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Katrina Leaves Undergrads Facing New Life

Students face displacement in wake of deadly hurricane

By April H.N. Yee, Crimson Staff Writer

It was a calm, clear Sunday morning when Caroline E. Sloan '07 drove to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, wrapping up a weekend jaunt at her Garden District home.

But instead of flying to New Hampshire for cross-country pre-season training, she stepped onto an Entergy plane with her brother, mother, and father, a lawyer for the company that provides power to Louisiana and much of the South, leaving behind a city that was silent, still, and mostly boarded up, bracing for Hurricane Katrina's blow.

"It was like a ghost town," she recalled.

Things would soon change when Katrina, a Category 4 hurricane, hit New Orleans and neighboring regions in Louisiana and Mississippi August 29 with sustained winds of up to 145 miles per hour.

Assistant Dean of the College Jay Ellison wrote in an e-mail Friday that residential deans have begun to contact undergraduates in affected areas. He wrote that students who have been reached report they are safe, but not all students have been reached yet.

Those Harvard undergraduates from New Orleans contacted by The Crimson this week were all out of town for research and vacations, or they had heeded Mayor C. Ray Nagin's plea to evacuate, sparing themselves the looting, filth, and chaos that would eventually overtake the devastated city in the wake of the storm. Floodwaters have breached city levees, and Nagin has estimated that 80 percent of the city is underwater.

The storm and subsequent flooding represent one of the most significant national disasters in American history. Hundreds of fatalities throughout the Gulf Coast have already been reported, and Nagin has speculated that the death toll may be in the thousands, a number that grows as rescue workers and police officers face a seething and hungry population.

Tourists and residents who chose to stay put and a largely low-income population unable to flee are islanded from an escape, surrounded by looting, undocumented rapes, and death. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco said that as many as 300,000 residents may not have evacuated the city.

Meanwhile, five million people in the Gulf Coast remain without power, and risk analysts have estimated that the storm will cost insurers a record $26 billion.

Thousands stayed behind in the city or relied on strained rescue and relief efforts, many of them condemned by their poverty to ride out the storm and its aftermath or simply wary of a lifetime of boy-who-cried-wolf predictions. New Orleans' poverty and crime levels dwarf those of the rest of the nation, with a staggering percentage of black males seeing the inside of prisons during their lifetimes.

Harvard students in the city contacted by The Crimson graduated from independent private high schools like Isidore Newman or Metairie Country Day, putting them in a demographic more likely to heed warnings to escape.

From the safety of relatives' homes or hotels, Harvard students displaced by the storm grappled with uncertain futures. Facing the prospect of an entirely new financial status, one student e-mailed a financial aid officer for help.

On Sunday afternoon, Sloan's plane landed in Little Rock. For days in a Doubletree hotel room, she scrutinized the television, searching for her home just two blocks south of the once-picturesque St. Charles Avenue. She didn't see it.

Her father was working out of Entergy's Little Rock office, contemplating a massive repowering of isolated neighborhoods. Sloan's mother—a French professor at Tulane University in New Orleans—and brother considered moving in with an aunt in Washington, D.C. Sloan plans to go back to Cambridge, joining the Harvard cross-country team on Friday.

"It sucks, but what about all the people who have to walk?" Sloan said. "I guess we're lucky."

New Orleans and Baton Rouge phone lines were overwhelmed with calls, making it difficult for four College students from the same high school, Isidore Newman in Uptown New Orleans, to reconnect. Lester Leung '06, who spent the summer in Cambridge, set up a message board online.

Eric J. Suh '07, one of the four, was in Lake Charles, midway between New Orleans and Galveston. His family was planning to move in with relatives in Boston, the nearest family, and find a school for his younger brother.

"We've been watching the news closely to see if we could catch a view of our house or the neighborhood, but we've only gotten vague glimpses that don't say much, while all we've heard are rumors about which areas are dry and which areas are flooded," Suh wrote in an e-mail. "It's a bit up in the air right now."

In September 2004, when Hurricane Ivan threatened New Orleans but ultimately swerved past it, Hani N. Nakhoul '06 evacuated by booking an earlier flight to Boston for the start of classes. But Katrina was different. Nakhoul left home in Metairie, a New Orleans suburb south of Lake Pontchartrain, at dawn on Sunday morning.

"I actually had a feeling that it would kind of be going for the long haul, so I packed all my stuff, all my clothes that I wear on a regular basis, all my books and things to keep me occupied for a long time," said Nakhoul, who didn't know the status of his home. "I didn't expect what to happen to happen, I didn't expect all of New Orleans to be uninhabited, but I did expect it be real."

On Wednesday, he was staying with friends in Knoxville, Tenn. and planned to head to Montreal, where his parents hoped to find new jobs and his 16-year-old brother a new high school.

"We're not trying to linger on it," he said. "We're just trying to make plans as best we can as things come up. So we're just trying."

—Joshua P. Rogers contributed to the reporting of this article.

—Staff writer April H. N. Yee can be reached at aprilyee@fas.harvard.edu

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