August 22, 2007
Tanager Haemmerle had been attending college for exactly one week in August 2005 when administrators at the University of New Orleans closed the campus due to increasingly worrying reports from the National Hurricane Center. As she watched the aftermath of the storm unfold from the house in Anacortes, Wash., to which her family had evacuated, Tanager, like UNO’s other 17,000 students, had a tough decision to make: If she was determined to pursue her studies, she had to decide whether to resume classes at a bruised institution in a violently battered city or to transfer to another school. Like fewer than 7,000 of the university’s enrollees that semester, she chose the former.
Tanager lives in Metairie, a suburb just west of New Orleans. Though her street didn’t flood, hurricane winds ripped off parts of her roof. Still, her house was livable. UNO faculty and staff managed to organize some courses online and in satellite campuses in undamaged areas outside the city, and within six weeks of Hurricane Katrina, Tanager was attending both.
“After the stress of the storm, it was good to not miss out on a semester,” she says. “It was also nice to have something to do other than compare the heights of neighbors’ Katrina rubbish piles.”
Many students faced a much more dismal situation. Lee Scott, who’d attended UNO since 2000, had no home to return to in New Orleans and none anywhere else, either; his family’s house in Pascagoula, Miss., had flooded in the tidal surge. He couldn’t come back to UNO until the following spring semester, and even then, he had to stay with friends and generous strangers–some New Orleanians with extra rooms heeded the university’s call to open their doors to homeless students–for six months until he found a place to live.
Class in session
Lee was supposed to graduate in fall 2005; instead, he will finish at the end of this semester. “I was burnt out,” he says. “Since we’ve been back, it’s been, ‘Everybody’s here, so let’s have as much fun as possible.’ We slacked off because we had to.”
“People are so stressed that studies can become the least of your worries. It’s about just getting through the day,” says Sean Deskin, who moved to New Orleans and enrolled in UNO’s English program after Katrina. “It’s hard to see that on someone’s face. It drags you down. It’d be different than going to, say, Austin. It’s a lot more glum compared to that atmosphere.”
UNO, the city’s largest university, sustained more than $100 million in damages, and, like most of the rest of New Orleans, still needs repairs. “Our University Center still has plywood blocking the lobby,” says Teresa O’Keefe, who sometimes finds her surroundings depressing. “Driving to school each day along Elysian Fields, there was nothing but empty homes,” she says. “The roads are still filled with debris.”