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Remembering Katrina

Dr. Marc C. DavidDr. Marc C. David

In January of 2005, I accepted a position as dean of students at Dillard University in New Orleans, and, as with every position, I hit the ground running. I bonded with the university and the city early on and decided to purchase a home several months before my wife and I were scheduled to explore the real estate market. During our search we contemplated many community options, from Algiers to Mandeville, but settled on a two-story brick home in the Belair community in Slidell. Our closing was just in time for the birth of our second child, expected in early August, and the arrival of our first child, who was spending the summer with her grandparents in South Carolina.

During the summer, we experienced two low-category hurricanes that caused some wind damage to the campus and the usual flooding, but nothing life changing. Back then it seemed such a waste of time and resources to evacuate our students by bus to a host institution and lock down the campus, but these exercises were an unofficial rehearsal for what would come in late August.

Three weeks after the birth of our child, I requested a few days of family leave, which was happily granted by my supervisor. We were only supposed to be gone a few days, so we packed lightly. To make sure everyone was comfortable, I rented a small SUV, and we departed Slidell at about 9 p.m. on Friday, August 26, 2005.

By the time I made it to my mother’s house in Columbia, South Carolina, all news anchors were talking about this huge mass of energy in the Gulf headed for New Orleans. All the projections indicated that the storm would make a direct hit in two days.

While I was watching the news, my supervisor called to tell me that the campus was evacuating according to protocol and not to return to New Orleans until further notice.

For the next two days I was on pins and needles. Then, on Monday, August 29, 2005, when the storm hit New Orleans, my world turned upside down. All communications were cut off, the city was flooded, and mass hysteria played out on national television. I remember seeing images of people in the Superdome with no food, water or medicine crying for help, people stranded on rooftops and flashing signs in hopes of being rescued, and residents looting stores. I recall footage of parents with babies in hand, wading through filth and muck to reach dry land and heartbreaking stories of loved ones who were sucked into the storm’s vortex. I saw colorful graffiti on houses, walls and buildings cursing Katrina for her pillage and plunder of the beautiful Crescent City.

I remember seeing one resident pushing a big-screen television through flood waters and wondering why he would steal such a large appliance that would obviously not work after exposure to water and where he would use it since there was no power.  Katrina made people do strange things, and this was by far the one of the most bizarre.

The saddest images I saw were those who lost their lives due to Katrina’s wrath, like the deceased elderly woman at the convention center slumped over in a wheelchair, wrapped in a white sheet. And who can forget the countless other victims of Katrina’s wrath who met their fate in watery graves throughout the city. Over the years I have seen disasters like this play out in other countries, even other states, but never did I expect to see or experience such a tragedy so close to home. When the National Guard finally rolled in, I breathed a sigh of relief because I knew people in the region would finally receive much needed assistance.

Up to that point, I had viewed Katrina as an outsider because I was watching these events comfortably from my mother’s home in South Carolina. Then it occurred to me that the life I had just established was in that region. I had a fairly new job, a new baby, a new house and I had just enrolled my oldest daughter in a new high school. In addition, none of us packed more than a few days of clothing. Even the car I was driving was not mine.

As the days and weeks unfolded, matters became worse. I was in daily contact with my supervisor and learned that one of the buses used during the evacuation caught on fire. In addition, satellite images indicated that Dillard University was under 10 to 12 feet of water and that the Modules (living quarters for some of the students on campus) had somehow burned to the ground.

I checked websites for information about my neighborhood and logged into a chatroom. One of the statements indicated that North Shore mall, literally minutes from my house, was gone. This meant that my neighborhood and home were likely gone as well. I was devastated.

Although I was not officially working, my paychecks were still being deposited to my account. I asked my supervisor about the deposits, and she indicated that the university and employees were insured for such disasters.

Later, an update was posted on our website indicating that a recovery team would restore the campus and that our students would be enrolling in various institutions across the nation until we developed a contingency plan to return to the university. Since I had my laptop, a phone, and the phone numbers of all the resident assistants and other essential staff, I developed a work plan and vowed to earn my pay.

I began by making phone calls, sending emails, gathering information from resident assistants and reporting this data to my supervisor. When I acquired a list of host institutions that our students were attending, I began contacting campus life deans and vice presidents to check on students at those institutions and inform them about Dillard’s recovery progress. There were even a few students at Benedict College and Claflin University, not far from my mother’s house where my family had taken residence. In these cases, I made personal visits. For students who chose not to enroll in other colleges, I called their homes and spoke to them or their parents, just to let them know that we were working on a plan and hoped that they would return once that plan was completed.

One student started a Dillard chatroom that gained a great deal of popularity. At this site, hundreds of Dillard students were reflecting on their Katrina experiences and their desire to get back to the university. Many were even reciting the alma mater, which let me know that pride and morale were high. Still others were chatting about how slow we were responding after Hurricane Katrina and the lack of information we were disclosing to students.

Institutions around the country were very graciously taking in our students. Some allowed them to enroll after the deadline, some offered tuition waivers for up to one year, some offered full tuition and board for up to one year, and some offered vouchers for books and other supplies. The Tom Joyner Foundation and the United Negro College Fund also played a huge role in assisting students financially during the crisis. We were fortunate that the UNCF president, Michael Lomax, was a former president of Dillard University. However, any person in his position would have acted just as responsibly.

Despite all of this support, some of the professors and students at host institutions were not so kind to our students. One host faculty member made a comment that Dillard students needed to learn how to swim and several Dillard students complained of being taunted by students at host institutions about Katrina-related issues. Such insensitivity was not widespread, but it was certainly discouraging to the students and hurtful to me.

After several weeks, the waters receded, and I was able to go back to Slidell. Because of Katrina’s impact, I took an alternative route. The trip was longer, but at least I knew I would be able to get gas and food during the majority of the ride. As I drove closer to the state, I began to see signs of devastation, such as downed trees, dilapidated buildings and loose debris along the roads. I gassed up frequently because I did not know whether stations would be open the closer I made it to the state.

When I finally made it to Slidell, I honestly did not recognize it. Old Slidell, in a nutshell, looked like a warzone, and I was certain that my neighborhood, though on higher ground, looked similar. As I left the highway and approached my community, my heart began to race and I could feel my breath getting shorter. I turned the corner and saw nothing but more downed trees, power lines, missing roofs and boarded-up windows. Many of the houses looked vandalized, with trash and debris thrown across various lawns. I lived in the back of the Belair community, so I was held in suspense during my slow procession through my neighborhood.

When I made the final left on Alison Drive, the first thing I saw was a huge tree that had fallen on my roof and a yard filled with debris, making it difficult to see the house in full view. But as I drove closer, I could see that my house was intact. I couldn’t believe it. Amidst all of this devastation, my house was still standing!

I parked on the street, navigated through the fallen branches and litter on my front lawn, and opened my door. Amazing! The light I left on weeks ago was still on. My phone was still working. The water had a foul smell but it was still working. I opened the back door, and I could see the fallen limbs along my wooden fence, most of which was destroyed, and a watermark about three feet high along the side of my home. On the inside was damage to the wooden floor in the family room, where water had clearly crept into the house, but everything else was fine, including the car, which was securely enclosed in the garage. After all those weeks, it started right up! All I could say to myself was thank God!

Some of the houses on my street were vandalized, and I later learned why ours was probably overlooked. I left the light on and the timers on our televisions, so it appeared that someone was home every night. When I saw my neighbors for the first time in weeks, they had no idea that we had been out of town.

For the next couple of days I began cutting up fallen trees and removing debris from my yard. The tree that had fallen on my roof was huge, but I managed to cut it down. I was shocked that the only damage the tree made to the roof was a small hole. The shingles still had to be replaced from storm damage, but I was very fortunate compared to other homes that had no roofs at all.

There were no grocery stores open in Slidell at that time, so after I ran low on food I went to a Red Cross site, which distributed clothing, water and Meals Ready to Eat (MREs). By the end of the week, I received a call from my supervisor for a meeting. I drove to the campus and could not believe the destruction I saw along the way. The I-10 Bridge had collapsed, so I had to take an alternative bridge to get to New Orleans. It took me twice as long to get to work because of traffic. I thought Slidell was hard hit by the storm, but when I drove past New Orleans East, I was even more devastated. I saw block after block of downed trees, abandoned cars, looted homes and ransacked apartment buildings. The most eerie part of my drive was seeing caskets protruding from gravesites, obviously the result of pressure from flood waters beneath the surface. I knew from my first drive into the city that I would have to develop a system for coping with this morbid scenery or fall into a state of depression.

Dr. Marc C. David is author of Coming Full Circle: Memoirs of a Campus Life Dean and currently serving as associate vice president for arts and sciences at Florence-Darlington Technical College.

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