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Students look back on Hurricane Katrina

| Friday, August 28, 2015

Nearly 10 years have passed since images of the devastation left by Hurricane Katrina first appeared in major news outlets, but for some Notre Dame students the memory of the hurricane is still as fresh as on the day Katrina made landfall, Aug. 29, 2005.

“[The hurricane] is something that I will always remember,” Mari Tumminello, a junior from New Orleans, said. “I can’t even believe it was 10 years ago. It shocks me that it’s been that long.”

Katrina_Graphic_WebJanice Chung | The Observer

Tumminello was 10 years old when Katrina hit. She said she and her family evacuated their home after reports that the hurricane had become a Category 5 storm reached them.  They drove in heavy traffic from New Orleans to Baton Rouge, Louisiana and then flew from there to Miami where her father, an airline pilot, was based.

She said her family watched the coverage of the hurricane and its aftermath from their hotel in Miami, as reports that New Orleans had been spared the brunt of the storm grew increasingly dismal following the failure of the levee system and the subsequent flooding of the city.

The uncertainty during that time was the worst part, Tumminello said.

“They only reported the flooding, so we had no idea what happened to our house, what happened to anything,” she said.

Flooding across the city caused billions of dollars in damage; according to a Dec. 2005 report by the National Climate Data Center, flood water covered over 80 percent of New Orleans, in some places up to 20 feet deep.

“We were lucky in that my house didn’t flood where I was,” Tumminello said. “The levees by us stayed strong, which was great. But we had tons of wind damage, we had brick walls fall down, we had shingles. My neighbor, his house imploded, we had a tornado go down our street.”

But although Tumminello’s house fared well in comparison to much of the city, she said her family was unable to stay in New Orleans. With limited flights leaving New Orleans in the weeks and months following the hurricane, Tumminello said her father had to move their family temporarily to Miami in order to keep his job at the airline.

“Seeing it as a kid and not understanding everything about it — why we couldn’t go back, why we had to stay — made it so much more difficult,” she said. “In hindsight, it was a good experience for me in the end, moving away, experiencing something else, and that would have never happened had Katrina not happened.”

In Pass Christian, Mississippi — which according to a 2008 report by the National Hurricane Center experienced the highest storm surge of the hurricane at 27.8 feet — Notre Dame senior John-Paul Drouilhet had a very different experience of the storm.

Like Tumminello, Drouilhet’s family evacuated the area, but while Tumminello’s family temporarily relocated to Miami, Drouilhet’s returned home to find much of their city leveled.

“The church and school were just gone,” he said. “There was nothing left to either of them.

“Everything was just kind of destroyed.”

Drouilhet said in the aftermath, volunteers helped construct temporary schools for children to attend until the city could locate resources for more permanent school buildings.

“Shortly after the storm, they got enough volunteers to come back, and we actually built a school out of a skating rink in the same town,” he said. “Seventeen days and we opened the school. I mean it wasn’t perfect, it was a skating rink with walls built in it, but it was what we needed.”

Drouilhet’s community was not the only one in need of school buildings. Coming in late August, Katrina left thousands of children without a school to attend at the beginning of a new school year.

Senior Carter Boyd, of Shreveport, Louisiana recalled the hundreds of evacuees who escaped to his town, many of them school-aged children.

While the hurricane itself did relatively little damage to Shreveport, which is in the northeastern part of the state, Boyd said the evacuees from coastal cities posed a major logistical problem.

“I was in sixth grade, and I remember the schools just became flooded with students, because it was the beginning of the school year, so a lot of kids were joining the classes right about that time and it was just an overwhelming situation having not enough seats but so many kids,” he said.

In order to respond to the influx of evacuees, Boyd said volunteers converted many school gyms into temporary shelters.

“I remember going and volunteering with my family in one of these shelters and just seeing how many people they had crammed in there with limited supplies,” he said. “It became a logistical disaster.”

Like Boyd, senior May Stewart said she remembers returning to school to see many new faces. Stewart lives in Vacherie, Louisiana, a small town about an hour west of New Orleans.

“I think I noticed most of the damage when I went back to school,” she said. “I went to a Catholic school in a different town, but we got a ton of students from Catholic schools in New Orleans that were displaced because of the storm, and so it was weird to be in school with people who lost everything that they had.

“One of the girls that I became really close with, she only had one picture that she was able to bring with her from her house. I couldn’t imagine that.”

Stewart said she thinks part of the reason the hurricane was so devastating was that its intensity took people by surprise.

“No one really thought it was really going to be as bad as it was going to be,” Stewart said. “And then, by the time we realized that it was, it was kind of too late to make plans.”

Tumminello, Drouilhet, Boyd and Stewart all said Katrina left a lasting impression on them, even 10 years after it hit land.

Stewart said since witnessing Hurricane Katrina, any news of impending disasters makes her anxious.

“I’m always looking and seeing what storms are coming up and where they are going, and it sounds horrible, but praying that it doesn’t happen in Louisiana because I know what would happen to my town,” Stewart said.

But despite the tragedy of the storm, Tumminello said some good came out of Hurricane Katrina.

“It was definitely a terrible time in my life, but it’s something that’s shaped who I am today and I wouldn’t be the person I am today had it not happened.”

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