Welcome, Tulane Students

Meg Savin

Chatting with first-years Melissa Gordon and Sara Weinreb at the Coop on a Tuesday afternoon, I could observe the ease with which the two have adapted to college life. The two young women have become close over the past few weeks as they made the transition from high school to college. The beginning of this bond, however, did not form from the fact that they both hail from Westchester County, NY. Instead, it was a truly extraordinary experience that brought the two together, and one that will most likely remain imprinted in their memories forever.

“We just got in the car and drove west. We had a rented car. We had no idea where we were going. We just drove to Dallas,” said first-year Melissa Gordon, remembering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and her evacuation from Tulane University, the school she had planned on attending. Classmate Sara Weinreb found herself in a similar position. Having planned on entering Tulane as a member of the class of 2009, she instead found herself in Hamilton, NY, as a visiting student for the semester after the hurricane devastated New Orleans.

Gordon was forced to leave New Orleans just hours after arriving on Tulane’s campus the Saturday before Katrina hit. Weinreb had the opportunity to see a bit more of the city before the University’s president held a meeting requiring that students be evacuated by 5 p.m. on Saturday, August 27.

“I moved in on the 21st for a pre-orientation program for the school paper,” said Weinreb. Just a little over a week later she would be on a plane heading back home to New York.

“We were told we could return by Wednesday. The President urged students to head back with parents or go to relatives’ houses. The problem was that there were no flights out of New Orleans to New York.” Weinreb explained that this mass exodus from Louisiana to New York made making plans to get out extremely difficult.

“30 percent of Tulane is from the Northeast,” said Weinreb.

Both Gordon and Weinreb agreed that it took time for them to notice the enormity of the devastation. Gordon explained that when she arrived on Tulane’s campus people were joking about the possibility of having to go back home, but she never imagined that it would turn into a reality. The two classmates flew down to Louisiana to begin their first year, yet before orientation was officially underway Gordon found herself driving to Dallas with her parents before finding a flight back to New York. Similarly, Weinreb drove to her cousin’s in Atlanta before flying home.

“My mom and my little sister booked a flight home. My dad and I were going to stay in Atlanta a few days. At first I remember people saying that we weren’t going to be let back in on that Wednesday like we thought. And then I got a call from my sister, who checked the website, who said we weren’t going to be let back in until September 7. We decided to go home because I didn’t want to stay in Atlanta for a week and a half,” said Weinreb.

Gordon took only her laptop and a change of clothes with her when she jumped in the rental car with her parents, thinking she would be back in just a day or so.

“My stuff is still in my dorm right now.”

Directly after Katrina hit, it was unclear exactly what damage had been done.

“People weren’t really sure what was going on right after because the city was wet and there was flooding, but it wasn’t that bad until the levee broke, a day and a half later, so we thought we could probably go back. People were celebrating that it wasn’t that bad, so nobody really thought it was that big of a deal until that happened,” explains Weinreb.

It quickly became clear that Tulane’s class of 2009 would not be heading back to Louisiana at all this fall. Making alternative plans, however, still came as a bit of a shock.

“People starting asking me where I was going. I started calling all these schools, thinking, ‘ok, I better get on that,’ ” said Weinreb.

Gordon explains, “At first I was looking at bigger schools that were offering free tuition and free housing, but then they were saying, ‘oh, we have no housing.’ As a freshman my parents didn’t want me living off campus because I might as well be living at home.”

Both Weinreb and Gordon were originally deciding between Colgate and Tulane. Weinreb explained that she wanted to enroll at a school this fall that she would feel comfortable staying at in the event that Tulane is not completely in order for the spring semester of 2006.

The two explained that Tulane has been working to keep in touch with students. The University has a website that has been updated daily and is currently being updated every few days. There is a chat room with Tulane’s president every Friday night as well as a hotline that students can call.

In reaction to the controversy over the reaction time of the U.S. government to the catastrophe, Gordon explains, “It was really hard to even realize the extent of the disaster. We were down there and we didn’t know.”

Weinreb adds that the government should have responded to the obvious need for new or repaired levees even before hurricane season.

“Recently, I think, within the past year, the government has rated the top huge catastrophes that could happen in the U.S., and a hurricane hitting New Orleans was a top concern. And the problem was that the levees that they had were so old that they couldn’t withstand such a huge hurricane. And the government knew that, and there could have been time and effort put into fixing them. The hurricane isn’t what ruined the city; it was the levees breaking. I just find that very frustrating,” said Weinrib.

Despite having personal items and clothing strewn across the nation and being forced to begin their college careers on a completely different campus than planned, Melissa and Sarah are making the most of their experience at Colgate. They speak passionately about the devastation of Katrina, which has no doubt proved to be a major reality check. Weinreb explained that she felt that watching throngs of people without clothes, water or food on CNN showed her that she could not complain about not having every amenity and having been inconvenienced.

Regardless of what these two learn in class their first year in college, it is sure that they have learned to be flexible in trying scenarios.

“You have to just go with what life throws at you, I guess,” said Weinreb.

It has been a frightening yet eye-opening experience.

“You feel like you’re never safe anywhere. My sister studied abroad in Israel second semester and all her friends said she was crazy and they’re all going to England, and then the bombings happen there. And then I went to school in New Orleans and then this happens. So it’s pretty remarkable,” said Weinreb.