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Two years after Katrina

Displaced students recall times at Brown and returning to New Orleans

Two years later, there are still vacant stretches of land in New Orleans, hundreds of acres with nothing except a few dozen rebuilt homes and trailers, say students who studied in New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast region on Aug. 29, 2005, devastating parts of the Mississippi and Alabama coasts and Louisiana, shutting down universities and forcing students to seek other places to study. Brown hosted 59 undergraduate students and 27 graduate students from the Gulf Coast in the fall of 2005 as part of the University's hurricane response efforts.

Though many of the students who later returned to Tulane University, Dillard University and Xavier University have since graduated or transferred to other schools, they all recall a fragmented college experience transformed by Katrina.

Things left behind

Providence native Cori Oliver, who graduated from Tulane this spring, said she felt removed from Brown's student body as a visiting student. Oliver was entering her junior year at Tulane and had moved into a new apartment when she was told to evacuate. Her house was boarded up, and her then-boyfriend had to break in to retrieve some of her belongings for her. She returned to Providence, where she first spent a semester at Brown and then some time at the University of Rhode Island before returning to Tulane.

Meredith Evans, now a junior at the University of Rochester, was a rising freshman at Tulane in the fall of 2005. The week before Katrina hit, she had driven down with her father from her hometown of Cleveland, Ohio. After Evans had finished moving into her dorm room, Tulane issued an evacuation warning, canceling orientation and classes. Students were told to either go home with their parents or take school shuttles to Alabama to wait out the hurricane.

Evans had been given a substantial financial aid package at Tulane and was worried that she would not be able to get a similar education with her financial constraints. Because she had applied to Brown the year before, the University still had all her financial records on file. She was told she could start right away.

"Basically within a week, after driving back home, I was moving all my things to a second university," Evans said. "All my stuff was in Tulane - I had evacuated with the idea that we were going to go back. All I had was my computer and a backpack."

Returning to a changed city

"Going back to Tulane - that was kind of an emotional rollercoaster," said Kunal Verma, who graduated from Tulane in 2006 after spending a semester at Brown.

Verma first returned apprehensively to New Orleans in January 2006. When he returned, Verma realized that the areas in and around Tulane's campus had been more damaged than he had expected.

Verma had been sending checks to his landlord for his house near campus, but he returned to find it without a roof. Along with other displaced Tulane students, he ended up living on a cruise ship docked in the Mississippi River that the university leased to house displaced off-campus students.

"Everyone had meals at the same time, and there was only Internet access in two areas," Verma said. "We all got to be a very close-knit group."

Despite further housing issues on-campus, Verma said students were generally positive and were grateful to be back. Michael Strecker, director of public relations at Tulane, said that close to 90 percent of Tulane students, who were displaced returned to school for the spring semester. The university has been fully functional since January 2006.

"I think everyone had the same idea: I'd rather live in a windowless ship cabin than be anywhere other than in Tulane or New Orleans," Verma said. There was an immediate sense of pride in the school and the neighborhood."

Tulane students now help with the recovery efforts as part of their freshman curriculum. Through a "service learning project," students apply what they learn in the classrooms to their volunteer efforts. Tulane psychology students work with storm evacuees, while sociology students conduct tests and collect census data and business students help local entrepreneurs rebuild their businesses.

Immediately after the hurricane, Tulane offered what it called a "lagniappe" term, which is Creole for "a little something extra," for students who had been studying at other universities and colleges to catch up on their course load free of charge.

Despite Tulane's efforts to help students catch up academically, one of Oliver's former roommates could not graduate with the rest of her class because she was lacking one course for an engineering degree. Luckily Oliver, a women's studies major, felt at home with Brown's liberal course offerings, and with the support of her department at Tulane was able to graduate on time.

Despite transferring schools multiple times, Evans said she plans to graduate on time, though it will be a "tight squeeze." She returned to Tulane in the spring of 2006, but had to reconsider her major after realizing Tulane had eliminated the mechanical engineering degree she was previously considering.

Though Evans did eventually transfer from Tulane, many students stayed at their original institutions after campuses reopened. Dillard spokeswoman Karen Celestan said, for Dillard students, "there was no place like home."

"I think our students are much more cohesive, even the alumni who have graduated in 2006 and even in 2007," she said. "They have a heightened sense of Dillard, they know how close we came to losing it."

In September Brown pledged to continue giving aid to Dillard, President Ruth Simmons' alma mater, in addition to the University's previous in-kind efforts and $1.1 million in aid.

"We have a very special and warm relationship with Brown and with Dr. Simmons," Celestan said. "It is another flame that has been lit under us to move forward."

Joelle Nixon, who graduated from Dillard in 2007, looked to Simmons as a role model when applying to study at Brown for a semester. Nixon thought Simmons' path from Dillard to the presidency of an Ivy League university made anything seem possible. Nixon, who spent a semester at Brown, attended Dillard partly because of family tradition - her mother also attended the University.

Picking up the pieces

Verma said the two-year anniversary of residents' return to New Orleans is a reminder of how much remains to be done in the city. Lifeless neighborhoods like the lower 9th Ward - which, after the storm, was deluged with water that turned homes upside down and moved cars and trucks for miles - are still empty today.

"Some people are still in trailers on their front lawns," Verma said. "200,000 people have not come back to New Orleans since the storm, and New Orleans is now 60 percent of its original size."

After graduating from Tulane, Verma spent a year with the state recovery authority managing a grant program, working 20-hour days to get money to homeowners affected by the storm. He is now in a master's program at Tulane and still lives in New Orleans.

"There's been a steady rush of people trying to get back. The majority are still somewhere else against their will. They are trapped by circumstance," he said. "There are some who are just happy where they are, or traumatized by images and their city going underwater. There are some who came back and got frustrated, and left."

Oliver's parents did not want her to return to Tulane after the hurricane, and when they visited two years later for her graduation, they were shocked by the flimsy levee protecting New Orleans from future storms and by how much has stayed the same.

Even though she has left Tulane, Evans has gone back to New Orleans many times to visit friends in the city.

"People who try to help don't really understand why people want to go back there," Oliver said. "I think it's hard to come in as an outsider and not understand why people don't want to leave."

Oliver said she thinks the city is cautiously rebuilding in part to preserve New Orleans' culture. "They don't want condos - the architecture of the city, it's different from anywhere else," she said.

Warren Bell, spokesman for Xavier University in New Orleans, said the university wants to be sure that its own efforts to rebuild have a positive impact on the surrounding neighborhoods and nearby residents.

"We understand that we're a neighbor," Bell said. "Our president has made it clear that we want to be a partner and be a part of the dialogue on revival of the commercial and residential areas surrounding Xavier."

Evans said the public doesn't focus on what can be done to fix New Orleans now. "It's complicated, but what is most upsetting is that most of the country doesn't know what kind of a state it is in right now," she said. "I think people in certain areas are recovering well if they are personally motivated, (but) as far as government-motivated efforts, those are slower."

Verma wonders if the city's slow progress is also due, in part, to the culture of New Orleans itself, where of the three major street car lines, two are still shutdown.

"The people here in New Orleans are very spirited and very motivated and so things have been moving forward, but like everything in New Orleans - it's an unfortunate fact - everything moves very slowly," he said.

Now that she too has graduated from Dillard, as her mother did a generation ago, Nixon said her father and grandmother, who live in New Orleans, are working to rebuild their homes. Her grandmother is anxious to get back to the city and return to the days when she used to sit on her porch and chat with people passing by.

But Nixon says her grandmother doesn't understand that New Orleans is a different place now. "Things aren't the same, people don't just walk by and stop and talk," she said.


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