Image: Denali Lander at Tulane University
Bill Haber  /  AP
Hurricane Katrina brought an abrupt end to Denali Lander's first semester at Tulane University but she returned the following January and she graduates this month. Lander directs a nonprofit program that provides computers and computer training to students.
By Associated Press Writer
updated 5/6/2009 7:32:57 PM ET 2009-05-06T23:32:57

In the months after Hurricane Katrina swamped the University of New Orleans campus in August 2005, the basketball team had to practice across the state line in Texas and played its entire season on the road, winning just three games.

Some team members quit, but for those who stuck it out, "it made us closer," said Jada Frazier, who was a freshman from Albany, Ga.

"I strongly believe that sometimes you have to go through some hardships and changes in order to become a stronger person," she said. "And I don't think I could have gone anywhere else and become the person that I am today."

Frazier is a member of the Class of Katrina — the graduating college seniors who were brand-new freshmen when the hurricane plunged New Orleans into anarchy and ruin four years ago.

While many of their classmates left and never came back, they returned, whether out of loyalty to their school or affection for the city. And for some of them, it was a life-changing experience.

Tulane University student Denali Lander, an English major from Boulder, Colo., helped start a nonprofit relief effort called the NOLA Fund. Originally a source of aid for families displaced by the storm, it evolved into a program providing students at a New Orleans public school with technology training and free laptops.

"I've always been a civic-minded person, I like to think. But certainly the hurricane kind of put that at the forefront of my interest," Lander said.

Barely unpacked when levees broke
Many of New Orleans' freshmen had barely unpacked and decorated their dorm rooms when the city was ordered evacuated because the levees broke. Administrators returned weeks later to find major damage at Dillard University, Xavier University, the University of New Orleans and Southern University at New Orleans. Tulane and Loyola universities fared better.

Other colleges around the country took in New Orleans' students for a semester before classes finally resumed in the city in January 2006 — in trailers at some of the flooded campuses or, in the case of Dillard, at a hotel. It was a dreary, depressing experience.

An international business and Spanish major, Ashlee Yates of Memphis, Tenn., recalled a Dillard gym piled ceiling-high with the belongings of students who wouldn't be coming back for them. Her dorm room had flooded, and she had lost everything.

"The morale became really, really low after the hurricane," Yates said. "A lot of students that came in with me aren't here anymore."

Jazmine Boutte, a student at Dillard, didn't just lose what she had on campus; her family in New Orleans lost their home to flooding. It was, she said, a shock to her then-materialistic soul when she wound up in Houston with no extra clothes, dependent on the kindness of strangers.

"I've really changed from how I was. I would never want Wal-Mart clothes and things like that, and that's what I had to resort to right after we evacuated," Boutte said. "I just never thought I would have to have people giving me things when I used to be the one giving all the time."

Views have changed
When she returned to New Orleans, Boutte helped paint and clean damaged property, tutored schoolchildren and participated in the building of a Habitat for Humanity house. She also took part in a 2006 rally to encourage displaced residents to vote — the kind of civic-minded activity she said she never would have participated in before.

"I was kind of materialistic before Katrina. I've really learned not to take anything for granted," she said. "My whole views on having this and having that have really changed."

Matt Limback, a Tulane student from Chesterfield, Mich., who had to flee less than 24 hours after arriving on campus, said he never gave any thought to transferring to another school. When he returned, the university dispatched him and others to the hardest-hit areas of the city to help with the cleanup.

"It was pretty dismal when on the first couple of weekends back they send you down to the Ninth Ward, where you're going through houses where you find dead animals, dead pets," Limback said.

But he and other graduating students said they were grateful to have been part of the city's healing.

Charles Figley, a psychologist and disaster trauma expert who was recruited to work at Tulane after the storm, said the students' reaction is common among those who have withstood great hardship: "They have a source of inspiration and self-confidence that emerge as a result of some terrible disaster."

Rocognition planned
Recognition of the graduating Katrina veterans is planned at commencement ceremonies, beginning this weekend. Tulane, where more than 1,100 of this year's 2,000 graduates are former Katrina exiles, will distribute a program with a photo essay on the disaster and a list of 600 universities that took in Tulane students in 2005.

Similarly, at Dillard, seniors promenading through the university's majestic oaks will carry banners thanking universities that hosted them after Katrina.

While graduation will be a goodbye to New Orleans for many, some are staying.

Lander said she will spend at least two more years here through the Teach For America program, having found in New Orleans — with its rich urban mix of African, Caribbean and European influences — the diversity she was seeking when she finished high school.

Limback he has yet to line up a job but is staying, too, citing the upbeat attitude of the people, the food and the music.

"It's a cliche," he said. "But it's so different in New Orleans than anyplace else."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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