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Hurricane slams into New Orleans

Justin Tardiff | Tuesday, August 30, 2005

As the Big Easy braced for Katrina Monday – the Category 4 hurricane purported to be the most catastrophic event to strike the region in decades – wary New Orleans natives of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s expressed grave concern for loved ones back home.

Touted in a National Weather Service statement as a “potentially catastrophic and life-threatening” event, Hurricane Katrina had already demonstrated its aptitude for violence by Thursday – claiming seven lives in Florida as a mere Category 1 storm.

That same statement warned of the storm’s ability to obliterate mobile homes and other “poorly-constructed dwellings.” More stable buildings were also labeled as at-risk areas as the National Weather Service warned residents of New Orleans that Katrina also had the capacity to cause serious damage to even well-built structures.

Keeping in touch

Senior Brandon Hall – who lives within New Orleans city limits – said he has spoken to his family and friends, but with difficulty. Tied up phone lines have made communication difficult, he said.

“I’ve spoken with family and friends. Some are scared, and others are dealing with the situation well,” Hall said. “None of my family or friends have been through a hurricane this intense, so a lot of people are really panicking.”

Other students, like freshman Paul Cordes, have also faced difficulty in contacting friends and family back home.

“I’ve spoken with my immediate family three times, but it has been extremely difficult to get in touch with them because the cell phone circuits have been overloaded,” Cordes said.

Sophomore Calleen Jones said her family is handling the situation “pretty well.”

“They tried to bring as many family mementos as possible,” Jones said. “My main focus is knowing that my family is safe. Other material things can be replaced, but my family cannot.”

Although students were outwardly concerned about the hurricane’s capacity for widespread damage, some, like senior Meg Henican, found solace in the assured safety of their loved ones.

“Of course I’m nervous about the damage that will be done, but I know my family and friends are safe, and that’s what is important,” Henican said.

Fleeing or facing Katrina

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin declared a state of emergency in the region Sunday and told the more than one million residents of the greater New Orleans area not to panic but also to demonstrate extreme vigilance. A mandatory evacuation ordered locals to flee the region immediately.

Much of Cordes’ extended family – including grandmothers, aunts, uncles and cousins – live in the greater New Orleans area. His immediate family left town Sunday and will stay at his father’s piano teacher’s mother’s house.

“My immediate family has been on the road and [staying] in Laurel, Miss., after driving in gridlock traffic [Sunday],” Cordes said. “My other relatives have the means to evacuate and are also taking refuge away from the city.”

Hall said his immediate family and some of his extended family drove to Houston – a seven-hour trek from New Orleans – to flee the hurricane.

“Because of traffic it took them over 12 hours to get there,” he said. “I talked to a lot of my friends, and most of them are going to Atlanta. I don’t know anyone who is staying behind.”

Henican said her entire family hails from the greater New Orleans area and have evacuated to places such as Houston, Nashville, Mississippi and even South Bend.

“Luckily my parents decided to come here with me to get away from the storm,” Henican said.

New Orleans resident and Saint Mary’s junior Erin Nolan said her family chose to remain in the city despite the mayor’s call for immediate evacuation.

“My family actually stayed and went against the evacuation order,” Nolan said. “They are on the third floor of our condominium.”

Nagin said 80 percent of New Orleans residents evacuated the city.

Approximately 9,000 of those who chose to remain or were unable to escape sought refuge in the Louisiana Superdome, which faced moderate damage as Katrina slammed the area Monday.

A menacing storm

Katrina presented New Orleans with a doubly serious situation given both the nature of the storm itself and of the region. With winds upwards of 130 miles per hour and a storm surge exceeding 20 feet, the hurricane fell into a powerful Category 4 classification on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale.

The hurricane lost some of its vigor as it battered Alabama, Mississipi and other parts of the Gulf, but still caused heavy damage as a Category 3 storm.

Katrina had weakened to a Category 2 hurricane Monday afternoon.

The Big Easy was especially susceptible to Katrina’s immense strength given its geographic makeup. Approximately 70 percent of New Orleans is below sea-level, and therefore, a levee system is used to protect the area from rising waters of the Mississippi River.

But Katrina’s massive storm surges exceeded the height of the levee system. Hall predicted the entire city to be in jeopardy of “serious flooding.”

“The only preventive measure to keep New Orleans from completely submerging is a levee system that is only 18 feet above sea level,” Hall said. “If you can do the math, you know we’re in serious trouble.”

Coping with disaster from afar

As residents of New Orleans grapple with the assured destruction surrounding Hurricane Katrina, students some 800 miles away in South Bend must also deal with the devastation of one of the gravest natural disasters in recent memory.

Cordes said students from New Orleans have kept the lines of communication open when dealing with the hurricane and its aftermath.

“Two girls from New Orleans I know have both told me they’re scared, and one will try to drive home as soon as reasonably possible,” Cordes said. “I’m going to try to talk with more [people from New Orleans] and help each other out as much as we can.”

Many students have been glued to their television sets.

“I have spoken with [my family] many times, and they had to tell me to turn off the television … I was getting more nervous than they were,” Nolan said. “I am scared that my whole city will be destroyed.”

Cordes said while he is thankful for his own safety and the safety of his family, he too struggles with the expected unease that comes with a natural disaster of this magnitude.

“Two of the biggest feelings I have are anxiety and uncertainty – as to how bad the damage and casualties will be since this is an unprecedented storm for New Orleans,” Cordes said. “As a freshman, this event puts my new life and new home in perspective since I don’t know how much of my hometown will still exist.”

Cordes said he visited the Grotto Sunday to pray for his hometown. The Basilica of the Sacred Heart held a special Mass Monday for victims of the hurricane.