Terrascope Field Trip to New Orleans Combines Study, Service and Exploration

by Ari Epstein, Lecturer, Earth Systems Initiative

Participants in the MIT Terrascope program, a freshman learning community affiliated with DUE’s Office of Experiential Learning, spent Spring Break in and around New Orleans, on a field trip designed to deepen their appreciation of issues they explored during the fall semester and to provide information and resources for projects they are working on in the spring. As part of the trip, they met with local and Federal government officials, academic specialists, industry representatives, disaster-recovery volunteers, naturalists and ordinary citizens. They also helped to gut a flood-damaged house (the first step in restoring the property) and explored some of the bayous and wetlands of southern Louisiana. It was a busy but extremely rewarding trip, as can be seen from a rough itinerary:

Saturday, March 24: Arrived New Orleans, settled into dorm space at Tulane University.

Sunday, March 25: Day-long tour of Hurricane Katrina-related disaster sites in New Orleans and neighboring parishes, led by Professor Stephen Nelson, a geologist at Tulane University. The tour included stops at sites of all of the severely damaged levees and floodwalls, exploration of several devastated neighborhoods, and on-site examination of sediments and other geological features to see what information they might reveal about the causes and course of the destruction.

Monday, March 26: Trip to the Old River Control Structure, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers site where dams and gates control the flow of the Mississippi River, allowing some of the river’s volume to spill into the Atchafalaya River, a smaller tributary, and sending the rest downriver to New Orleans and beyond. Evening: Toured Houmas House, a centuries-old plantation on the banks of the Mississippi.

Tuesday, March 27: Volunteer work with Hands On New Orleans, a disaster-recovery organization. Terrascopers, outfitted in Tyvek suits, respirators and hardhats, emptied and gutted a house that had been left virtually untouched during the 19 months since Katrina. Evening: Communal dinner and meeting with Hands On supervisors and volunteers; several Terrascopers given “Stud of the Day” recognition by project leaders.

Wednesday, March 28: Morning: Meetings with officials at Shell Oil, one of New Orleans’ largest employers; included a discussion with Frank Glaviano, Vice President of Exploration and Production and a key player in Shell’s decision to return to New Orleans, rather than relocating, after the storm. Afternoon: Met with City of New Orleans officials, including Dr. Brenda Hatfield, the city’s Chief Administrative Officer, and the heads or assistant heads of the departments of Environmental Affairs, Finance, Homeland Security/Public Safety, Parks and Recreation, Public Works and Sanitation.

Thursday, March 29: Morning: Toured New Orleans with officials from the Army Corps of Engineers, learning the Corps’ position on causes and consequences of the disaster and viewing sites where active recovery and repair are ongoing. Afternoon: Traveled to wetland/bayou area near Lake Verret for overnight stay in lakeshore tents and cabins.

Friday, March 30: Naturalist-led boat tours of bayou and wetland areas, pausing mid-day to eat and talk with residents of a predominantly Cajun settlement. Evening: Back to New Orleans, then out to hear music at Preservation Hall or the House of Blues.

Saturday, March 31: Morning: Walking tour of the French Quarter. Afternoon: Free time in the Quarter. Evening: Excursion downriver on the paddlewheel steamboat Natchez.

Sunday, April 1: Return to MIT.

Most of the students report that their understanding of issues relating to New Orleans and its recovery has been radically altered by their experiences on the field trip. In the fall, as part of Terrascope subject 12.000, “Mission 2010: Solving Complex Problems,” they had studied the city in depth and then devised a detailed recovery plan, explaining where, why and how they would rebuild and protect the city. During the trip they had the opportunity to explore multiple stakeholders’ points of view in person, and the inherent complexity and near-intractability of the problem became much more evident, as did the reasons one might choose to restore the city. The students are now wrestling with these problems on a much deeper level than before.

During the rest of the semester, Terrascopers will put their new understanding into action in Terrascope subject 1.016, “Communicating Complex Environmental Issues,” as they develop, engineer and build an interactive museum to teach the general public about issues having to do with New Orleans, Katrina and hurricanes in general. The exhibits will open on Monday, May 14, at 3:00 in Lobby 13, and they will be up for the next two weeks. All members of the MIT community and their friends are invited to visit.

In addition, some of the students used the field trip to conduct an audio exploration of New Orleans and nearby wetlands as part of their work for subject SP.360, “Terrascope Radio.” These students spent a considerable amount of time and effort conducting interviews and gathering the sounds of the city and the bayou, and they are now assembling that audio to develop their own radio program. The program is currently scheduled to be broadcast on WMBR (88.1 FM) at around 4:30 on Wednesday, May 16. Save the date, and remember to tune in!