Students build lives after Katrina
By Melanie Mayhew
Some packed into cramped cars like sardines, fleeing a storm that in the days before was gaining in fury.
Others watched, days later, in helpless horror as the water inched above their beloved city.
All shared the unfortunate bond of Hurricane Katrina.
Three months have passed since Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. The University of Virginia is harboring 142 of these uprooted college students, but also has been home to orphans of another sort: the 80 U.Va. students who hail from areas affected by the hurricane, some of whom lost their childhood homes to Katrina.
Mold blankets the walls of Stephanie Mastrangelo’s New Orleans home, months after water from a broken levee and Lake Pontchartrain filled its first floor. Mastrangelo, a U.Va. third-year, returned a few weeks ago to empty the second floor of her family’s now structurally unsound home.
Her neighborhood, she said, looked like a debris-scattered ghost town.
Orange X’s were spray painted on abandoned homes to indicate they had been searched. Accompanying each X were the numbers of people found dead or alive inside.
Mastrangelo isn’t going home for the holidays. She’ll join her family in Atlanta, their temporary home. Her parents plan to demolish their house in New Orleans and sell the land, and expect insurance to cover half the value of the home.
My parents keep saying that [although] they’re in their 40s, it’s like they’re starting over again in their 20s with no equity,” Mastrangelo said.
Others have been luckier — at least, in the material sense.
The first floor of Lauren Tilton’s home was gutted, but the family expects to salvage what’s left. The second-year from Metairie, La., lost part of her identity when Katrina hit her town, she said.
“It’s a loss of home, it’s a loss of place,” Tilton said. “Being in Virginia, I feel helpless.”
Tilton and her family haven’t located a woman who helped raise the U.Va. student and her siblings, and whom Tilton calls a “second mother.” The woman was in the hospital when Katrina hit. She was airlifted from there and no one in Tilton’s family has been able to track her down.
These unknowns have made the semester difficult for these U.Va. students. Julie Guider, also a third-year, fears many of her friends from high school won’t return to the area. Although Guider’s New Orleans home wasn’t damaged, a lot of her friends lost theirs, she said.
Kate Daughdrill, also a third-year, lived just outside New Orleans. Her home weathered the storm, but people fleeing the city have crowded her town. The school district has tripled in size, and what was once an isolated, historic enclave will soon become another New Orleans suburb, she said.
Daughdrill’s parents had planned to sell the home sometime in the next few years because of an impending job transfer, but the influx of New Orleans evacuees sent property values in Daughdrill’s town sky-high, so they’ve decided to sell sooner.
“When I go home for Christmas, it will be the last time I’m home,” she said.
Photo by Dan Addison
|Visiting Tulane students getting supplies in September.
U.Va. students have translated some of their frustrations and fears into action in “a series of pretty amazing” activities and fund-raisers, said Miles Clements, a fourth-year from Metairie. At U.Va.’s season-opening football game, they collected $60,000 for hurricane relief. Other University-based efforts generated at least $5,000.
“The U.Va. community has been amazing,” said Jessica White, a second-year from Metairie who helped at the football game. The students knew parents and alumni would offer “a good bit of money,” but were surprised when students unhesitatingly contributed $20 bills and $50 checks.
“It was beautiful,” White said.
The University, like many other institutions across the nation and in the commonwealth, offered displaced students the opportunity to attend the University for the semester. With schools such as Tulane University, Loyola University New Orleans and Xavier University of Louisiana closing their doors for at least the semester, thousands of students were left without a place to learn. Milton Adams, vice provost for academic programs, received “hundreds” of e-mails offering help from students, faculty, staff and the Charlottesville community. Less than four days after Katrina swirled through the Gulf Coast, U.Va. began admitting students. Most of the 142 students were from Tulane, and of them, 116 were undergraduates. Less than five days after Katrina, some were already in classes.
By executive order, Gov. Mark R. Warner waived the students’ tuition, which added up to a little more than a half-million dollars that the University and state didn’t collect.
“If it happened again tomorrow, we’d do it [again] in an instant,” Adams said.
An anonymous donor contributed $10,000 toward assisting students, said Yvonne Hubbard, director of student financial services. Permanent and refugee students from the Gulf Coast who requested assistance received winter clothes and other necessities.
The $10,000 “was a lifesaver for many of these students,” Hubbard said.
Making Virginia Home
Tulane students enrolled at U.Va. temporarily organized initiatives to make U.Va. feel like “a home away from home.” They hosted an ice cream social and matched each Tulane upperclassman with a Tulane freshman. The students also recently took a private tour of Monticello and attended a reception featuring author John Grisham and his wife, Renee.
“It’s been amazing to be in a place where people have welcomed us,” said Natalie Cox, one of the senior Tulane students who organized the mentoring program. Cox is from Virginia Beach. “They’ve made it as much of an issue of theirs as it is ours.”
Added John Bourgeois, a Tulane senior from Charlottesville who helped organize the program: “My semester’s been amazing. It’s been really good because I’ve really fallen into a group of people who have really cared about me, have supported me and have taken care of me this semester. I’ve really enjoyed my time here.”
The University ensured that all of the 40 freshman students lived on campus and near one another, said Shamim Sisson, senior associate dean of students.
“We’ve been trying to keep a special eye out for them,” she said.
The University found housing for most of the displaced students and also offered 10 displaced professors the opportunity to research at U.Va. for the semester. The School of Nursing prepared toiletry kits and a residence college assembled school supplies for the students.
Ready to Return
But despite the efforts, some students have had difficulty adjusting to a semester away from their home colleges.
Jason Yates, a Tulane freshman from Fairfax County, spent a week at Tulane before he evacuated. He’s anxious to return to Tulane.
“It was pretty crazy,” Yates said. “It’s been kind of a rough start [but] I’m really excited to be [going] back where I was meant to be.” All of the students interviewed said they would return to Tulane when it reopens in January.
But for some students beginning college, wanting to return to Tulane is a complicated issue.
For Ben Segal, a freshman from New Orleans, U.Va. was his first-choice school. Now that he’s had a taste of the Cavalier life, he’d rather stay put.
“I love it here,” he said, but he’s “not holding my breath.”
Potential transfer students must have completed 24 credits of post-secondary work, and despite a Student Council recommendation to University officials to make an exception for these students, the University will adhere to its policy, Adams said.
Many Tulane upperclassmen, such as junior Devin Hendricks, a native of Chantilly, can’t wait to return to Tulane.
“I’ll never forget my time here, it’s been an amazing experience,” he said. “But I’m definitely looking forward to going back to the school that’s been a part of my life for the last two years.”
Paul Logan, a Tulane sophomore from Arlington, is among the 83 percent of displaced undergraduates who are Virginia residents. He’s appreciated what U.Va.’s done for him and other visiting students, but he’s eagerly awaiting his next semester at Tulane and seeing New Orleans rebuilt.
Kathleen Cardinale, a sophomore from Fairfax County, echoed his sentiments.
“It’s not going to be the same, but I think we’re going to make the best of it,” she said. “New Orleans will get back on its feet.”
Reprinted from the Nov. 22 Daily Progress