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Notre Dame officials visit stricken city, pledge assistance

Karen Langley | Thursday, October 27, 2005

University President Father John Jenkins led a delegation of University leaders to New Orleans last week, where the group viewed firsthand the destruction of Hurricane Katrina and met with Archbishop Alfred Hughes and other community leaders.

These conversations with Hughes and other Diocesan leaders were the main focus of the day-long expedition, allowing for dialogue about ways Notre Dame could use its resources to assist New Orleans in the city’s time of need, Jenkins said.

“We explored opportunities to lend assistance that are unique to post-secondary institutions,” he said. “For instance, what knowledge can be applied from the sciences, architecture, engineering or business?”

Representatives from these disciplines, along with members of the administration and leaders of the Center for Social Concerns (CSC), comprised the delegation. Along with Jenkins, those who traveled to New Orleans Wednesday included Frances Shavers, executive assistant to the president; Father Bill Lies, director of the CSC; Bill Purcell, associate director for Catholic social tradition and practice at the CSC; Carolyn Woo, dean of the Mendoza College of Business; Philip Bess, director of graduate studies at the School of Architecture; and Ahsan Kareem, professor of civil engineering and geological sciences.

The group visited churches in three areas of New Orleans – Lakeview, St. Bernard’s Parish and the Ninth Ward, where they toured the campus of the Holy Cross School, the second school founded by the Congregation of Holy Cross in the U.S. These regions were selected by the archdiocese to give the delegates an exposure to the city across varying socioeconomic classes, Shavers said.

“We saw damage in poor, affluent, and middle class communities,” she said. “Nature did not discriminate.”

Along with encounters with Hughes and DiGange, the delegation also met with representatives of Catholic Charities, Catholic Relief Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

The diverse professional backgrounds of the delegation’s members led to a variety of reactions to the tour.

Purcell, who serves as a faculty member through the Institute for Church Life in addition to his duties at the CSC, noted the relevance of Catholic social teaching to the purpose of rebuilding efforts in New Orleans.

“The disaster … is a concrete way that we can work on building solidarity with our fellow brothers and sisters in need,” he said.

As a specialist in structure performance during hurricanes, tornados, earthquakes and ocean waves, Kareem was involved in visits to Kobe, Japan, after the 1995 earthquake.

He noted that New Orleans’ sub-sea level location could necessitate the hardening of the city’s levees before rebuilding could occur.

“Some decision must also be made regarding rebuilding of housing,” he said, “especially those very vulnerable to flood damage.”

Within the field of architecture, Bess specializes in urban design, an area that he calls “germane to what some of the needs are down there, as is plain architecture.”

He echoed Kareem’s questions about rebuilding in the lower parts of the city.

“Lots of building down there in the last 50 years has depended on draining marshes and had bad environmental effects,” he said. “Whether New Orleans should shrink back to its pre-1950s size and try to restore the environment and wetlands is a very politically loaded question.”

The delegates expressed admiration for the efforts of community leaders who are already trying to restore life in New Orleans.

“I was especially impressed with the Archdiocese and the [Catholic] school systems,” Bess said. “The schools are up and running, while the public schools have shut down for the year … they’re up and running and trying hard to educate their students.”

These human strivings are particularly notable in the almost unnatural atmosphere of the city, delegates said.

“The situation was surreal, mostly because of the deafening silence,” Purcell said. “In the street after street of destruction, there were no people, no animals, no birds, no bugs, no cars or movement in an area that is all brown from saltwater.”

Many of the delegates noted that the tragic reality of post-Katrina New Orleans exceeds portrayals in the media.

“There is a major difference between what you see on TV and what you see at the location,” said Kareem, who observed the destruction that replaced entire subdivisions of the city.

“As evident to everyone worldwide, the people of New Orleans suffered tremendous loss,” Jenkins said. “Perhaps not as apparent from photos and news accounts, however, is that people have not only lost houses, but they have lost homes of 20 to 40 years; not only have they lost neighborhood stores and gas stations, but they can no longer find their neighbors; not only have they lost jobs, but many have lost some degree of control in their lives and now rely on the kindness of strangers; not only have they lost schools and churches, but they have lost a sense of belonging.”

Notre Dame is in touch with Holy Cross interests such as Our Lady of Holy Cross College and Alliance for Catholic Education volunteers in the New Orleans area, as well as Xavier and Tulane Universities, University spokesman Matt Storin said.

“We are in regular contact with them,” he said. “Anything they need help with, we will be responsive to, but we have to been sensitive because colleges and universities [in New Orleans] are clear that they are going to reopen and that they want their students and faculty back.”