After the Storm

When Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans, ASU accepted more than 80 student evacuees. Meet the student faces of Katrina inside.

 by Megan Irwin
 published on Thursday, September 29, 2005

On the cover
Chris McAndrew
Johan Yokay
Sasha Redman
Matt Seidman

On Sept. 5, 2005, seven days after Hurricane Katrina ravaged his family home in New Orleans, Michael Seidman, a student at the University of New Orleans, found himself boarding a bus outside Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix. He was alone in a new city, a backpack holding the small catalogue of his worldly belongings -- a few pairs of socks, a pair of shorts, two T-shirts and the names of his fantasy football teams scrawled on a scrap of paper -- strapped to his back. His destination: ASU. His mission: to find some sense of normalcy in a world one act of nature had turned upside down.

He arrived on campus that Labor Day around 4 p.m., after the Registrar's Office -- which had opened on the holiday specifically to register students from universities around New Orleans -- had closed for the day.

Seidman checked himself into the Twin Palms Hotel and sat down to wait, trying to sort out his next move and make sense of his strange journey to Arizona.

"It was so depressing," he says. "I was by myself. Of course I was by myself, my parents were dealing with insurance stuff. I didn't want them with me, I wanted to do it alone."

He's one of 87 students displaced by Hurricane Katrina, who have found his or her way to Tempe and ASU with the hope of starting over, or at least gaining back some of what they have lost.

"We thought it was just another 'hurrication'"

When Alexandra "Sasha" Redman started her junior year at Tulane, she had a lot to look forward to: her first apartment, hanging out with her boyfriend, whom she hadn't seen all summer and working as the head designer at her university newspaper. She certainly wasn't expecting a hurricane to get in her way.

She says she was out at Bruno's, a popular uptown New Orleans nightspot, when she learned the city had declared a state of emergency. She says the news surprised her, but she stayed out that night until 4:30 a.m. She just didn't think Katrina would really hit. She says students at Tulane are evacuated for hurricanes so frequently, that it was hard to take the warning seriously.

"I woke up the next day and packed a few things and shoved what I could into a closet. Our house wasn't hurricane-prepared at all -- we still had furniture on the front porch and dirty dishes in the sink," she says. "I was cocky. You always think it will hit someone else."

But as she drove out of the city that Sunday, reality sunk in. When she drove to the airport to pick up her boyfriend -- a drive that normally takes 15 minutes -- it took a painful two hours. The drive to Lafayette, La., normally an hour and half trip, took 11 hours. Redman stayed the night in Lafayette, but when that city was also declared a state of emergency, she had to keep moving. Redman and her friends headed toward Texas, not sure what was ahead of them, afraid to think about what they were leaving behind.

"I just remember that I was crying and it was raining. I could hardly see, I had to pull over," she says. "I was crying because I'd lost my home; I've come to view New Orleans as my home. It was like I was losing a part of me. It's just this overwhelming sense of loss."

Chris McAndrew, another junior at Tulane, agrees that most students didn't take evacuating for a hurricane seriously. It was more a good excuse to get out of class and take a vacation than a reason to be afraid.

"Evacuation isn't unusual for Tulane. We call it 'hurrication' -- a hurricane vacation," he says. "You get out of school for a week, it's great, like a spring break in the fall. I was happy about it when I first heard."

This disbelief wasn't unusual among residents of New Orleans. Each evacuee has a similar story. They look quietly toward the floor and say over and over, "No one thought it would be this bad."

"You just never think the levees are going to break."

McAndrew says the New Orleans levees used to be a place for students to hang out -- one of his favorite college memories.

"On the weekend, the levee is more packed than any beach I've ever seen. Everyone goes out there," he says. "You just never think the levees are going to break."

But they did break, leaving Redman, McAndrew and hundreds of other students with some very difficult decisions to make. They knew the semester was cancelled and in the middle of tragedy, these students had to make quick decisions about where to continue their educations, or risk having their lives set back by a year or more.

For some, the decision was relatively easy, though not fun to make. Redman's father teaches at ASU, and she says she "literally grew up on ASU's campus." For others, the decision was more a matter of chance.

Johan Yokay, one of McAndrew's fraternity brothers at Tulane, says he decided on ASU because he was driving through Tempe on his way home to Sacramento, Calif., when he heard the semester had been cancelled.

"I called ASU's admissions office and they stayed after the workday that Friday to help get me registered," he says. "That's why I'm at ASU -- I just happened to be here. It was a pretty random decision, but when you don't have a lot of time to decide what school to go to, it's kind of just whatever happens."

McAndrew says he chose ASU because he knew Yokay was here and he knew he wanted to have at least one friend. Moving to Tempe and rooming with his Alpha Tau Omega fraternity brother just made sense.

For many evacuees, the simple fact that someone at ASU answered the phone when they called brought them to Tempe. Before he ever boarded that bus outside Sky Harbor, Michael Seidman made a phone call. He says when he found out that other schools were accepting student evacuees he started frantically e-mailing and calling universities. Seidman had been drifting about since evacuating and was itching to find a university to start over at.

"Someone at ASU picked up the phone and talked to me," he says. "They told me it would be no problem -- just come down and they would get me enrolled."

Lou Anne Denny in the Registrar's Office confirms that the University worked hard to make it easy for students from New Orleans to enroll. As early as Aug. 30, University officials were working around the clock to prepare for the influx of students affected by the hurricane. ASU has waived tuition for all students who already paid their home university. Additionally, all students were admitted without transcripts or immunization records, because these records are impossible to locate and were likely destroyed by the hurricane. She adds, students were also given free housing within Residential Life and the ASU Bookstore also set up a book loan program for the evacuees.

Denny says the process of registering the evacuees was an emotional one, both for her office and for the students registered. She tears up as she recounts the hectic days her staff spent registering and speaking with the students and their families.

"Even though we were trying to get them admitted, it was a very emotional time too," she says. "So many of them said 'I just need to talk,' and I told them 'That's OK. I need to listen.'"

"I'm not an ASU student"

But enrolling in school was the easy part. These students now find themselves facing an uncertain future, trying to acclimate to a campus much larger than what they are used to. The students from Tulane say they are overwhelmed by the size of ASU.

"This is like five times the size of our campus at Tulane," Redman says. "At Tulane, we have one sidewalk and you always see someone you know. Here it's so anonymous."

McAndrew and Yokay agree, adding that it's hard to get assimilated to a new school, hard to feel like part of a new city, when they've left behind a place where they really felt at home. Though he wears ASU T-shirts these days -- and is glad the University gave them to him sinc his clothes were destroyed in the storm -- McAndrew remains loyal to Tulane.

"I'm not an ASU student," he says. "I'm a Tulane student taking classes at another university. I have nothing against the school, but when I graduate I want my diploma to say Tulane University."

Getting used to the difference in campus size and culture is one obstacle to overcome, but one that has proved much harder is the struggle of making friends in a new place.

Redman has her family here, and McAndrew and Yokay luckily have each other, but the going has been much tougher for Seidman.

The soft-spoken, self-described introvert now finds himself in an awkward living situation: he's a 20-year-old man, living among 18-year-old "kids" in Manzanita Hall, a typically freshmen residence hall.

Seidman says from the moment he arrived, his roommates and other students on his floor have ignored the gravity of his situation. Instead of welcoming him, he says they've shunned him, even going so far as to call him names and talk about him behind his back. He says part of the problem stems from the fact that he doesn't want to go out drinking or go to parties with other students on the floor.

"I don't want to do anything that they're doing. Drinking is fun, getting loaded is fun, but it puts you in an altered state that I don't need to be in right now," he says. "I need to be planning my future."

A future that is increasingly uncertain. Seidman lived only one mile from the 17th Street levee in New Orleans, one of the levees that burst, and while he's optimistic that his house is OK, nothing is guaranteed. He's also got three maxed-out credit cards and the reality of having no job or source of income to contend with. He says his living situation only compounds the stress he's under.

"I mean what do I have to do?" he asks. "Put a sign over my door that says 'New Orleans refugee, leave me the fuck alone.' I mean, you don't even have to extend yourself if you don't want to. Just leave me alone and let me think about how in shambles my life is by myself."

Seidman says he's not sure he'll stay at ASU, partly because the treatment by his dorm-mates makes him so uncomfortable and is keeping him from focusing on the things he needs to do to get his life back in order.

"I'm not trying to act like a victim, but fuck, I am one," he says. "I need a little compassion here or I'm just not going to make it."

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