March 15, 2007

Students Recount Katrina Disaster

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One and a half years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast area in August 2005, students at Cornell remain hopeful for the future.

Jarin Jackson ’07 was a few weeks into his junior year at Cornell when he heard that Katrina was about to hit his hometown of New Orleans. While Jackson’s mother and most of his family evacuated to Arizona, his father remained in a hotel. At 5 a.m. during the storm, crouched in a hotel bathroom and thinking he was going to die, Jackson’s father called him to say goodbye.

His father said that he was proud of him and hoped that he would go to law school. Jackson said the phone call was, “the scariest thing of [his] life.”

Jackson’s father said that if he didn’t call by 3 p.m. that afternoon, Jackson should assume that he had not survived. Since cell phones were down, Jackson did not hear from his father, who luckily survived after living through the storm for three days. Distracted by football training and his friends at school, Jackson passed the time by “having a lot of faith.”

Everything he knew about the state of New Orleans was from the descriptions on the news. Before his parents eventually returned to New Orleans, Jackson said the experience was “terrifying. It was horrible because you want to be there and know what’s going on.”

Since his parents were unable to work for a period of time after the hurricane, Jackson was given a Hurricane Scholarship by Cornell. Although he did not speak to any of the counselors that were available to him at the time, he appreciated the “good job [Cornell did] addressing the issues” that it faced.

Bobby Quintal ’10 was living in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck. Despite his former mentality that “nothing ever happens when hurricanes come,” his family evacuated to a hotel in Houston. A week after the storm ,New Orleans was re-opened for three days so that residents could salvage whatever they could from their homes before leaving again. As he drove into New Orleans with his family, Quintal said he “could see that everything was destroyed.”

Quintal’s family was lucky because their house was elevated, so only a few inches of water had entered it.

Juan Sagredo ’10 and his family, however, did not evacuate New Orleans during the storm because his mother was needed at the hospital where she is a doctor.

While his mother was working, Sagredo sought shelter in a family friend’s abandoned apartment with the rest of his family. After the storm, Sagredo said, “It looked like a river was going down the streets.” His family had neither clean water nor electricity and very little food.

A few days later, they returned to their home that had incurred minimal damage because it is above sea level. A neighbor whom they had never met had a power generator and let his family use his phone and share his food.

When his mother was finally flown out of the hospital by Air Marshalls, a week later, the rest of the Sagredos managed to find a ride to the airport in Baton Rouge and the family reunited in Miami. The family returned to New Orleans three weeks later and Sagredo attended a new high school until his own reopened in time for second semester.

Besides these New Orleans natives, there are students at Cornell who once attended school in New Orleans. Having already been promised a guaranteed transfer into the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Jared Kraminitz ’09 arrived at Tulane University for orientation when he was ordered to leave. He spent his first semester at Cornell because the University allowed students fleeing Katrina to attend without needing to apply. “Cornell was amazing,” he said.

In one day, he was given a room and a meal plan. Kraminitz said his professors were very understanding by enabling him to catch up on the work he had missed, and that the students were “very friendly. I made some of my best friends here.”

Upon returning to Tulane for second semester when the university reopened, Kraminitz said that although “It wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be … The city needed to rebound.”

Now, back for his sophomore year, Kraminitz said that although he loved Tulane, he is “glad to be here.”

Fellow Tulane student, Gregory Starr ’06 spent the first half of his senior year at Cornell. He too had an easy transition and called the semester, “the greatest of my life.”

Starr loved Cornell so much that after graduating from Tulane, he came back to Cornell this year as an extra-mural student to take film classes and apply to film schools for next year. Starr said, “I am one of the only people who thought that the hurricane was one of the best things that ever happened to me.”

Cornell is also full of students with no direct connections to the area hit by the Katrina but are doing whatever they can to help. Last year, over winter and spring breaks, student groups such as Katrina on the Ground, Crusade for Christ and Tzedek Hillel sent delegations to volunteer to fix up the impacted areas.

Michael Wine ’09 helped re-shingle roofs with about a dozen students from Tzedek Hillel for a week over winter break in Gulfport, Mississippi. Wine said he went on the trip “for the experience and to see the destructive power of Mother Nature.”

Riti Singh ’07 is heading to New Orleans next year to teach secondary English for Teach for America. In addition to the lack of money and resources typical of many schools that are serviced by Teach for America, those in New Orleans face an additional challenge as they are missing teachers who never returned to work after the Hurricane. Singh said she hopes to “contribute whatever [she] can . . . to give lasting tools to the children that will stay with them, if not for the rest of their lives, than at least for the rest of their school lives.”

18 months after the storm, although the students say that many parts of the city, such as the Ninth Ward, have a long way to go in terms of rebuilding, they remain hopeful. Quintal and Sagredo admit that they are lucky that their neighborhoods have mostly been rebuilt. Sagredo went so far as to say, “Mostly, I think it’s the same that it was before.” He continued, “If there is one positive to come out of all this, it is that people realized that they can get over stuff. That if you are pushed to the point where you didn’t think you could go on any more, you realized that you can keep pushing.”