yes, there were sporadic rows of houses rebuilt on 5-10-foot stilts, and a few new, stronger schools were replacing old ones. The harlequin French Quarter had been almost entirely restored to its former glory, with Mardi Gras beads and glittering masks still littering the streets.
But there were also patches of residents in rural areas who, after four years, were still left without electricity.
And there were families living in their second or third FEMA trailer.
In Cameron, where our group had worked just two years earlier, a trailer we'd helped to fix up was crumpled over on its side and gutted. The deck we'd built had disappeared.
But knowing we had only a week, we had to start somewhere.
After a 10-minute crash course in drywalling, mudding and sanding, we worked for Emma Jean, a sweet, spunky woman in her mid-60s who wielded a sledgehammer and an unshakable spirit.
She told us her two-story house had survived three hurricanes -- but until Rita four years ago and Ike last year, they hadn't had one since Hurricane Audrey in 1957.
When the water crept up to the ceiling of their first floor during Audrey and forced many out of their homes, Emma Jean's family rescued almost 40 people in their upper floor. At one point, she said, a bundle of blankets floated by, and someone grabbed it. Inside, they found a baby boy -- the only one in his family to survive the hurricane that killed more than 1,000 people.
They had barely finished rebuilding after Rita when Hurricane Ike ravaged the Louisiana-Texas border with 110 mph winds and flooding last year. Her family found themselves living once again in a makeshift shelter. And just before we arrived, officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency visited to tell her she had until June to fix her house up before they came to collect the trailer.
Before the trip, a common question people asked was why.
Why do people decide to stay there, knowing most of the southern part of the state is below sea level? Why rebuild at all, knowing there's a risk it could all be underwater again by spring?
And why help people who insist on staying?
My initial response was that many of the residents were barely scraping by before the disasters and didn't have the means to start over elsewhere.
But for many more, like Emma Jean, this is home and all they've ever known. Their belongings may be strewn across fields, and their family and friends may be scattered now, but their memories remain here -- in the home of boiled crawfish, Cajun music and southern hospitality.
For those who questioned why the locals choose to live in an "unsafe" place, I challenge them to name a place that is truly free from danger.
California residents live with the looming threat of earthquakes and forest fires. In the Midwest, it's tornadoes. Even Ohio, a state seemingly sheltered from the elements by geography, isn't immune.
And as the construction veteran in our group eloquently put it, we were there to fill an immediate need -- not to wonder about what the future might hold.
With his simple but sincere wisdom, this man in the mud-speckled Harley- Davidson T-shirt and tool belt -- who carried a Bible denoting each of the more than a dozen mission trips he's been on -- taught me more than how to craft a smooth corner.
Sometimes, he said, disasters remind us of why we're here on this earth. Our mission is to serve one another, but it's easy to forget in a society that encourages us to keep climbing the corporate ladder and look out for No. 1. Maybe disasters are God's way of catching our attention and reminding us of what's really important. And maybe it's a chance to see the glimmer of hope in the horror -- the new life bundled beneath the old, dirty blankets.
Annie Zelm is the assistant news editor for the Sandusky Register.