by Myra Saturen
August 29, 2013
Weather experts say it was more like four storms than one. Hurricane Katrina surged along the Gulf coast from central Florida to Texas. Striking landfall just east of New Orleans at dawn on August 29, 2005, it hurled 145-mile-an-hour winds - the highest ever recorded in the U.S., submerged highways for hundreds of miles, toppled houses into the floodwaters, and pushed a 29-foot wall of water over and against levees that proved no match for the storm's strength.
More than one million people found themselves trapped in inadequate shelters with little food, water, medical care, sanitation, or police protection. Civic life collapsed. Photographs revealed a small portion of the suffering--an elderly woman outside the New Orleans convention center, dead in her wheelchair; two young men, just their heads emerging from water; a mother and young child clinging to each other and helicopter straps.
Twenty-five thousand hungry, exhausted, thirsty, and traumatized people crowded into the ill-equipped convention center where they waited in heat and stench for help that came too slowly and ineffectively. Some boarded buses for a 350-mile trip to Houston's Astrodome. Many stayed stranded on highways and rooftops. According to an article in the New York Times, cancer patient Xavier Bowie died when his oxygen ran out. In all, more than 1,800 people perished as a result of the storm. Hundreds of thousands left New Orleans, seeking a haven with relatives as far away as Boston. New Orleans' Lower Ninth Ward received the brunt, as a storm surge from the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet added to the disaster.
Loss of home and life was devastating. In an eighth anniversary interview on National Public Radio, streetcar line repairman Ronald Lewis told journalist Steve Inskeep that "it was unbelievable, a part of your community completely washed away."
Colleges, organizations and individuals across the country reacted quickly to help victims of the catastrophe. Even though the fall semester had just gotten underway, within 48 hours Northampton Community College (NCC) students, faculty and staff raised $7,000 for Second Harvest food bank, which rushed food and water to New Orleans; at the Monroe Campus, early childhood educators collected health and hygiene supplies and delivered them to the Red Cross; children at the Monroe Campus's Hannig Family Children's Center hosted a lemonade stand and a bake sale that raised $220 dollars for "children who got water in their houses"; veterinary tech majors held a raffle to benefit animal rescue groups and donated pet evacuation kits; two instructors in the College's truck driving program drove to Jackson, Mississippi, in an 18-wheeler filled with supplies; members of CHARTS, (the radiography club), the student senate, ACT 101, college broadcast stations WNCC and Videowaves, and two NCC staff members pitched in to pay for the truck driving instructors' gas. Almost half of the funds raised initially were from funeral services and accounting students, faculty and staff.
NCC waived tuition for students at schools closed by the hurricane so they could take classes online.
NCC graduate and award-winning photojournalist Carol Guzy chronicled the suffering of animals after the storm through her photographs. "As an animal lover, I felt such horror at the archaic policy that wouldn't allow pets to be rescued with their owners," Guzy said. As a result of her pictures, national legislation was passed that reversed this law. Guzy also adopted two stranded dogs, Trixie and Gracie.
Over the next three years, NCC students, faculty and staff made seven trips to New Orleans's Lower Ninth Ward. Led by social work professor Hope Horowitz and sociology professor Erin Reilly, and in conjunction with the St. Bernard Project, teams painted, cleaned, rebuilt, and remediated mold in homes.
"The volunteers gave moral and emotional support, as well," says Horowitz. "They let victims know that the rest of the country hadn't forgotten them. People felt beaten down, and the volunteers refreshed their spirits and gave them energy for the long slog ahead."
Elizabeth Saville, a social work major, observed that "some homes were destroyed to just dirt or a cement slab." On a later visit, she saw that some of these homes had cars in front of them and families living inside as a result of the volunteers' work. She also said that "however for many, there is still tons of work to be done. For them, Louisiana and the Lower Ninth Ward are more than just where they lived. Their hearts and souls are built into the city."
The project had a powerful impact on these students. "It was life-changing. Students saw what we talk about in social work and sociology classes--poverty and inequality," Horowitz said.
And, eight years later, the work is still not finished. Although much rebuilding has taken place, six thousand people remain displaced. "It is important that we remember and do not forget," Horowitz says. "People still need help." She recommends St. Bernard's Project as a good place to volunteer with and/or donate to, but says, "If you can't get to New Orleans, help victims of Hurricane Sandy or help someone else."
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