New Orleans has been my home since birth. But when Katrina hit my hometown, I was at Yale and was relatively removed from the chaos. I watched grim reports on the news. I spoke to my family as they were forced to move from New Orleans to Houston, to Topeka and back to Houston, their lives turned upside down. My sisters’ schools were closed, as was my father’s small law office, and the entire city was a military zone.
After the storm, President Levin sent an e-mail to the Yale community describing the steps the University was taking “to provide relief to those displaced by the hurricane.” The University contributed large amounts of money to relief efforts and assisted students attending schools in the New Orleans area. All of this was commendable, as was the concern of my professors and my college master. Yale’s administration, however, made no organized effort to assist or, for that matter, even to contact its own students from the affected areas.
President Levin, recognizing the tremendous financial impact of Katrina, announced in his e-mail that Tulane students studying at Yale would not be charged tuition. Strangely enough, though, Yale had given no direction to its own financial aid office on how to address the needs of Yale students who live in areas devastated by Katrina. The employees there have been polite when my family and I have spoken with them, but seem oblivious to what President Levin termed “the harrowing physical and emotional ordeal suffered by the storm’s survivors.”
Conditions in New Orleans have improved little three months after Katrina. I visited home over Thanksgiving for the first time since the storm, my trip beginning in Houston where my family is still living. As we drove to New Orleans, I tried to prepare myself by running through the images I had seen on television: houses with water up to the rooftops, boats floating through the streets, the missing roof of the Superdome. But nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.
Most of New Orleans is without power and becomes completely dark at night — a ghost town of unlit streets and abandoned, flooded houses. There is no grass anywhere, leaving uneven dirt patches on lawns strewn with trash (refrigerators, clothes, sofas, mattresses, etc.). Each house has a dark line across it, often up to the roof, marking the level reached by the floodwaters. On the doors of each house, rescue workers have drawn a large orange “X” with numbers and letters on each of the letter’s four sides. Above the X was the date when the house had been searched for people. The space below the X was reserved for the number of dead bodies found inside.
The eeriest thing about the city was the absolute silence. These had been busy, residential neighborhoods where many of my friends had lived, where my parents had grown up. They were now completely empty. No one walked by. No cars passed us. As we drove down the interstate after dark, all I could see was darkness in every direction.
My trip home made me realize that Katrina has all but destroyed New Orleans. Housing for 300,000 people has been damaged, most of it beyond repair; businesses that took generations to build have been rendered bankrupt overnight. My life and my family’s lives, the lives of everyone who lived in New Orleans, are forever changed.
My parents, like many other people from the city, are trying to decide what to do next. Where are they going to live? What will happen to their jobs? How are they going to pay the mortgage on a property now damaged and worth far less than before? How are they going to pay for things like college tuition?
Yale should do its best to help its students caught in Katrina’s vise. Washington and Lee University and the University of Richmond, two schools with many more students from affected areas and with much less money than Yale, have waived tuition, room and board for second semester of this year for all students from New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Harvard’s president announced that his university was considering what special assistance its Katrina-impacted students might require. Yale’s financial aid office, in sharp contrast, has taken no special action in response to Katrina, continuing instead to rely on rigid income-based formulas that are of little use in the face of the total upheaval caused by the storm.
The financial aid program at Yale needs to be flexible enough to address catastrophic events such as Katrina, which destroyed the core of an entire American city. This university has an obligation to recognize the immensity of the crisis and the profound ways in which it has affected members of its community. Yale has an obligation to help.
Erica Stern is a junior in Saybrook College.