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Professors return safely from New Orleans

Megan O'Neil | Monday, September 5, 2005

Caught in the fury of Hurricane Katrina and then stranded in their Canal Street hotel by subsequent flooding, two Saint Mary’s professors finally made it home Thursday and were set to return to their classrooms today.

Spanish professor Jennifer Zachman and psychology professor Karen Chambers spent three days holed up in a Sheraton hotel with roughly 1,000 other stranded travelers, hotel employees, family members and pets waiting to be evacuated from New Orleans.

The pair had been attending an Advance Placement Testing conference over the weekend along with Saint Mary’s faculty members Mary Connolly and David Stefancic as Katrina approached and storm warnings began to be issued.

“Right then they started getting people out,” Zachman said. “It was sheer luck of the draw who got out.”

Connolly and Stefancic were placed on flights out of the city before cancellations began, but Zachman and Chambers were forced to remain at the hotel.

After initial moments of panic, Zachman said, the women resigned themselves to staying in New Orleans believing they would be safe in the Sheraton.

Following the hotel staff’s instructions, they filled their bathtub with water to use for hygienic purposes later, and then gathered with the rest of the guests Sunday at 8 p.m. in a ballroom on the fifth floor.

“Everyone brought their blankets and pillows and we slept in there,” Zachman said. “It was kind of at first like camping.”

Hotel manager Dan King had extended the hotel’s hospitality to employees and their families unable to leave the city, Chambers said.

“He didn’t just protect the tourists, he protected a lot of people who couldn’t get out of New Orleans,” Chambers said. “I’ve told a lot of people this, I think the Sheraton literally saved my life.”

Zachman said there was a great sense of relief Monday after the storm passed over the city and she and Chambers hoped to be able to fly home the next day. Breaches in New Orleans’ levies, however, made that impossible.

“We woke up Tuesday and looked out the window and saw the flooding,” Zachman said. “It was like, ‘Oh my God.'”

Out of food and water, nearby hotels began evicting their occupants, Zachman said. She and Chambers watched as refugees walked by carrying luggage.

King announced over the hotel PA system that to ensure their safety he would have to lock down the building, Zachman said.

The professors said they themselves saw very little of the looting that was widely reported by the media, but under the circumstances, they sympathized with those who were forced to steal to survive.

“I can’t judge those people for stealing water,” Zachman said. “Who can blame people for stealing medicine or food?”

The Sheraton, just blocks from the French Quarter, is located on one of the higher parts of the city. Zachman said that while stranded inside, the women did not even realize the gravity of the flooding.

“We were in kind of a media black out,” she said. “The hotel did set up four computers (with the use of an emergency generator) so people could e-mail family and friends. We would hear things, rumors, but we didn’t know what was going on.”

Using a contact in the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Sheraton Corporation arranged for the stranded guests to be evacuated by bus. Feeling relieved but also slightly guilty, Zachman and Chambers left New Orleans at about 5 p.m. Wednesday and arrived in Dallas early Thursday morning.

“We just couldn’t believe it,” Zachman said. “I have never been so happy to get on a bus. The first thing we did when we got to the hotel in Dallas was shower and shower a little bit more, and then sleep because we had been on the bus for so long.”

The women flew into South Bend Regional Airport Thursday night, where they were met by Connolly and Stefancic.

“We are so grateful that all of our friends and family here were so worried about us, but it was just inconvenient for us,” Zachman said. “The people that are still down there that are dying, that should be the focus.”

The two professors said they were appalled at the slow relief efforts, and intend to contribute to the city’s recovery in various ways in the following weeks.

“I think that the response was uncoordinated, and if you think that recently we have spent lots of money on emergency response it was kind of surprising,” Chambers said. “People died of thirst and this is America. But really the story is the people down there, what is going on with them, how we can help them.”