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Education Among the Devastation | The Nation

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Education Among the Devastation

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Nicole McClelland

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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.

Bittersweet homecoming

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."

Trailer trials

Add the stress of housing dilemmas, health care shortages, a nearly half-absent population, insurance company battles and FEMA to the mix of the pressures of college life, and you get an environment in which some students can't, or don't want to, operate.

"How am I supposed to turn my homework in on time when I'm crammed in a FEMA trailer with my family?" Todd Hack asked his freshman composition instructor. That spring 2006 semester, his first back at UNO, he performed poorly in some of his classes. He ultimately transferred to a school in Baton Rouge.

Even Teresa O'Keefe, who wants to stay in New Orleans because her life, her home and her roots are there, admits that she's wary of the city's soaring murder rate, the highest in the country. "The crime is getting out of control," she says. "I fear for my safety much more than I ever have, and that makes me consider moving to another area for graduate school." None of the area's universities is up to pre-Katrina enrollment levels. But this semester, 12,500 steadfast students, the highest number since the storm, will return to UNO.

Tanager Haemmerle is still one of them. She finds it hard to look at the devastation every day, but "everyone, teachers and students, pull together to help make our mutual suffering sufferable." She feels re-enrolling at UNO was the right thing to do at the time and is glad to be back. But if her parents, who have put their house on the market, leave town, she'll go with them.

"It's damn depressing sometimes, but I absolutely made the right choice," Sean Deskin says. He moved to New Orleans eight months ago to spend time with his brother, a student at Tulane, and thinks that the people make it worth sticking it out, regardless of the city's troubles. "I stayed because I met really interesting, really great people. I'm in it for the long haul."

According to Lee Scott, "You can't just run away." To him, staying in New Orleans, which he appreciates more than ever, is worth the two years the decision delayed his graduation. "Families and friends are all trying to reconstruct their lives. I had to come back." He laughs. "I'm broke, but I'm alright, and I'm not going to leave until I have to."

Anna Ball, a fine arts major who struggled to get back into the college routine amidst sustained property damage and the loss of a family member, agrees. She had to double her classes in order to catch up on her credit hours, but she doesn't regret her choice. "It was always my dream and my goal to finish what I started in 2003," she says. "I will stay at UNO until I finish. I love the school and feel at home there."

Nicole McClelland is the founding editor of the online literary magazine The Extrovert and an editor at Mother Jones. Before moving to San Francisco, she taught English to displaced students in Thailand and New Orleans.

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