Everyone has a story. For the last twenty-nine years, I have worked as an English professor at the University of New Orleans, and for twenty-two of those years, I have held positions in the UNO administration, since 2003 as Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs, the position I held when Hurricane Katrina blew through New Orleans in the summer of 2005. Katrina’s winds died away in a matter of hours, and its flood waters were pumped out in a few weeks, but the long aftermath of its devastation continues to this day in late April of 2008 and will continue for years longer. The only appropriate analogy for what happened here is that of war. Two years and eight months after the storm, little over half of our residents have returned to our city, not exclusively because only about half of our housing stock has been returned to habitability. Some 1,100 of our fellow citizens died, and a quarter million remain displaced, many now, no doubt, permanently. But among those who survived, all were displaced for at least a month while the city was drained and the burst levees temporarily patched.
The national media have portrayed the destruction of New Orleans as an African-American story. And since prior to Katrina 72 percent of our citizens in the municipality of New Orleans were black, and since our black citizens were more likely to be poor, documented suffering in the African-American community has been established as vast and profound. Nonetheless, Katrina was a color-blind and class-indifferent scourge, and the torments of her flood waters were inflicted on New Orleanians of every skin pigment and income bracket. The houses in the storied Lower Ninth Ward, where most of the residents were working-class African-Americans, were washed off their foundations. But the damage was just as extensive in New Orleans East where most of the residents were middle- and professional-class African Americans. And the flooding was even deeper in Lakeview where most of the residents were middle-class whites and in Gentilly, near UNO, where the races were about evenly mixed.
There can be no doubt that, as is always true, recovery has been easier for the more prosperous of our citizens. Those with adequate insurance have been able to rebuild more quickly than those who have had to rely on federal emergency funding that has been administered in the state bureaucratic Purgatory called The Road Home Program. But New Orleanians of whatever race or class still greet each other upon a first post-Katrina meeting by asking, “How did you do in the storm?” That’s because we all know that we all suffered to a greater or lesser degree.
Everyone has a story. And with regard to Katrina, this is mine, and because of the position I hold and the responsibilities that I bear, this is also the story of UNO.
My wife Joyce and I grew up in New Orleans, and neither of our families ever evacuated for a hurricane, not in the face of the direct hit by Betsy in 1965 nor the near miss of Camille in 1969. But with global warming and the radical disappearance of our coastal wetlands, which long served to absorb a storm’s fury and strip away its power, Joyce and I determined that we should best follow advice to flee in front of severe storms, and we did so for Category 4 Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Most of the city went with us. The evacuation was a harrowing mess. Traffic crawled at under ten miles per hour, and Joyce and I took eight hours, instead of the usual hour and fifteen minutes, to reach a motel on the eastern side of Baton Rouge, the only hotel accommodations we were able to secure anywhere within three-hundred miles of New Orleans. But Ivan twisted off to the east, and New Orleans was spared.
By Friday afternoon on 26 August 2005, New Orleans had fallen into Hurricane Katrina’s danger cone, though the storm was still supposed to make landfall far to our east. Nonetheless, at 4:30 pm on that last day of our first week of school that fall, several administrators, including UNO Chancellor Tim Ryan, gathered in my office for a conversation about the storm. We agreed to watch the storm overnight and, if necessary, meet about it on campus the next day. We then adjourned to attend a beginning-of-the-year reception for faculty and staff.
After the reception, I stopped by the New Student Luau, which was just getting underway on campus nearby. As always our students arrived in a delightfully diverse mix. Just under half of our students qualified as minority, over half of those African-American. About ten percent were international students from almost one-hundred different countries. And all this wonderful rainbow of young humanity seemed to have turned out for the luau that night. So it was with bursting pride that I milled about that evening, greeting the new students. A good breeze was blowing, making the New Orleans summer night unseasonably comfortable, and I lingered with pleasure. UNO seemed headed in a promising direction, poised to realize our considerable dreams for it as an educational leader for our entire region. That night, with an energized enrollment of 17,250, is a place to which, approaching three years after the storm, we long to return.
When I arrived home that night, Joyce warned me that Katrina was intensifying, and now projected to go ashore on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, only about one-hundred miles to the east. By morning, the news was worse yet. Computers now had Katrina making a direct hit on our city as a Category 5 storm. Our UNO administrative group met on campus at 9:00 am and activated our hurricane emergency plan, each of us in the meeting contacting our unit supervisors to inform them that we were closing campus, securing our buildings, arranging for the buses to evacuate those of our students without their own transportation and, to protect it from damage, shutting down our conventional Internet and email operations by the end of the day. As I rang off with each of the deans and directors who reported to me, I wished them safety and told them that I would see them soon, presumably on Tuesday, the day after the storm would pass. We hoped we could resume classes on Wednesday. But, ultimately, we would lose the entire beginning of the semester.
By the time I got back to my Uptown house around 2:30, Joyce had what then seemed encouraging news. She had managed to find us airline tickets on a flight out of town that night. We had joked in the early morning that we would be happy to book “tickets to anywhere,” just to avoid the inevitable traffic snarl, but Joyce had bought tickets on a 7:00 pm Delta flight to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, less than an hour’s drive from Sanford where my mother lived.
The year before, for Ivan, we had packed our car with all kinds of supplies, had remembered to pack financial records and grab a bag of treasured photographs. We also packed a week’s worth of clothes including business suits. But Ivan was a hurricane season’s example of “cry wolf,” and our experience with Ivan diluted our fear. We’d be home on Tuesday, we presumed, so we took only four days’ changes of underwear. We packed only jeans, shorts and T-shirts, no financial records, no photographs. Our major worry now became getting to the airport, which lay along the evacuation route toward Baton Rouge. Spaces were not available for airport parking, so we had to order a cab, and we knew that the ride, normally twenty minutes, was probably going to take three hours. We parked our cars next to one another in the garage with no inkling that we’d never drive them again.
The traffic was exactly as we feared, and Joyce and I worried our watches as we inched ahead. Along the way, we talked with our driver, a thin African-American man in a snap-brim cap who appeared to be about seventy. A hint of gray whiskers suggested he’d been working since early morning, but his pressed white shirt remained crisp. He told us he was probably just going to ride the storm out. He’d driven out for Ivan in a caravan with his brother, their mother, and their two families. They drove all the way past Jackson, Mississippi, up Interstate 55 but couldn’t find a single place to stay. They ended up sleeping in their cars, and he wasn’t going to do that again. Anyway, the weathermen always seemed to get it wrong because the storms never came to New Orleans. We told him we thought he ought to watch the news carefully and consider getting out, but he said he probably wouldn’t leave this time under much of any circumstances. As he dropped us at the airport less than thirty minutes before our scheduled flight, we wondered if he would turn out to be the smart one. Just avoid the aggravation, go home, and wait for Katrina to turn east as had so many other storms before. I think of that cab driver often, always with a prayer that he changed his mind and got himself and his family to safety.
One might imagine that Louis Armstrong Airport was a madhouse, but it was more like a vast cathedral at twilight. The cafés and shops were closed. The unused gate lounges hunkered in darkness. As if a plane might leave before its departure time, no one milled about. And in those gate areas still operating, people spoke to each other in whispers. Joyce and I were on a plane departing from Gate 2. The rest of the concourse was dark. Joyce and I were on the last Delta flight out of Dodge. A nervous woman in her late forties sat down beside me. She was dressed in a pink suit and red shoes, and she looked tired. She was in town for a convention and was supposed to go home the next day, but she had learned that the airport was shutting down and wouldn’t support any flights on Sunday. A few moments later an agent appeared at our gate, and the woman moved to speak with her, her shoulders sagging as the conversation progressed. Head down, she walked back past me toward the main terminal. I doubt she found an empty seat that night, and like the cab driver I have worried about her ever since. She would have had a hard time even finding transportation back to her hotel in downtown New Orleans, and she actually wouldn’t have wanted to end up there anyway. I can only assume that the next several days were among the worst in her life.
As ticketed passengers, Joyce and I were far luckier, but if, for whatever reason, our plane didn’t fly, we were in the same circumstances as the distraught lady in the pink suit, in our case about twelve miles from home and with no way to get there. You can imagine our discomfort when the departure was delayed. But finally, the boarding process commenced, and Joyce and I were able to settle into our seats. But a long delay followed after all the passengers were seat-belted in, and Joyce and I exchanged our concerns that the flight might be cancelled. Finally, a gate agent, a flight attendant, and a pilot stood together in the front of the plane to announce that the aircraft was overweight and that they needed four passengers to deplane. When no one volunteered, they offered enticements: hotel rooms in the downtown Hilton and $200 flight coupons. No one raised a hand, so they upped the ante to include $400 flight coupons. Still, no one agreed to surrender a seat.
I whispered to Joyce, “They aren’t going to get anyone off this plane without a police escort.”
She said, “Fluff your jacket up around you and start looking skinny.”
I presume Delta solved the overweight problem by pulling off luggage, for no passenger deplaned. A few minutes later we pushed back from the gate and taxied away from an almost dark airport. Joyce and I held hands as we roared west down the runway, still spooked by the overweight announcement. Others, we learned, tamped down the same fear, and after the plane lifted off and seemed to gain critical altitude, relieved applause broke out throughout the passenger cabin. Out over the wetlands of the Bonnet Carre Spillway, the plane banked right and flew in a rising arc over Interstate 10 where cars with their headlights pointing west seemed to be parked for miles in either direction.
From the refuge of my mother’s house in North Carolina, along with the rest of America, Joyce and I watched on television as Hurricane Katrina slammed ashore. New Orleans took the shock wave of wind and largely held. The levees, raised in the 1980s, proved high enough and were not overtopped. National news reporters assayed the damage and announced more than once that “New Orleans has dodged a bullet.” But the news reports, of course, were horribly misinformed. The poorly constructed, inadequately maintained levees were high enough but not strong enough, and they burst from the pressure of the high water behind them. And seemingly, none of this was understood in its entirety for days.
Sometime on Tuesday, 30 August 2005, television news began to report the breach on the 17th Street Canal. Joyce and I knew instantly the horror this meant, and we didn’t know a fifth of what was really going on because no one seemed to have discovered that other levees had failed as well. For a time we clung to a desperate hope that plans to drop railroad boxcars into the 17th Street Canal breach would plug the hole and stop the flood. But as that day wore on and gave way to the nightmarish blur of the days to come, officials announced that they had no recourse but to let the sea water “equalize” inside the bowl of the city. New Orleanians, wherever they had fled, watched as our city filled with water. Soon, the airwaves burst with footage of terrified people being plucked from rooftops in baskets lowered from Coast Guard helicopters. And then came the wrenching reports of the suffering of people abandoned in the Superdome and the Convention Center. Buses didn’t arrive to transport them to safety. A vicious heat wave added to their misery. Ultimately, outrage and anger flared. And, inevitably, some violence too. But much of what the broadcast media reported was exaggerated. No one was beheaded. No children were raped. But there’s little question that in the withering heat of the days after Katrina, New Orleans went to hell.
Since our cell phones wouldn’t work, in what now seems almost improbable foresight, UNO Chancellor Tim Ryan and I had exchanged the landline phone numbers of the family members offering us refuge, and so we were able to stay in contact. Eventually, we both discovered that text messaging on our cell phones still functioned, as did many other adults who had never used text messaging before, and with that understanding we were gradually able to make contact with our vice chancellors and deans. By Wednesday, 31 August, we decided that as soon as possible our team of senior administrators should gather in Baton Rouge to devise and implement a recovery plan for our university.
The primary problem with the plan to headquarter in Baton Rouge was housing. Louisiana’s capital city, only eighty miles from New Orleans, had suffered very little hurricane damage. But it was now chock full of evacuees. All hotel rooms were full for hundreds of miles around the city. New Orleanians were crowded into the homes of Baton Rouge family members and friends. UNO Chancellor Tim Ryan had evacuated to Georgia by car, and he returned to Louisiana on Thursday, 1 September. LSU System officials arranged an apartment for him at their Pennington Research Center. But even though he was a senior state executive trying to take charge of an historic crisis, they did not provide these accommodations for him free of charge or even at a reduced rate. System officials made no comparable arrangements for UNO’s other top administrators. We were completely on our own.
I needed to get to Baton Rouge as soon as possible, but given that Joyce and I had flown out of New Orleans, getting back to the area was no easy matter. We found a used car to buy in a nearby town and salesman Pete Sanders showed us great kindness. He was quite concerned, however, when I explained that I wanted to write a check on a bank located in New Orleans, which was now under water, and I wanted to drive the car away that very day. Normally, a car dealership will be dealing with a local bank, or, in the case of an out-of-state bank, will want to hold the car until the check clears. I didn’t have the time to open an account in North Carolina, and I didn’t have time to wait for my check to clear. And Pete Sanders’s bosses weren’t thrilled at the idea of taking a three-by-six-inch piece of paper from a stranger and letting him drive away with one of their cars. Pete finally came up with the idea of driving me to an ATM where I could make a withdrawal on my savings account. The receipt would, and did, show that I had sufficient funds to cover my check.
With a car to get there, Joyce and I now had to identify somewhere in Baton Rouge to stay. All our research came up empty. Every hotel room in the city and for hundreds of miles around was occupied. Given that New Orleans was closed, the hotel residents had no place to go, so we had no reason to hope that hotel space would become available anytime soon. Finally, on Saturday, 3 September, Joyce called a sorority sister, Mary Lou Potter, who lived in Baton Rouge with her husband Bill. Joyce and Mary Lou had remained close for some time after college, but they gradually had lost touch, and it had now been some years since they’d been in contact. From almost any perspective save the desperation caused by Katrina, calling Mary Lou seemed a preposterous act of imposition. At that time, officials were speculating that the city might not be habitable for six months. “Hi. How are you? Would you mind if we moved in with you for half a year?” Of course, because Bill and Mary Lou are among the finest, most selfless people I ever have met, they encouraged us to come on. We arrived on 5 September, and the Potters opened their home to us. They gave us keys. They fed us. And through absolutely no fault of Bill and Mary Lou, Joyce and I have never felt so vulnerable, so helpless, so lost.
While the other institutions of higher education in New Orleans quickly suspended operations for the fall term of 2005, almost immediately upon gathering in Baton Rouge, our administrative group decided that we would try to restart a fall semester in early October. UNO owns a three-story former office building on Causeway Boulevard in Metairie in suburban Jefferson Parish, and it had not flooded. So we decided to offer as many classes as possible there, to schedule additional classes in public school buildings in dry areas of the region, and to put as many courses online as student demand might warrant.
Eventually, we settled on a restart date of 10 October, and our entire team of chancellor, vice chancellors, deans, and other senior administrators devoted the five weeks after reuniting in Baton Rouge to achieving our reopening. Though our sister school, LSU Baton Rouge, is housed in more than 250 buildings spread across a 2,200-acre campus, the LSU System provided us with two rooms from which to rebuild our university. The space we took to calling the Boiler Room housed a bank of phones and two dozen computers. Faculty and staff who could find accommodations in Baton Rouge worked in the Boiler Room communicating our plans to faculty who had evacuated elsewhere and ultimately assisting our far-flung students with advising and registration.
The second room we called the War Room formerly the conference room for the system’s human resources division. The room was designed as meeting space for perhaps twelve but became the day-long working space for twenty-two crowded around the oval table in the room’s center or facing the wall on tiny desks jammed into the room’s four corners. Here, the chancellor, the provost, the vice-chancellors, the deans, and other senior staff had as much “office space” as was taken up by a laptop and a square of tabletop for a cup of coffee. From these spaces, we ran the university for a month and a half. We were advised by system officials to begin laying off employees immediately, but we were determined to pay as many of our faculty and staff as were willing to work for as long as we had money to do so.
We were determined to acquire enough emergency Congressional funding to balance the 2005–2006 budget into which Katrina had ripped a gaping hole. State officials warned us sternly that these efforts would not succeed, but ultimately they did, and we were able to avoid forced layoffs during fiscal 2005–2006. On 10 October 2005, we reopened at the Jeff Center, at our high-school sites and online. While all the other universities in New Orleans remained dark during the fall of 2005, UNO taught 7,000 students. Ten thousand students had vanished in an eyeblink, but 7,000 were hungry for education, and UNO clawed its way back to provide it. When the term ended that fall, 766 had earned their credits to graduate. They graduated and thereby were able to take the next steps in their lives, into the work place or on to graduate school. Of all the many moments that I will cherish about my UNO career, none is more important than our graduation ceremonies at the end of the fall 2005 semester. And those days of standing together and defying the odds will remain, for all of us in the War Room and the Boiler Room, among the finest days of our lives.
About a week after Joyce and I moved into Mary Lou and Bill’s guest room, I was notified that a room for Joyce and me was available at the LSU Faculty Club. There were many ways in which remaining with the Potters was a superior living option. Their home was beautiful and spacious and located on a gorgeous lake. At the Potters’ we had access to a kitchen and laundry facilities for our shorts, jeans, and additional clothing we’d purchased at WalMart. We had comfortable furniture in which to lounge or read. And unlike the Faculty Club where we’d have to pay for our room, the Potters never mentioned, and I am sure would have been aghast at the very concept of, asking us to pay rent. But the Faculty Club was just minutes from my new work space at the LSU System office, whereas the commute from the Potters’ house was taking over an hour. Moreover, despite our hosts’ boundless generosity, Joyce and I were simply too old to be comfortable in someone else’s house, particularly someone’s house where we had invited ourselves to live. So we moved to the Faculty Club where, for the first time in two weeks, we could finally have our own private space.
The feeling of comparable freedom lasted until we were told by Faculty Club management that we would have to move out by noon on 22 September . “It’s the Tennessee game,” I was told by way of explanation. All over the state, people now living in hotels were sometimes running into problems with long-term residence—so much so that Governor Kathleen Blanco had issued an executive order restricting management from evicting their residents. In a hem haw way, I pointed this out to the manager of the Faculty Club. “I’ll be glad to make a reservation for you again next week,” she responded. “You just have to move out for the weekend. I’m sure you understand: it is the Tennessee game.”
And there you have one of the more enduring things I gradually and with abiding resentment came to understand about the dominant culture at LSU Baton Rouge. Tiger football trumps all else. I may have been the number two executive officer at the second largest university in the state, a sister institution to LSU. I may have been at the moment homeless. My energies may have been needed in trying to resurrect my school. But if I ever had dared to entertain such an idea, I was entirely wrong that the office I held and, more important, the institution I represented, resided in the same universe of concern as Tiger football. People who had their own homes to live in and their own beds to sleep in had football tickets and thus had made reservations at the Faculty Club long before my house had the discourtesy to surrender itself to Hurricane Katrina and my school the impudence to lose all its students in a finger snap. Surely I understood: it was the Tennessee game.
Joyce and I were finally able to make a trip to New Orleans to inspect our home on 13 September 2005, two weeks after the flood waters rose into eighty percent of the homes in our city. We bluffed our way past the National Guardsmen who guarded the entrances to the city by flashing my card as a staff writer for the local weekly, Gambit. I didn’t mention to the soldiers that I write a column of film criticism.
Two things struck us immediately when we reached our house. Our summer lawn and those of our neighbors should have been a deep, dense green, but instead they were all brown. And the air smelled like mildewing hay. The city was eerily quiet and almost totally empty. We did eight sweaty hours of clean-up at our house that day, but the only person we saw the whole time was a helmeted, rifle-toting National Guardsman on patrol in his battle fatigues, checking homes for dead bodies.
Hope is an amazingly resilient quality of the human psyche. Despite viewing satellite photos that showed our neighborhood had taken five-feet of water, we somehow each had dared to hope the water hadn’t gotten into our split-level house. But it had, of course. The watermark on the ground floor stood at thirty-nine inches. The heating and cooling systems were lost, as were the washer, dryer, water heater, and freezer. Joyce’s office was beyond recovery. Her old desk had collapsed, dumping her papers and legal files into the muck. We found them in gluey clumps on the ruined hardwood floor. The worst news was in the garage. Utterly beyond repair, our cars had become colorful and perhaps toxic terraria. Sickly orange mushrooms sprouted from the upholstery and steering wheels, while powdery golden mold grew on all surfaces save the glass.
But upstairs the news was better. The water had stopped short of reaching the living room floor, though the hardwood floors were slick with green mildew which also crept up the wooden legs of our furniture. Using disinfectants that we’d brought with us from Baton Rouge, we wiped away mildew upstairs and mopped down the flooded areas downstairs. Every weekend for the rest of September, Joyce and I bluffed our way into the city and worked on our house, first throwing things away in fetid heaps identical to those that pockmarked the city everywhere for the next year, then tearing out tongue-and-groove walls and taking the ground floor down to bare stud, then spraying mold killer on every surface that remained, then spraying a second time and a third. All of this labor was exhausting and numbing. Much of it was dispiriting as we saw formerly valued possessions, furniture, clothing, golf clubs, household tools, Christmas decorations, all ruined by flood waters, piled in the street until scraped away by earthmovers and dumped into refuse trucks.
But, as we should, Joyce and I count ourselves among the lucky. We remember with gratitude the generosity of our friends, Ray and Sharon Mize, who let us stay on weekends at their house in Kenner, which had escaped the flood waters, and who labored long, dirty days at our sides, emptying out the flood’s ruin and dealing with the appalling foulness of full refrigerators left closed and without power for a month before we could deal with them. And we place our losses in the perspective of those who lost much more. Our house ultimately would need an entirely new roof, and like everyone whose residence flooded, we had to have our electrical wiring replaced. We had to purchase and install new HVAC systems and ductwork and new appliances throughout the house. But our insurance was good and relatively quick. Our uninsured losses we once would have considered staggering, but now understand as manageable.
Meanwhile, across the city, hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens lost much more. In our own immediate professional circle, Chancellor Ryan, four of our vice chancellors, five of our deans, and too many of our faculty and students to list, lost their homes entirely along with all their possessions, including photographs and other keepsakes that documented the courses of their lives.
When UNO defiantly succeeded in reopening its doors at the Jefferson Center on 10 October 2005, Joyce and I gave up our sometime room at the Faculty Club and took up residence at her family home in Carrollton’s Riverbend section, which lacked electricity but had not flooded. From that beachhead we hired the workers we needed to make our many required repairs, and we moved back into our house on Christmas Eve, four months after fleeing, lucky beyond a doubt since so many of our fellow citizens have not been and will never be able to return to their homes and, in many cases, the lives they led before the storm.
A quick example will illustrate what New Orleans faces approaching three years after the storm. In a five-block stretch along a single street near UNO, I recently counted in this once vital area, nine vacant lots where houses used to stand and twenty-four homes that appeared to have been abandoned. Rebuilding was underway in only eight homes, and only three houses appeared to be occupied. In the vicinity, both the Catholic and public schools were closed and boarded up. No rebuilding was underway. In a nearby commercial area along a thoroughfare, the grocery, the Chinese restaurant, the convenience store, the dry cleaners, the bakery, and a health clinic were either shuttered or demolished.
This appalling lack of progress is the direct result of ineptitude and worse on the part of our local, state, and national governments. And this small segment of Gentilly near the UNO campus is not exceptional. In neighborhood after neighborhood throughout the city, homes are windowless, abandoned, forlorn—properties melting into uselessness like soft plastic figurines left atop a hot stove. So short a time ago each of these decaying edifices was someone’s home where good, spicy food simmered in the kitchen and laughter of full lives echoed within the walls. Now the air smells of mold and mildew, and inside the walls silence reigns. Ruined lawns, broken sidewalks, rubble-strewn vacant lots, and snaggled streets breed despair, house to house, block to block.
The sorrow we face is registered in every destroyed school, its playing children vanished, in every church where hymns are no longer sung, in every store where goods are no longer sold, in every café, restaurant, and bistro where our meals no longer are served and where friends no longer gather. There is no excuse for this devastation not being repaired, because it could have been. Clear-headed, responsible, decisive, caring leadership at all levels of government could have brought New Orleans much closer to recovery than it stands today.
Consider a series of situations on the UNO campus. When we returned to fulltime operations on our main Lakefront campus in January 2006, housing for our students was a major concern. Much of our on-campus housing was uninhabitable, as were most privately-owned apartments. So UNO arranged with a FEMA contractor to place four-hundred trailers to house 1,200 students on our property. But a snarl of bureaucratic red tape began to knot almost immediately after the trailers were delivered. Throughout the spring term of 2006, they sat together empty as a taunt to students who were either paying exorbitant rents to live in the city or commuting to school from many miles away. The trailers were never hooked up to electrical, water, or sewerage lines, thus never occupied, and in the summer of 2006, the FEMA contractors brought in their fleet of Ford F-150 trucks and hauled them away.
Also in the spring of 2006, because we registered fewer than 12,000 students, UNO was forced into financial exigency, a state of dire fiscal emergency faced by very few institutions in the entire history of American higher education. The State of Louisiana was, in fact, running a huge budget surplus. But because UNO had lost students due to the storm, the university’s state appropriation was cut by $6.5 million dollars. Louisiana could have assisted UNO in its darkest hour and barely nicked its surplus in the process. Instead, UNO was forced to eliminate eighty-three faculty lines and make other staff layoffs. Although not all the individual layoff decisions were mine to make, execution of the exigency plan fell extensively on my shoulders, and I will carry the burden of the decisions I was forced to make during that time for the rest of my days.
Now, thirty-one months after the storm winds died away, Katrina still stands stubbornly in our midst. Our University Center remains only semi-functional, its lovely atrium blocked with scaffolds, its ballrooms, meeting rooms, and offices out of commission. Reconstruction could have rendered it fully restored in less than six months, but state bureaucracy has kept the project even from going to bid, despite FEMA’s commitment to pay. Work on our west-side dining facility, the Cove, also has yet to begin. Our married student housing remains shuttered. Our arena will be completed only in the late spring of 2008, out of operation for three academic years. Federal money has been earmarked for all these projects, yet state red tape prohibits our recovery from moving forward beyond a snail’s pace. This is appalling, and it is inexcusable. Why should UNO students be condemned to have their educational experiences diminished in this way? And one thundering question stands out: Is there a single soul in the State of Louisiana who believes that identical facilities at the so-called flagship LSU campus, home of the National Champion Tigers, would remain unrepaired and out of service in November of 2007 if Hurricane Katrina had struck Baton Rouge rather than New Orleans in August of 2005? A single soul?
A single soul?
A comparable inquiry must be made about our city as a whole. Reports last fall out of Washington reveal that Louisiana, and therefore New Orleans, was shortchanged in the allocation of federal recovery funding. A disproportionate amount of the recovery money was dedicated to Mississippi where a Republican governor maintained close relations with the Republican White House. Katrina was a disaster which should have called upon our elected leaders to rise above the usual infighting of their political affiliations. But that didn’t happen, and the residents of our city are suffering from it to this day, still waiting for the lesser amount of money that has been set aside for them actually to be paid to them so that they can begin rebuilding their lives.
In sum, we New Orleanians know something about the great flood of 2005 that America as a whole has never fully grasped. It was a disaster made not by nature but by man. The waters of Hurricane Katrina did not sweep over our city; they broke through to our city. Our levees were high enough, but they were not strong enough. Our homes were lost, our lives were altered, not as an act of God, but as an act of negligence, not as the product of inevitability, but as the byproduct of irresponsibility. Moreover, it was a disaster that didn’t end when the flood waters were pumped back whence they came or a few weeks or months later. It is a disaster that isn’t over yet, and from the perspective of March 2008, it is a disaster that may not be over for years to come.
Yet, in whatever atmosphere of sadness and indignation, we fight on. Half of us are missing, but half of us are home. And when I think of UNO colleagues and my fellow citizens of our unique city, I think of language from Shakespeare’s Henry V, for Katrina was our St. Crispin’s Day and we will forever fiercely “stand a tip-toe when the day is named … and strip our sleeves to show our wounds… we band of brothers” and sisters who shed together our blood and our tears, who have received inadequate assistance, but nonetheless refuse to surrender.
Fredrick Barton is Professor of English and Provost at the University of New Orleans.