Hannah Burnett’s ’08 house in Ocean Springs, Miss. is gone. Gone are the sets of classic books that Burnett’s father read to her when she was young. Gone are Burnett’s paintings that hung on the walls, the rosebushes in her backyard, and the big windows that looked onto the harbor.
Burnett’s home was destroyed Monday, when Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, flooding and severely damaging parts of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. With winds peaking at 145 miles per hour, the storm was one of the most devastating ever to hit the United States. Yale students from New Orleans, Ocean Springs, and Mobile, Ala., among other coastal cities, spent Monday and Tuesday trying to reach their parents and determine the status of their homes. Six Yalies from New Orleans met late Tuesday evening in a dormitory to watch breaking news on CBS and discuss the state of their neighborhoods.
Burnett received an e-mail Tuesday afternoon from her mother saying their condominium was destroyed. Burnett’s mother, who had evacuated with her husband and younger son to a relative’s house in Jackson, Miss., had heard the news from a friend who had remained near the coast.
“I mean that’s pretty horrible, right?” Burnett said, sounding shaken. “I don’t think there’s any other way to feel but shocked. I hope to God that no one that I know got hurt or died.”
The numbers tell a dismal story. One Mississippi county alone said its death toll was at least 100, and officials said total fatalities are likely much higher. The cost to insurance companies may reach $25 billion, and over 2.1 million people have reported power outages in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida.
Media reports have focused on New Orleans, a city that is especially vulnerable to flooding because it is largely below sea level and surrounded on three sides by water. Some 80 percent of the city was reportedly flooded on Tuesday, and in some areas water levels reached as high as 20 feet.
The parents of Kezia Kamenetz ’09 had just dropped her at Yale when they heard the hurricane was coming. Kamenetz, who lives in uptown New Orleans, said she was not concerned about flooding in her neighborhood. But she said she worried that a tree might fall on the house or the roof might be torn off. The first few days of freshman year are typically a stressful time, and the hurricane has been yet another concern for Kamenetz.
“So much is going on. It’s my first days of Yale. How can you be like, ‘Oh my house doesn’t exist?’” Kamenetz said, presenting a hypothetical situation. “It doesn’t go into the conversation about signing up for English 125.”
Kamenetz’s parents are now staying in New York and do not yet know the state of their house. The city is in such disarray — in addition to the flooding, there’s no power or drinking water — that Kamenetz’s parents may not be able to return home for weeks. Both her parents are writers, and they worry that their computers may be destroyed, along with their saved work, Kamenentz said. They are also concerned about the family dog, who is at the vet in New Orleans.
On Tuesday night, New Orleans officials were making plans to evacuate the tens of thousands of people staying at shelters in the city, according to CNN.com. Some 80 percent of city residents had already left before the hurricane struck, heeding a mandatory evacuation order from Mayor C. Ray Nagin.
Lindsay Stradley ’03 was initially reluctant to leave. She has lived in New Orleans for two years, and until Monday, she had never seen a hurricane do much damage to the city despite repeated warnings from authorities. She said she did not realize the danger Katrina posed until Saturday, when Tipitina’s, a concert venue in New Orleans, canceled a brass band performance.
“I at that point realized that I was foolish,” Stradley said. “If Tipitina’s had canceled a concert then this must actually be serious.”
At 3 a.m. Sunday morning, Stradley threw some clothes into a bag, grabbed a cup of coffee, and drove seven hours to her parent’s house in Atlanta. Now safely in Atlanta, Stradley said she is unconcerned about her own building, a sturdy brick structure that she said can weather the flood. Instead, she said she now worries about the people who stayed in the city because they did not own a car or could not afford gas. She said she is anxious to return so she can volunteer for the American Red Cross, which is launching a relief operation for victims of the hurricane.
“Working with the Red Cross could involve anything from working with food and water aid to helping with shelters,” she said. “If you want me to build, pump water, I’ll do that too. It’s nerve-racking to sit in Atlanta and feel like I’m not doing anything.”
Ashley Wright ’07 echoed these sentiments. Wright said he knew his hometown of Mobile. had not suffered as much damage as other areas along the Gulf Coast, including New Orleans, but he still worried Monday evening when he could not reach his parents. They had stayed in Mobile and taken the usual precautions: they filled their bathtubs with water, filled the cars with gas, stocked up on dry foods, and waited for the storm to hit.
“It’s definitely harder when you’re away from it, especially when you have family down there,” Wright said. “You worry about everything you don’t know.”
Wright’s fears were allayed early Tuesday morning, when he spoke to his parents and learned that the damage to their house had been minimal.
Katrina has subsided by now, though her remnants are moving up the east coast in the form of rain and wind, said Steven Sherwood, professor of geology and geophysics at Yale. But cities along the Gulf Coast, and especially New Orleans, are still reeling from the hurricane as flood waters in some areas continue to rise.
Burnett said she still has a mental image of her room, and it is odd to think it no longer exists. She expects her parents to buy another house in Mississippi, she said. Until then, she will spend vacations at relatives’ houses.
Yale students whose homes or hometowns have been devastated said they will never forget the past two days.
“In history it will probably mark a point: before Katrina and after Katrina,” Kamenetz said.
–The Associated Press contributed to this report.