There might have been sunshine, there might have been water, and there might have been hundreds of tourists wandering through a famous city. But it was anything but a typical vacation.

Because when students from Columbus Signature Academy — New Tech campus descended on New Orleans during their mid-March spring break, they weren’t there to lie on the beach and get a tan. They were there to work.

Led by physics teacher Gail Nowels, the high school students journeyed 13 hours from Columbus to New Orleans to do relief work for victims of Hurricane Katrina, the Category 5 storm that displaced thousands of people from their homes and destroyed the Lower Ninth Ward of the city in 2005.

Nowels leads the trip each year for her physics students, who get the opportunity to try out some of the techniques they learn in class by doing basic wiring work on homes in the Lower Nine.

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“We’re a project-based learning school, and this gives us the chance to put we learned into practice,” said Elisabeth Waddle, a New Tech senior.

But the trip is not about practicing science, and the student volunteers do much more than just wiring and other maintenance. They impact and change the lives of the New Orleans residents still without a home nearly 11 years after the storm.

“They’ve lost so much,” Waddle said. “You think everything’s fixed, but it’s so not.”

The actual hurricane is only a faint memory for the New Tech students, some of whom were as young as 5 years old when the storm hit.

“I remember seeing it on the news, and that was the first time I ever saw a dead body,” said Sara Tower, a senior at CSA-New Tech.

Without knowledge of the breadth of the hurricane’s destruction, traveling to New Orleans for the first time is a shock for many of the students, who are not expecting to see the devastation the still remains in the city.

And when they return to New Orleans for a second year — which many of the students choose to do — they are equally shocked to see that so little progress has been made since their last visit.

“You think, ‘I want to go next year. I can’t wait until next year,’” said Griffen Wheeler, a senior. “Then you go back and not much has changed. It’s so sad.”

The passion for the people of New Orleans consumes the student during the trip, they said.

Although it is a work week, Nowels also finds time to allow her students to see the city’s most famous sights and cultural nuances, including a Saint Patrick’s Day parade.

But even as the parade was running through the New Orleans streets, Wheeler said his mind was elsewhere.

“I was saying, ‘Can we go back (to the worksite) now?’” Wheeler said. “I wanted to get the project done.”

The spirit of New Orleans became apart of the students, they said. Whether it is their new-found love for Cajun-style food or the southern accents that they now find themselves speaking with, the high schoolers said they learned things from their time in the famed city that they never could have picked up anywhere else.

“I was calling it New Orleans, but everyone there calls it ‘Nawlins,’” said Eli Edwards, a sophomore.

There is one part of the culture of New Orleans that the students said stands above all else they learned — the ability of the city’s residents to persevere, even in the darkest of situations.

“They’re one of a kind,” Tower said. “I’ve been around a lot of places, and I’ve never seen people so resilient.”

About the New Orleans trip

Columbus Signature Academy – New Tech campus physics teacher Gail Nowels leads Hurricane Katrina relief work trip to New Orleans each spring break for students in her physics class. Each participant must pass three written tests before they can go on the annual trip.

The students are able to put some of what they learn in physics class to work when they complete basic wiring work. However, they also complete other renovation work such as painting and maintenance.

Nowels and her students begin planning for the annual trip a year in advance. They complete various fundraisers to help cover the cost of the trip.

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at or 812-379-5712.