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Focus on...Hurricane Katrina

While the Gulf Coast reels in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, UC and McMicken College are eager to respond to victims of the unprecedented disaster.

Date: 9/16/2005 12:00:00 AM
By: Billie Dziech
Phone: 513 / 556.1707

UC ingot   A Note From Dean Karen Gould

While the Gulf Coast reels in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, UC and McMicken College are eager to respond to victims of the unprecedented disaster. This expanded version of the “Focus On...” section of McMicken Monthly includes observations from individuals directly touched by the tragedy. They remind us not only of Katrina’s power, devastation, and the human toll, but also of the resiliency of her survivors. The McMicken family extends both its sympathy and support as they struggle to rebuild their lives.

The college welcomes faculty and students requiring help during this crisis. Information about undergraduate enrollment is available by contacting Jon Mays, associate director of admissions, at 513-556-2417 or on the admissions web site.

Graduate students may call Eleanor Buczala, senior assistant to the university dean, at 513 / 556-4337.

Faculty seeking assistance should contact Karen Faaborg, senior vice president and provost, at 513 / 556-1146.

He Thought He'd Seen it All

A young reporter recounts five days in the Louisiana devastation
By: Alumnus Matthew Penix
Cincinnati Post article
Publication date: 09-08-2005

ST. TAMMANY PARISH, La. - After graduating from the University of Cincinnati and moving to Slidell, La., three years ago to start a career in journalism, I quickly became acquainted with the tragic and horrific.

I wrote stories about murders, rapes, carjackings, SWAT team standoffs, and other events filled with human suffering.

As I celebrated my 25th birthday a week before Katrina struck, I thought I had seen it all.

But I was wrong.

As I write this, it's hard to see the computer screen through the tears.

Friends and colleagues are lost, my office at the Slidell-Sentry News, submerged under several feet of water, is uninhabitable.

I still don't know where my editor is. A police captain, a valuable news source and friend, committed suicide. A colleague, in her mad rush to escape the devastation, accidentally drove over the body of a dead man in the road. Another colleague believes her parents are dead, but doesn't know for sure.

For days after the killer storm struck, no one knew where anyone was. Phones didn't work, and television stations were off the air. Everyone listened at night by candlelight to the only radio station still transmitting.

I stayed for five days to try and help other survivors and to document what I've seen. But with no gas within a 300-mile radius, no food, no electricity, and with the thick, blistering Louisiana heat searing my body every day, I joined the thousands of others who clogged the highways looking for an escape. As I left, I prayed I had enough gas to get out of there.

Day One: Waiting for Katrina

The plan was for my two roommates and me to stay at our house and wait out a "big one," just for the sheer excitement of it. We were all fraternity brothers at the University of Cincinnati, and no one wanted to be the first to tell the others this might not be such a great idea. But as the Weather Channel and cable news networks predicted Katrina would be a storm of biblical proportions, reason eventually prevailed, and we decided to seek shelter only hours before the storm struck.

We drove a distance that ordinarily takes only 20 minutes - this time it took two hours - to an industrial complex building owned by the family of the girlfriend of one of my roommates, West Chester native Jay Gostisha. Sheltered by thick, steel-reinforced concrete walls, we barely felt anything from the storm.

The wind and rain were moderate for a hurricane, and for a day and a half we slept on concrete floors, eating chips and Pop Tarts. Jay and his girlfriend danced in the rain and wind before the brunt of the storm hit. We thought the hurricane was a non-event and that Katrina probably veered at the last minute, sparing the street corner jazz players, Creole food restaurants, and 250-year-old buildings that attract thousands to the city yearly. We thought we had escaped the Hurricane's hammer.

We were wrong.

Day Two: The discovery

As the winds subsided, we repacked our three cars and headed home.

What I saw as I neared the place I shared with my former UC fraternity brothers in Mandeville, near Slidell, sent a chill down my spine. I had driven into a jungle. Fallen trees had sliced open homes. Gigantic metallic transformers lay strewn across parking lots and roads. I saw two policemen patrolling, and they looked as frightened as I was.

By now our three-car caravan had become separated, and I found myself driving alone through Mandeville. It's usually a place filled with families mowing their yards, slurping up snow cones, and shopping at upscale boutiques. Today, however, it was a wasteland.

The fronts of brick buildings had been blown away, exposing the desks, chairs, and fax machines inside offices. I blurted out a prayer that the power line I was seconds away from driving over was not live. Thump, thump. It wasn't.

By chance, the first other car I happened upon in miles belonged to my roommate, Adam Leimer, also a West Chester native, who had stopped and reversed his direction on the interstate, littered with limbs and tree trunks.

We sat there speechless. Both of us had tried to drive to our house, but it was impossible. The only way to get there was to park miles away, leap over and crawl under trees, stepping over power lines.

Day Three: Making sense of it all

We spent most of the third day longing for running water for showers, cooking, and drinking. The hot, sticky Louisiana heat never falters. The pool in the backyard was tempting, but we weren't sure it wasn't tainted by toxic rainwater, as rumors suggested. With no communication with the outside world, except the battery powered radio broadcast by the city's only public generator from New Orleans, rumors were all we had.

At this point, we thought the worst was over.

Then the levee broke.

Early on the morning of Aug. 30, water pressure burst breaches in three places of the levee system on the Lake Pontchartrain side of New Orleans, one at least 250 feet wide. Heavy flooding covered almost the entire city over a sustained period, forcing the total evacuation of more than a million people. Because 80 percent of the city is below sea level, all water that goes into the city must be directly pumped out - even water from an average rainstorm. Consequently, the city is now uninhabitable until the water can be removed. The water presented other dangers - I've heard from friends in New Orleans that a police officer received chemical burns from it.

As millions of gallons of water rushed into the city, the water rose about a half inch to an inch an hour. The flooding continued until the water level in the city reached that of Lake Pontchartrain. By daybreak, the water would be kissing the second floor of homes. People who'd climbed into second-floor attics now faced a watery death if the levee wasn't fixed soon. It was only a matter of time, the radio announcer said.

It's been said a collective gasp engulfed the city.

Although the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had started improving the levee in 1999, it would take at least 15 to 20 years to complete, a spokesman for the agency said on the radio. This disaster could not have been prevented, he said.

That didn't mean too much to our small band of brothers, sitting back in Mandeville, huddled together around the boom box in the candlelight. Because we lived north of Lake Pontchartrain, we had avoided most of the flooding. The radio reports of massive flooding in the city seemed as though Orson Wells was playing another "War of the Worlds" prank.

New Orleans, although only 40 miles distant, seemed half way around the world. We talked to a woman who had chopped her way out of an attic in downtown New Orleans, pulling her children and elderly parents up onto the roof.

"I know now what hell feels like," she told me.

While waiting for days perched on the roof of the house, losing count of time, and passed over by numerous helicopters, she said she began to wonder if she would survive.

When she was finally rescued, the U.S. Coast Guard told her what she had feared about her neighbors - they had drowned.

"I knew what happened," she said practically in tears. "I could smell the death."

She was among the lucky ones. The death toll included babies, murder victims, and countless elderly residents who drowned or died because of lack of medication.

Tales of horror were everywhere. A "Current Affair" on FOX News reported a man was beaten to death by 10 men in the Superdome after he raped and stabbed to death a 7-year-old. A New Orleans police spokesman, whom I once interviewed for a story, committed suicide with his police-issued pistol.

That was the first 48 hours. Recent estimates by Mayor Ray Nagin put the death toll near 10,000 in New Orleans alone.

Back in the candlelight, I suffered a gut punch back to reality when St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain's voice crackled through the battery powered radio on 870 WLW to give a Northshore update. At least three people had died around the corner from my office four days earlier.

Strain said he tried to contact the radio station numerous times, but communication along the entire Gulf Coast was out. He started to drive to the radio station across the Causeway, a modern marvel of a bridge that spanned 25 miles of the lake and connected the Big Easy to the Northshore. His deputies advised not to attempt it - the bridge no longer existed.

Day Four: The decision

After Katrina slapped St. Tammany, I checked my fuel gauge and decided to check on what I call "my people," the Slidell community I serve as a journalist. My press pass got me past Slidell police officers and about two miles down the exit. The rest was a sea of waist-high water.

I drove into the shallow end of the water, constantly opening my door to see how high it was. People walking behind me and beside me with bags of who knows what, kept telling me it was OK. I wasn't too reassured.

I rolled down my window as I drove up to a Hispanic man sloshing through the water. I asked him if he was OK.

He smiled, held up his bag and said, "I'll live."

I drove on. To this day, back in the comforts of my hometown of Batavia, I wonder where that man is today. The supplies he carried couldn't have lasted more than a few days.

As much as I wanted to get the story, my gut told me it wasn't worth flooding my car and jeopardizing my only way out. I turned around. It turned out to be a good decision - my office, as I would soon come to find out, had been destroyed, so there was no way to print a story if I had written one.

As I drove through town, a colleague who works in ad sales for the Slidell Sentry News called out to me. She was standing on the corner with friends and family. I stopped on a dry patch of asphalt and got out, wishing I had been able to take a shower, but trying my best to look dignified while giving new meaning to the term "starving journalist."

I asked her how she was; the pain in her eyes answered for me. She still hadn't seen her home; it was likely destroyed, but the roads were impassable, and she didn't know for certain. I asked her about the Sentry. She said her brother "swam" there earlier, and the entire first floor was under water. My heart sank.

She said our publisher, Terry Maddox, was giving out food somewhere. He was "supposed to give out 200 meals, but only gave out 60," she said.

She turned and pointed to a white SUV parked at the nonfunctioning stoplight. Inside was Slidell Police Capt. Rob Callahan. He was talking to people outside his car window. A CNN news crew was riding in his back seat. He told me to meet him at the emergency operations center on a narrow road around the bayou.

I tried to drive there myself, but my Jetta sunk into a black, smelly sludge. It took some time to get free. That was the last I saw of Rob Callahan. I hope our paths cross again.

After I freed my car, I toured the city. Katrina had toppled everything in sight throughout St. Tammany Parish, and every road I tried to drive down was blocked by debris.

Trees, boats, fences, and upturned cars were scattered throughout the city. I had no choice but to drive back to Mandeville, hoping my roommates had saved me a cold beer from the cooler.

It's an eerie feeling when you're sitting in a room by yourself lit only by candle light, huddled around a radio that's pumping the airwaves with the only media lifeline remaining for Greater New Orleans. Cell phones, regular phones, and television remained out. Nobody really knew what was going on, and the reports were choppy and based on rumor at best. I figured the rest of the world knew more about what was going on than the people smack dab in the middle of it all.

With no food left, no electricity and a near empty gas tank, I decided to go home to Ohio. A rush of shame came over; I felt like I was abandoning my brothers in need.

Day Five: Going home

At least an hour and half into the 12-hour drive home, evidence of the storm was inescapable - trees thick as redwoods were split in two, homes had no roofs and signs littered the roads. The devastation seemed unending.

I mashed down on the gas pedal harder. Four fillups later and moments away from my mother's home in Eastgate, I pulled into White Castle to eat the only meal I had all day. It was horrible. But at least I was home.

I sank onto the couch and fell asleep. My brain, mind, body were exhausted, and I hadn't experienced anything compared to the destruction in New Orleans, Biloxi, and the rest of the Gulf Coast.

I slept for 13 hours and still woke up in pain.

Lucky So Far

By: Associate Professor Jonathan Alexander

Growing up in New Orleans, for me, meant beignets, Creole cooking, Mardi Gras—and hurricanes. It was not uncommon for my family and me to pack our car every couple of years, usually during late summer, and head north or west to stay with relatives while a summer storm threatened our home. We were always lucky. The storms were either weak (like Hurricane Bob, in 1984), or they skirted the city and landed somewhere else (like Andrew), always wreaking devastation somewhere else, on someone else.

This was just a part of growing up in New Orleans.

Since I have lived away from Louisiana for quite some time now, hurricanes had become for me something that my mother or sisters would sometimes tell me about when I called home. They would watch such-and-such a storm, wondering, just like old times, if they’d have to leave home because of it. Usually not. Seldom, actually. They were lucky. Again, this was just part of living in the area. You dealt with it. You survived.

I knew this time, though, was different. I could hear it in my mother’s voice. She called Saturday before Katrina hit. She was packing my dad, who has been ill for some time with advanced Parkinson’s disease, into the car. On the spur of the moment, she decided to head to Lake Charles to stay with her Cajun sisters in southwest Louisiana. She said my sister and her family had already left for Memphis. This storm was different.

For a few days, I heard nothing. I couldn’t reach any of them—not my mother, not my sister, not any of my relatives in Louisiana. Cell phones were useless. Finally, Wednesday, two days after the storm hit, I heard from my mother. Everyone was okay—physically. They were shaken, but otherwise okay. We had no idea though about property, about the homes that my family had built—my sister’s house on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain or my parents’ retirement home in Diamondhead, about 20 miles west of Biloxi. We feared the worst for theirs; apparently, Katrina’s eye made landfall in Hancock County, where my parents’ home is.

We hoped for the best.

It was well over a week before we found out what had happened. No one could get home because the roads were closed, and the police and military were keeping people out. A neighbor in Diamondhead had a relative who had managed to stay in the area, getting electricity from a portable generator. When cell phone coverage came back, he started calling people and letting them know about their property. From what he could tell, my parents’ house had survived the storm.

We were relieved, even dumbfounded. So many other homes, some many other lives—lost. In my parents’ neighborhood alone, some houses were completely destroyed by falling trees. Same situation in my sister’s neighborhood. Her home was reported as being fine, though the streets were filled with debris and mud, and some families were not nearly so lucky. We heard just a few days ago that an aunt and uncle who lived in the city, near a levee, had lost their home when the waters submerged it to the roof. They have already moved to Houston, where my aunt’s employer relocated after the storm. They left with nothing but the clothing on their backs and the clothes they have bought since the storm.

Tomorrow, Monday, I head to Lake Charles. My dad is in the hospital. The stress and the anxiety of the storm and its aftermath worsened his condition, we believe. I can only hope for the best. We’ve been lucky so far.

Postscript: Jonathan Alexander’s father passed away on September 13, 2005.

A Warm Welcome

By: Karen Eng, Visiting Assistant Professor

With a head full of notions ranging from sipping mint juleps on the veranda to peeling crawdads, I arrived in New Orleans to teach in Tulane University’s German program. With the community of scholars at one of the oldest colleges in the country, I came to enjoy not only working with my colleagues, but together we also experienced firsthand all the marvels of this strikingly charming city. It was always clear, however, that the danger of hurricanes was present for half the year.

As soon as I arrived, I’d been warned in vivid language that the levees would likely not sustain anything above a category three storm and when hurricane warnings were given, one should really take heed. However, my optimistic and jaunty Cajun neighbors (whose family still “talks Cajun French”) added that if I should ever decide to ride out a storm, I should do it with them, since they were well-equipped with water, a blow-up boat, and an axe in the attic to hack our way out of the house if the flood moved that high.

I was in Berlin this summer to take part in a Fulbright seminar and to conduct research, and the day the hurricane struck was the day I was due to fly back to New Orleans. I had not yet moved my things to Cincinnati, and due to the high crime rate, my car was parked (secure from criminals but not from floodwaters) in a gated lot just off Orleans Avenue, directly in the path of the 17th Street levee failure. As I monitored the German press, I wondered about my friends in New Orleans and my research materials, all boxed neatly on the first floor of the wood frame house I had rented. Any other thoughts about my personal possessions were put aside when news of how New Orleans descended in to chaos and misery was broadcast. I knew then: I am very, very lucky.

I returned to the United States two days after the storm and tried to establish contact with Tulane friends and my neighbors. Initially, no southern Louisiana cell phones were functioning (even when the phones had been taken to other areas), and we all had the problem that we largely didn’t know each other’s private email addresses. With the Tulane mail server down, finding information about people has been a slow process.

Various tales of evacuation reveal that in light of homes flooding, research materials and computers soaked and lost, real mourning for one of America’s most interesting cities, and an intense sense of helplessness and incomprehension at the horrors in the Superdome and Convention Center, we know how fortunate we really are. A pair of professors told me they went shopping for underwear in a Target store in Houston where they met more evacuated colleagues doing the same. Whereas this would be a strange and perhaps awkward place to meet, there was such relief to know that they were safe. They embraced, boxers in hand.

I have been warmly welcomed at the University of Cincinnati. Though all my possessions remain indefinitely in New Orleans, the Arts and Sciences faculty’s efforts to make sure I am comfortable and well-equipped to start the semester speaks volumes about the community here and shows an understanding for the unique situation in which academics find themselves, having evacuated away from all their research materials and their home institutions. All of my friends and acquaintances have also encountered similar generosity at other universities; they have been given library privileges and offices so that they may continue their work.

To my relief, my spirited neighbors evacuated safely. They will be back to rebuild and I’m sure New Orleans’ scholars will also return. I imagine that when they get there, they’ll take in the “real” drink that one sips on a New Orleans’ veranda: a Sazerac—a break from writing lecture for class, of course.

Postscript: Karen Eng was the first faculty member to be accommodated by academic colleagues. The classics department is awaiting confirmation that a second Tulane professor, Susann Lusnia, will accept an offer of a Tytus room in the Taft House and a Tytus office in Blegen. She will be warmly welcomed but should have little difficulty situating herself on campus since she is a McMicken alumna.

Disruption & Blessings in Amelia's Life
(A letter from 1972 graduate, Thomas Keller, CFRE, Comboni Missionaries)

Dear Friends,

Amelia had just put her stuff in her dorm room at Tulane University on Saturday morning as hurricane Katrina began to take aim at New Orleans. University officials, accordingly, told all the moms and dads to go home, taking their students with them. So Amelia came home with her mother, brother, and boyfriend. She left everything in her dorm room, believing she'd be back on campus by today. Instead, she was on another campus entirely!

Since you've probably been following the news about New Orleans, you understand the anarchy that reigns in the city today. This whole episode with Katrina put Tulane University out of business for the time being, and several colleges and universities around the nation are trying to help out.

Today I called one of my old professors at the University of Cincinnati, who said not to worry and gave me a number to call. After a string of calls, Amelia and I landed on campus with only an hour and a quarter to spare before admissions for the fall quarter were scheduled to close. (Actually, at that moment, officials were meeting to determine how to deal with late applications from students from universities in New Orleans, but we didn't know that yet.)

Like all the folks from UC to whom I spoke on the phone, the people in the admissions office were enormously gracious and helpful. Amelia had her transcripts and AP place-outs in hand, so they told her up-front that her acceptance in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences was a done deal and that she would be treated just like everyone else, even though she plans to return to Tulane (and her clothing) when that university re-opens. As I was writing a check for Amelia's registration fees, a university officer came in and told me to put my checkbook away because those fees were waived for all students coming to UC as a result of the disaster. (We're spending some of the money for pizza tonight.) By the time we arrived home, our son had taken a call from UC, telling us that Amelia had been officially accepted as a freshman.

Well, with only two college students, my wife and I are writing three tuition checks this autumn. I suppose we'll get to spend the check we wrote to Tulane someday! But in the midst of all this chaos, I feel a need to tell everyone I know that I feel deeply grateful to my alma mater, the University of Cincinnati, for its kindness to my daughter. From the time we walked into the door of the admissions office, the whole process took about 40 minutes, with great attention being paid to Amelia and full generosity of spirit on all sides. Everyone involved was a blessing to our family.

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