One year after the storm, life is far from normal for New Orleans’ students.
Although progress is underway to rebuild the city and much of the damage from Hurricane Katrina has been repaired, Tulane University students who spent last fall at Yale and Eli students who hail from New Orleans said they continue to feel displaced and distraught in the aftermath of the disaster, one of the most catastrophic tropical storms ever to hit the United States.
For the 10 Tulane students who briefly attended Yale during the evacuation last fall, returning to Louisiana for the spring semester was no easy transition after growing attached to life in the Elm City, some of them said. Many said they still hope to transfer back to Yale.
Tulane sophomore J.P. Pacelli, who attended Yale for the first half of his freshman year, said that although he was sad to leave New Haven, he was surprised to find Tulane in good working condition in the spring.
“You could barely see the remnants of Katrina,” he said.
During his time at Yale, Pacelli pledged Alpha Delta Phi, organized a Davenport master’s tea and built a “very good group of friends.” Pacelli said he applied for a transfer to Yale but was not accepted.
“I very, very much regret having to leave Yale, but I’m not going to cry over it or anything,” he said. “I’m having a great time at Tulane.”
Pacelli said he plans to attend Yale events such as the Harvard-Yale football game in November and is considering reapplying to Yale in the future.
“I would like to be back, but we’ll just have to see how that goes,” he said.
Tulane senior Isaac Riiseness also expressed a desire to return to Yale, where he spent the first semester of his junior year and has fond memories of friendly classmates.
But Tulane junior Chris Starko said that while he left behind “great memories” at Yale, including membership in the Yale Debate Association, he did not regret having to return to New Orleans because he has since grown fond of Tulane and of New Orleans. Starko said that when he returned in the spring, the campus and neighboring bars and restaurants had all reopened.
“It’s just life as usual,” he said.
While the Tulane students were getting reacquainted with their newly restored campus, most of the eight Yalies from New Orleans returned from a summer of volunteer work in their own neighborhoods and readied themselves to begin the school year despite lingering thoughts of the ruin waiting at home.
James Babst ’08 spent his summer working for Landis Construction in New Orleans to repair city hospitals near his home. He said he decided to help rebuild his city in the summer to make up for not being there during the school year.
“Being away from home at school while this happened was just awful,” he said. “The fact that I couldn’t actively participate in the recovery effort was hard on me.”
Babst said he was shocked to return to blackouts, broken-down homes and seeing people living in trailers.
“I was like, ‘Oh God,’ we haven’t changed,” he said. “It’s nine months after the storm and progress is moving so slowly.”
Babst said he has seen several tropical storms rage through the area without damaging his home, but last year the hurricane forced his family to evacuate to Nashville, Tenn.
“No one is really sure of New Orleans’ future,” he said. “The residents have a dim outlook right now.”
Kezia Kamenetz ’09 said she feels more secure returning to Yale this fall while her city is in the midst of repairs than she did when the hurricane initially hit last August during her freshman opening days.
“It was very scary and lonely, and I wanted to go home,” she said.
Kamenetz, who worked for The Double Dealer magazine this summer to write an article about books written on Hurricane Katrina, said that though she saw a difference in the city’s appearance between May and August, it was “not a huge change.” Despite the damage, Kamenetz said she is still considering living in New Orleans in the long term.
“I think it’s important people realize the extent to which things are normal there,” she said.
Kevin Stephens ’10 also said he hopes to return permanently to New Orleans after graduating. Stephens said that despite the high crime rate and disorganized school system at home, knowing that most of the physical destruction had been repaired eased his transition into his first year of college.
“I know that between the city, state and federal government, New Orleans will be successfully rebuilt,” he said.
Laura Chandhok ’08 returned to New Orleans this summer to take a class at the University of New Orleans and work for Habitat for Humanity. Despite the limited progress made in poorer sections of the city, she said, she is hopeful that much rebuilding will take place while she at school this year.
“People are optimistic about bringing the city back,” she said.
Chandhok said that while she was safe in New Haven last year, her family members had their lives “turned upside-down” by moving to Brooklyn last fall and returning to find their home slightly damaged by water.
She said hearing nationwide suggestions that New Orleans should relocate instead of rebuilding fueled her determination to restore the city to what it used to be.
“I think if you’ve ever been there, you know it’s a city like any other,” she said. “The idea that it’s not worth saving and rebuilding is totally absurd.”