Hands-on J-Term class
Providing lessons in disaster and recovery
By Jane Ford
Photographs by Justin Starr
If FEMA gave you $25,000 compensation for damage to your New Orleans home, what would you do: return to the city and make repairs or take the money and move to another city? This was one of the first questions William Williams, associate professor of architecture, posed to 26 students in the January Term class “Technology and Citizenship: Hurricane Katrina.”
Williams went on to point out numerous questions they would have to face if they were homeowners making that decision: Is the area abandoned? What are the other residents of the neighborhood going to do? What about schools? When will businesses reopen? Are there jobs?
The two-week class was designed to bring together and immerse students from different schools within the University in the complex decisions that individuals, city, state, regional and federal governments are grappling with since the catastrophic events of late August.
For four days, the class met at the University of Virginia to examine New Orleans before, during and after Hurricane Katrina from the viewpoint of the architect, the engineer, the scientist, the policymaker and the media expert. They looked at the city leading up to the disaster, and also how each of these professions might approach the recovery efforts.
An official from the Environmental Protection Agency shared with the class the EPA’s far-flung organization, which has national, regional, state and local components, all with overlapping jurisdictions and controls. In many cases, she said, they had only 18th century solutions, such as landfill, bulldozing and burning, to deal with the unprecedented amount of debris. Those solutions are no longer viable as asbestos and other toxins are mixed with the debris from houses. “Our 21st century life just got bombed and all the contents of that life are everywhere,” she said. “We are really, really challenged here.”
Exploring issues of evacuation with engineering school professors, the students strategized about the range of issues related to an evacuation plan: economic, technological, institutional, social, political, scientific, and security and safety.
The course was designed to explore how “disaster reshapes the way people imagine things,” said Kay Neeley, associate professor in the Department of Science, Technology and Society within the School of Engineering and Applied Science. “It’s a great way to focus on the Jeffersonian curriculum — to give students an idea that they need to educate themselves in a society in which technology takes such a large role.”
After studying the city for four days on Grounds, the students, Nicole Hurd, director of the Center for Undergraduate Excellence and one of the course’s lead faculty members, and Patricia Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer, traveled to New Orleans, where they engaged in a week’s worth of recovery efforts. It was during this time that the experience moved from the statistics and facts of the classroom to a firsthand look at the human side of the event. They slept on a gym floor and worked together as a group for almost 180 hours straight. At Xavier University Preparatory School they helped that school and two other high schools as they merged and opened for the first time since the storm. They assisted seniors with college essays and information about financial aid and college life.
Armed with masks, gloves and simple tools, they went into some of the hardest-hit neighborhoods — the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East — where they gutted and cleaned six houses.
Five months after the storm they saw what little progress had been made.
“The neighborhoods are empty,” wrote Catherine Neale, a fourth-year student in the College of Arts & Sciences, in an online journal. “There are just miles upon miles of New Orleans without electricity, water, stores and residents. Nothing prepared me for the breadth of damage; it was everywhere.”
“You see it in the pictures and it looks horrible, but to stand next to a water line that is above your head is a feeling that I will never forget,” wrote engineering student Elizabeth Dykes.
The students also were touched by people’s stories and witnessed the strength of the human spirit.
College and Commerce School student Kelley Mulfinger recalled an eighth grader at the dedication mass for the opening of the combined high school. During the service “the priest asked everyone to turn to someone next to them and say ‘I am blessed.’ Instead of turning to his friend, this young man turned to me and said, ‘I am blessed’ with such conviction and hope. He believes in his city, his family and his own potential. Honestly, it’s the people that matter the most.”
The unveiling of the plans for reconstruction of the city provided a poignant contrast between what the students learned in the classroom and what the people of New Orleans were experiencing. According to second-year College student Connor Sullivan, “The plan was a wonderful example of long-range urban planning: internal light rail system connecting the city to the region, regional levees to supplement the unified city-wide levee system, neighborhoods rebuilt around parks.” Yet the community responded with anger and frustration over the lack of short-term planning.
“The anger and sense of abandonment welling up within the men and women who rose to confront their government was like nothing I have ever seen before,” wrote fourth-year College student Ryan Fleenor.
“What the leaders are missing is the people,” said engineering student Justin Starr.
The need for leadership was a theme many of the students echoed, including Lauren Tilton, a second-year College student from the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. “Until you meet those who live there every day, you do not get a feel for how decisions impact individuals,” she said. “U.Va. says they are making leaders. Leaders have to know what their decisions do. Leadership is sympathy, compassion and acknowledging what did not go right — and inspiring others.”
The students returned to Charlottesville tired but exhilarated by the experience. For the faculty, who had spent the fall semester creating the class around material that seemed to shift daily, the experience was equally rewarding. “The group has transcended all our expectations of connecting classroom life with service life,” Hurd said.
To read more about what the students wrote and to view photographs from the “Technology and Citizenship” course, go to: http://www.virginia.edu/topnews/releases2006/NewOrleansJournals.html.
|J-Term Going Strong
After a successful inaugural year, J-Term is alive and well, having grown from 14 course offerings in 2005 to 30 in 2006. Six of the 30 courses took place off-Grounds — two of them in the United States and four abroad. Students had the opportunity to study literature in Ireland, Renaissance art in Italy and the roots of Islam in Medieval Europe. In all, nearly 500 students participated in this year’s J-Term offerings; 97 studied overseas, while the number of students studying on Grounds increased from 200 in 2005 to more than 400 this year.
Feb. 15, 5:30 p.m. • Miller Center of Public Affairs
Faculty and students from the J-Term class, “Technology and Citizenship: Hurricane Katrina,” will discuss their experiences on Feb. 15 at the Miller Center of Public Affairs. There will be a reception at 5:30 p.m., and the presentation will begin at 6 p.m.