We’re a mean swing with a sledgehammer. With Monica Seles-like grunts and a few cheers from our team, we can crumble a tiled bath into a pile of dusty shards without stopping to catch our breath. We’ve also developed a sure-fire technique for yanking out a ceiling fan: snap off the blades first, cut the wires, and then twist the base with all you got. Oh, and holler “heads up”–we almost learned that one the hard way.

Such wisdom came to us during our week volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in St. Bernard Parish, La. In 10-person crews, we went into flood-soaked homes to gut houses of everything personal and most things structural. All this we piled into wheelbarrows and emptied onto front lawns to await the skeletal garbage crew that patrolled St. Bernard’s streets.

We crammed as much work into our eight-hour days as possible. The sheer volume of work and intense Louisiana heat narrowed our focus to the next task: Where’s the pry bar? Can someone help me lift this mattress? Who knows the best way to remove a window casing?

Yet, the reality of the homeowners’ personal devastation couldn’t be ignored. Usually it stopped us when we recognized a shared affinity with the absent tenants. For one of our teammates, it was the way the homeowners folded their blankets; for another, the brand of detergent the family used. For Erin, it was seeing a doll just like her beloved Natalie being thrown on the trash pile. Our understanding was no longer temporal. It was personal. It was emotional. For a moment, we felt we understood what it was like to be them. Just for a moment. Because we were quickly reassured by the fact that our blankets, detergent and Natalies were safely stored in homes far away from this madness.

Bus rides back to camp were quiet. Despite our accomplishments, each mile we passed reminded us of the extensive work to be done. Entire neighborhoods remain ghost towns. Houses rest blocks from their foundations. Some sit atop cars. Large boats lie in the middle of streets curiously far from any dock.

By week’s end these images had gathered into a disbelief that we voiced over sack lunches: Why does the area look like the storm hit last week, not last year? Why is this enormous, unfathomable amount of work being performed by college students and would-be beachgoers? Where is the federal government?

FEMA truly is a four-letter word there. We capped off our week with a visit to the only bar reopened in the parish. Upon our arrival, a regular asked if we were FEMA. “No, we’re working. We’re volunteers.” Their scowls gave way to shining eyes. They bought rounds of beer and we shared a revelry that is nothing if not New Orleans. As they shared their personal tales of heroic rescues and heartbreaking loss, they never failed to appreciate another’s help. We left with hope but also a sense that the locals’ characteristically carefree exuberance carried a hint of jaded anxiety. They wanted to know: Where’s the help? How could people have forgotten us?

After our week, we’ll never forget. And we hope you won’t either. Volunteer: www.habitat-nola.org. Donate: Habitat for Humanity, Camp Hope, 6701 E. St. Bernard Highway, Violet, La., 70092-3444.