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After Storm, An Uncertain Calm

New Orleans students find escape from ravaged city at Harvard

By April H.N. Yee, Crimson Staff Writer

BATON ROUGE, La.—Caroline E. Sloan ’07, horrified and numb, sat in a Little Rock, Ark. Doubletree Hotel room, scanning for her home in the flicker of the television screen.

Buck Farmer ’08 listened as Hurricane Katrina’s winds stripped the limbs off his backyard’s trees and wrenched out others from their roots. Later he wandered up and down New Orleans’ Magazine Street with a laundry basket, at last encountering a convenience store where a man sold him coffee and canned milk, letting in just one customer at a time before closing shop forever.

Turhan F. Sarwar ’06 threw on an old Boy Scout shirt and fled from New Orleans to Jackson, Miss. and then to Baton Rouge, La. before returning home. National Guardsmen drove by, waving, as he photographed dead fish on dry streets. He ironically renamed his city Atlantis.

For a handful of Harvard students living along the Gulf Coast or in the center of New Orleans, the hours trickled by after one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history. Day and night grew blurry, until telling one day from another became impossible. Goals were pared down to the shortest term: where to find food and shelter, how to check that stranded friends and family were alive.

Newly-appointed Assistant Dean of the College John “Jay” Ellison said Thursday that the College has heard from most undergraduates in the area and was continuing to try to get in touch with the rest.

The Category 4 hurricane dealt New Orleans a devastating blow that has already left hundreds dead and has decimated or practically erased towns from the Gulf Coast. Lawmakers have predicted that the hurricane would ultimately cost the federal government more than $300 billion, more than the combined cost of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to date. Mayor C. Ray Nagin had initially speculated that the death toll might reach 10,000, though a preliminary body recovery last week authorities shrunk those estimates. New Orleans, a city that had won fame among conventioneers and nighttime revellers, had become a waterlogged ghost town, patrolled by rescue workers and military police shouldering M-16s.

Katrina temporarily took the homes of a small group of Harvard students as well as their parents’ livelihoods. While many had already been preparing before the hurricane for a move to campus, none had foreseen that the start of school would ultimately become an alternate evacuation route, nor that they would need to negotiate new ways to pay for their education when family assets and incomes plummeted.

Lester Y. Leung ’06 had never needed to apply for financial aid. But after the storm, at the urging of his senior tutor, he called the office. His father, a professor at the Tulane University School of Medicine, was suddenly without a lab—or a job. Leung said Harvard will allow him to delay paying this semester’s tuition until an unspecified date.

Yesterday, Leung was moving into his room in Leverett. It was the beginning of normalcy, two weeks after the storm.

‘THE HOMELESS, TEMPEST-TOST’

While Harvard’s population was relatively untouched by the storm, students at Louisiana State University (LSU) in Baton Rouge saw a routine hurricane evacuation become one of the most extensive relief operations in the country.

The students had been told to vacate the school the weekend of Katrina, and many thought they would simply return after a few days as they had for storms in the past. But classes wouldn’t reconvene until a week and a half later, as Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) workers from as far away as New Mexico and U.S. Public Health Service staff in bulky camouflage converged on the school.

An arena normally used for concerts and basketball games was converted into the largest emergency care center in the state. White cloth partitions sectioned the gray concrete into an intensive care unit, pediatrics, a pharmacy, and other units normally found in a hospital. Caffeinated doctors stood along the sloping ramps of the arena, resting between buses of refugees fresh from the New Orleans Convention Center and other havens of last resort.

FEMA workers, who had volunteered for little pay to take on a job that would ultimately include body collection, waited on metal folding chairs outside the hospital’s entrance. They smoked long menthol cigarettes and squinted their eyes at the track field, where once in a while a Blackhawk helicopter would land.

They waited, as did the others: LSU student volunteers waited to deliver a bottle of water or pass out styrofoam boxes of jambalaya, but had little chance in a chaotic and loosely run relief operation. Refugees waited for answers to simple questions. Where was a phone? Did the mother have her hypertension medication? Where would the family sleep tonight?

The refugees freshly deposited at the center were numb and silent, suspended in the limbo between desperation and depression. Women flipped through piles of used bibs and picture books. Men sat in circles and vowed to return to the city of their birth, before scattering to cities beyond the Louisiana state line, the furthest many had ever traveled. One woman, offered the chance to relocate to Corpus Christi, Tex. by a delegation of local leaders, raised her hand: Where was Corpus Christi, anyway?

In the shade of an athletic center turned medical complex, Earl Brown, 56, waited for his brother who was looking a buy a house. Brown listened to a radio, the only thing he had snatched from a community center in New Orleans before being airlifted to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport by helicopter. He tuned it to oldtime classics, to a man crooning “When I’m down and feeling sad, you always comfort me.”

“I gonna go back,” he said, his face blank, like all the others.

‘UNCERTAIN FUTURE’

After scanning storefronts along Magazine Street for what little canned food or water remained, Farmer walked by his ravaged high school, Isidore Newman, in the neighborhood of Uptown. The trees that had shaded the city’s humid streets had keened over onto roofs and roads, covering some streets, he said.

At the time, Harvard students who had also graduated from Isidore Newman were trying to track him down, but overloaded cell phone lines were nearly impossible to use in the week after the storm.

Farmer brought his laundry basket full of coffee and canned milk back to his Napoleon Avenue home, which had no form of communication except a land telephone. The line would determine his family’s survival when his aunt called, telling them that floodwaters were fast rising on the northern side of the city. Farmer drove out at 1 a.m. Wednesday morning.

He stopped at a house in Baton Rouge where 20 others and their dogs were also taking refuge. For the first time, Farmer saw the footage of his city, the place where he had hoped to someday raise children.

He felt numb, then outraged, then nothing at all as he contemplated the problems that would baffle other students: where he would receive mail, how he would pay for school, how he could obtain prescription drugs.

Farmer and his family soon left to fulfill a planned vacation in Destin, Fl., a mecca for New Orleans natives. The trip turned into a brief chance for them to replan their lives. Farmer called the financial aid office, wondering if his plan might be changed. His mother, a realtor, was indefinitely without work. His father, a process engineer, would temporarily relocate with his company to Austin.

Yesterday, Farmer folded laundry, readying the few items he had scooped up at home or bought at an outlet mall—featuring a 20 percent discount for refugees—to bring today to Leverett House.

He contemplated returning to his hometown, but didn’t want to guess what would remain and what would be erased forever, like homes closer to the coast that been all but wiped from their bare foundations.

Instead, Farmer likes to focus on this semester’s studies, trying to ignore what he described as “an uncertain future.”

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

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

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