Historically Speaking: Katrina Stories

Historically Speaking: The Bulletin of the Historical Society \r\nJuly/August 2006 \r\nVolume VII, Number 6\r\n\r\nJoseph S. Lucas and Donald A. Yerxa, Editors \r\nRandall J. Stephens, Associate Editor\r\nhttp://www.bu.edu/historic/hs.html\r\n\r\nHistorians in the Midst of Catastrophe: Reflections of the University of New Orleans\'s \r\nDepartment of History after Hurricane Katrina \r\n\r\nThe following is one of a series of stories about how UNO History Department faculty were affected by Katrina. More information about the series follows this story.\r\n\r\n\r\nIda Altman, research professor and department chair, fall 2005, had accepted a position at University of Florida in spring 2005 but stayed to serve her year as chair. After losing her home to Katrina, she drove over 300 miles twice weekly to teach her classes. Ida Altman is now on the faculty of the University of Florida.\r\n\r\nRecalling everything that has happened since the storm and flood is like summoning up a dream: some episodes stand out clearly while others are barely retrievable. Early on I had a conversation with a cousin who suggested (insistently, it seemed) that having lost my home and all belongings, I now \"knew what was really important.\" It irritated me at the time�¢ï¿½ï¿½I didn\'t know exactly how I felt but certainly didn\'t want someone else telling me how I should. In retrospect it seems even more off the mark. Of course I was thankful my husband and I had escaped harm, as had our friends; of course I was grateful for the love and support of family. But in fact it\'s all important�¢ï¿½ï¿½chatting with my neighbors, early morning walks with my dog, seeing friends and colleagues at the gym, dinner at a favorite restaurant, zydeco music at Mid City Lanes; they all made life rich and familiar. Losses are not confined to what one can list on insurance claims. \r\n \r\n\r\nIn a larger sense, and especially in historical terms, it all does count. Since the storm I\'ve lived in Mobile, which suffered relatively little damage; my husband soon resumed teaching at the University of South Alabama. Bereft and dazed, I offered to lecture to his class on the conquest of western Mexico. The lecture had peculiar resonance; the pivotal episode of that conquest was an immense storm and flood that engulfed the sprawling encampment of Spaniards and their Indian troops and auxiliaries along the banks of a river in September 1530. \r\n \r\n\r\nThe leader of the campaign, Nu���±o de Guzm���¡n, was perhaps the most notorious of the Spanish conquerors of Mexico. Shrewd, ambitious, and callous, for a decade he exercised considerable power in New Spain. Yet, in the greatest test of his leadership abilities, following the flood he failed utterly, making decisions that compounded the misery and mortality suffered by his native allies. Just as some friends and I one evening speculated almost tearfully about how things might have unfolded had Edwin Edwards been governor at the time of Katrina, I wonder what the adroit Cort���©s might have done in the same circumstances. Yet Guzm���¡n\'s failure of leadership was only one of several factors that resulted in catastrophe. \r\n \r\nWhen UNO resumed classes in October I taught four graduate students in my introductory course. We agreed that the history of Katrina and its aftermath must take into account politics and political leadership, or lack of such; weather, hydrology, geography; engineering; demographics; and the distinctive society and culture that shaped and reflected New Orleans\'s neighborhoods and people. Over the years I\'ve sometimes questioned the social value of what we do as historians. More than ever I feel that my students want to understand the \"why\" of history�¢ï¿½ï¿½not just of what happened to them but what has occurred in other times and places as well. Our job is to help them make sense of the past\'s sad mysteries. \r\n\r\n\r\nGENERAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE DEPARTMENT & ITS HISTORY DEPARTMENT\r\nThe fall semester was only two weeks old at the University of New Orleans when Katrina bore down on the Gulf Coast. As the UNO history faculty evacuated, most took a few books and lecture notes along, believing they would be back in the classroom in a few days. In fact, it would be weeks before they would be allowed into the devastated city and months before they would be able to access their offices. Scattered across the country in hotels and shelters, or housed with family, friends, or strangers, faculty members were torn from their colleagues and the university. The technology of the modern age�¢ï¿½ï¿½cell phones, servers, e-mail addresses�¢ï¿½ï¿½had collapsed along with their campus. Research materials were endangered. Homes were destroyed or inaccessible. The campus became temporary shelter for perhaps 2,000 storm victims and sustained over $100 million in damage. \r\n \r\n\r\nYet only six weeks after Katrina, the University of New Orleans reopened for its fall semester, the first and only university in New Orleans to do so. Over 7,000 UNO students attended lecture courses at satellite campuses in New Orleans suburbs or participated in online courses from locations across America and overseas. In December and January, many faculty members taught intensive intersession courses. On January 20, 2006, the University of New Orleans, against all odds, held its fall graduation. \r\n \r\n\r\nThe much reduced history faculty returned to the reopened but still damaged main campus for the spring semester. Two senior members who had planned to retire in May 2006 opted to leave in December. A job search was suspended. FEMA trailers intended to house homeless faculty and staff did not become available until April, and UNO is currently in a state of financial exigency that will mean termination of faculty and programs throughout the university. Although the campus remained dry for the most part, it is surrounded by some of New Orleans\'s most devastated neighborhoods. Huge cranes and pile drivers work unceasingly along the London Avenue canal that runs alongside campus. There\'s barely a functioning business for miles, and reminders of the devastation of the storm and flood are everywhere. On a positive note, in January distinguished military historian Allan Millett, recently retired from Ohio State University, joined the faculty as Director of the Eisenhower Center, founded by our late colleague, Stephen Ambrose. It was he who first suggested that the history department should tell its story. \r\n\r\n

Citation

“Historically Speaking: Katrina Stories,” Hurricane Digital Memory Bank, accessed August 17, 2022, https://hurricanearchive.org/items/show/12659.

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