As Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast this week, a number of students witnessed the destruction of their hometowns in shock.
More than 50 GW students are from affected areas in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, said Matt Lindsay, a media relations specialist. If the storm happened a week ago, before move-in began, a number of students would have been in the middle of the crisis.
A category 4 storm, Katrina whipped New Orleans and surrounding areas with 145 mph winds, destroying waterfront hotels and concrete bridges Monday. The storm left nearly 3 million people without electricity and drinking water, and casualties are expected to number in the thousands. Communication in the affected areas continues to be sporadic or nonexistent.
Julie Buekens, a senior from New Orleans, said watching the devastation of the city on the news is “surreal.”
“They focus on all of the worst areas and keep showing scenes of complete devastation,” she said. “It’s hard to watch the images and actually recognize certain streets or certain buildings and houses that are either completely underwater or destroyed.”
Buekens said that she usually anticipates flooding during hurricane season in New Orleans, but was shocked by the magnitude of Hurricane Katrina.
“Hearing of a hurricane heading towards New Orleans is not too surprising, considering people get asked to evacuate at least once a year,” she said. “Usually, most people stay and the storm turns out to be less destructive than anticipated.”
Junior Stefanie Garry, who is also from New Orleans, called the hurricane “the ultimate tragedy.” She wrote in an e-mail that while her family was able to evacuate the area before the storm became threatening, she still does not know about the condition of her home or her dog, who was staying at a boarding facility in the city.
“We have no reports or knowledge of the condition of our house, my Dad’s lab or the school where my mother teaches fourth grade,” said Garry, whose parents are safe in Texas.
Garry added that communication with her family and friends from the city area has been limited, and her cell phone, which operates on a New Orleans network, does not get reception.
Other students said they are concerned about what to expect when they do return to their hometown and how much rebuilding will have to be done.
“Everyone I know has moved out of the city knowing fully well that they will not be able to return home anytime soon,” freshman Adrianne Dorsey said. “I probably won’t be able to go home until Christmas, and even then, after much repair, my home will still be unrecognizable.”
Freshman Lauren Jensen said the current disaster is reviving memories of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“It even seems like 9/11. It seems like a fiction story,” she said. “I don’t think it’s clicked yet that when I go home I don’t know what to expect.”
While senior Brandon Sherr was not personally affected by the hurricane, he said he will be traveling to the Gulf Coast within the next few days to work with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Sherr, who is a New York native, was approached to volunteer because of his membership in a D.C. emergency response group. He said he will initially be dispatched to Alabama and believes he will be spending his two weeks there helping people get aid.
“Almost as equal as the disaster itself is the scale of the humanitarian problem,” he said. “We’ve got a million people spread across the Gulf states needing assistance.”
Sherr said he will miss his first two weeks of class, but that professors have been very understanding. While he said he does not have much experience in relief assistance, he is confident he will be able to console victims.
“For me, this is a way to really give as much as I can,” he said. “In many ways I don’t know what to expect. I have the training and I know what to do in the situation but this is the first time I’ve ever done something like this.”