September 6, 2005

Katrina Hits Home at C.U.

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A couple days ago, stressed Tulane University student Alexis Kaplan had no idea where she would be spending her senior year. Having evacuated her uptown apartment for Hurricane Katrina less than a week after moving in, she found herself sifting through academic options back home in Columbus, Ohio.

“It was tough,” she said, “because I wanted to stay South. But Rice only wanted Houston-based kids, Emory only wanted Georgia-based kids, and Vanderbilt only wanted Tennessee-based kids.” “I wanted to go somewhere like Tulane,” said Alexis, “somewhere warm, in a big city.”

On Sunday night at 11:37, she settled for Cornell.

Alexis quickly e-booked a Monday morning flight to Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport, stuffed two suitcases, and went to sleep for three hours. By yesterday afternoon, she was moving into her new room on West Campus at Cornell Hillel’s Center for Jewish Living.

“I don’t think my New Orleans wardrobe is going to cut it in Ithaca much longer,” Alexis laughed. “I need to go shopping.”

Ditto for the dozens of other Tulanians arriving to Cornell over the coming days as “extramural students,” for one semester or, more likely, two. A reception is being held today in Willard Straight Hall, where they will be welcomed by Cornell officials and given more information about the University.

“As many as 75 Tulane students will be on campus by Tuesday, and we’ve had a total of about 150 queries about the spots Cornell is offering,” said Simeon Moss, director of Cornell’s press relations office. “We’re happy to have them here, and we hope we can provide some measure of stability for them in this very difficult time.”

Most of these temporary Cornellians still need to find housing, register for classes by Monday and then, once settled and enrolled, catch up on two weeks of missed work.

Undergraduates from Loyola University, University of New Orleans, Xavier University and other schools in the Big Easy are coping with similar situations at host colleges across the country. It is not only students attending schools in New Orleans that are impacted by the storm, however. Those actually from New Orleans and its suburbs are struggling to focus on classes while keeping in touch with their evacuated families and wondering whether their houses will be there to come home to when the waters finally recede months from now.

There are barely a dozen Cornell students from the New Orleans area. On Friday, The Sun sat down in Libe Cafe with four of them: Hauwa Otori ’08, Tyler Coatney ’09, Jared Israel ’08 and Neil Fonseca ’08.

“Sometimes, I don’t even want to see the news,” said Hauwa.

“We were all relieved when Katrina took that eastern turn at the last minute,” said Tyler. “We thought the worst was over- then the levees broke, and the water came rushing in. Now 80 percent of the city is under water, 20 feet deep in some places, and there’s sewage and toxic waste everywhere.”

Some students believed the flood to be inevitable.

“We all knew this would happen to New Orleans at some point,” said Jared about the sea-level city’s inherent vulnerability. “It was only a matter of time. We couldn’t continue to beat the odds. And everyone knew that New Orleans was barely prepared for a Category 3 storm, much less a Category 5.”

“It didn’t help that the Feds kept cutting corners on the preventive funding,” added Neil, who went to high school with Jared. “All this could’ve been prevented had they strengthened the levees or buffered the surrounding wetlands.”

Both Jared and Neil’s mothers work for the Entergy power company. “They say it’s going to be six months before they get the lights back on,” said Neil, “and that’s probably an optimistic estimate.” The four students’ families are staying at locations in Houston, Dallas and San Antonio, their parents working tirelessly to enroll younger siblings in local schools.

“New Orleans families have dispersed all around the country,” said Tyler, “to wherever they have a support system. Most people went to the northern part of the state or to Texas, but I know some in Kansas, Illinois, Wisconsin – all over.”

Hurricane Katrina is not the first storm to have forced families out of New Orleans.

“This isn’t the first time my family was evacuated,” said Neil. “I think we all expected – hoped – that our families would be gone for a few days, come back, maybe not have power for a week. But it was for real this time. I talked to my parents today for the first time in a week. That was the soonest they could get in touch with me.”

Communication has been spotty at best for people with Louisiana area codes. None of the four can make calls on their cell phones.

“I’ve been told that I can still send text messages from mine,” said Tyler, “but for the most part, it’s been just a really pretty clock.”

The four agreed that the severity of the destruction has not fully registered with Americans in the Northeast.

“I’m not sure if the people up here understand just how grave the situation is down there,” said Hauwa. “The vast majority of people at Cornell aren’t from the South. They’ve never seen the damage a hurricane can do. But this isn’t just any hurricane. We’re talking about the worst natural disaster in American history. Thousands of people killed, thousands of homes destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of kids out of school. Over a million people out of work.”

“Whatever happens in Biloxi, MS, or Mobile, AL, is terrible,” Jared said, “but not absolutely catastrophic in the grand scheme of things because there aren’t that many people there. We’re talking about New Orleans here, one of the largest cities in the South, and it’s been reduced to a third-world country. There’s complete lawlessness in the streets. People are walking around with guns they’ve looted from stores, just holding them out in the open. People are getting raped left and right, there are dead bodies everywhere.”

All of the New Orleans students have their own hurricane anecdotes – from family, from friends, from media images they’ve seen in horror with the rest of America.

“When one of my friends down there came out of his house, someone came out of nowhere, hit him over the head, and took his car. Can you imagine? Before they evacuated the Superdome, a man jumped from the edge of one of the railings and killed himself. Just like that, in front of 10,000 people. And when the bases came to bring the people there to the [Houston] Astrodome, there was massive rioting to get a seat on the bus. It’s like something out of a movie. The pictures have been just horrifying for me. Dead bodies outside places I’d go on weekends. People sleeping on the highways I would take to get into the city.”

“I saw a picture of a dead woman in a wheelchair,” Tyler interjected. “And the police had just taken a blanket and thrown it over the corpse. There are at least hundreds, probably thousands, of people lying dead in the streets – canals is probably the more appropriate word at this point – bodies just floating there in the water, and they’re being pushed aside because the priority right now is saving the people who are still alive. This is still a search-and-rescue operation. The problem is that the people on the ground don’t know what’s going on because their cell phones are dead. Helicopters were coming to rescue the stranded, and people on the ground were shooting at them, trying to get their attention.”

“There’s looting everywhere,” he continued. “Someone checked out one of the WalMarts near my house, and the entire gun section was gone. It’s crazy. They’ve declared martial law. They got a bunch of people back from Iraq and told them to do whatever was necessary to get the situation under control. A lot of the looters are people taking advantage of the situation, but there are also normal men and women who need food and water.”

Medicine has also been in short supply.

“My dad’s a doctor who works in Diabetes,” said Neil, “and he realized there were a bunch of stranded diabetics who hadn’t gotten their insulin for a few days. So he called the American Diabetics Ass
ociation, and they had a whole supply airlifted in. It’s incredible how desperate things are getting.”

Neil, Jared, Tyler and Hauwa may be thousands of miles away, but they’re all finding it difficult to keep New Orleans out of their thoughts.

“We’re trying to keep smiles on our faces,” said Tyler. “It’s really the only thing you can do to keep sane, but it’s hard. I’ll admit that trying to follow math lecture today was pretty difficult. You hear one day that your house should be OK, and then you hear the next day that somebody was in your neighborhood and said that most of the houses were looted and that many of them were set on fire. I don’t know whether my house is still there. I’m supposed to be looking forward to fall break. Not this year.”

“It’s just weird to think that for the next few months at least, you don’t have a home,” said Jared. “And it’s not even just the house or the possessions; that stuff can be replaced. It’s the city, it’s the culture, it’s the jazz. That’s all been wiped away, at least for the time being.”

“It’s going to take years,” said Neil, “but the houses will be rebuilt, there’ll still be Mardi Gras. New Orleans will never be the same, though.”

“You’re definitely going to see a change,” Tyler said. “This is going to remain with the people of New Orleans, like 9/11 did for New Yorkers.”

“We can speculate about how this is all going to play out,” he continued, “but it’s important to keep in mind that there are people right now who need help. So, if you’re a religious person who prays, please, pray for the people of New Orleans. If you can afford to donate to the Red Cross, by all means, do that. We really need to band together.”

Cornell students are beginning to do just that, starting with a fundraising drive likely to rival last year’s Big Red Relief for Tsunami recovery. On Sunday night, over 70 campus leaders met to discuss options for helping the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Already this week, Cornell Democrats and Cornell Republicans will be sitting together on Ho Plaza every day from 11-2 collecting donations. And today, the Cornell Chapter of the Red Cross will be holding a blood drive in the Straight Memorial Room.

Archived article by Ben Birnbaum
Sun Staff Writer