A high school senior, displaced by Hurricane Katrina, sits down to write about the journey that brought her from the chaotic shelter at the New Orleans Superdome to Tulsa, Okla., where she still feels lost and alone.
A college freshman whose family fled safely from Katrina recounts how she ended up on a New Orleans causeway overpass, helping evacuees with medical problems.
And, watching the disaster and rebuilding efforts from afar, middle schoolers in southern Illinois send handwritten letters to New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin in hopes that he will pass them on to others their age.
“I just learned something from this, after seeing all of this,” Allie Dean, a sixth-grader in Mount Carmel, Ill., wrote. “I really need to count my blessings and stop asking for stuff. I need to care more about other people and not just myself. Everybody here, including me, cares about you and your families.”
In the weeks since hurricanes ravaged the Gulf Coast, sitting down with pen and paper or fingers on keyboard has helped many young people digest what’s happened. For some, it’s been a way to vent or express sympathy and support for disaster victims.
Resilient survivors display shock, hope
Those too young to write have been encouraged to draw pictures or take part in “play therapy,” allowing them to act out what they’re feeling.
“Many of these children have witnessed horrific and almost apocalyptic scenes. I’m seeing a lot of shock — but I’m also seeing a lot of hope,” says Eric Green, a professor at Johns Hopkins University who returned to help young people in Louisiana, where he’d been a school counselor.
In Baton Rouge, faculty and students at Louisiana State University quickly organized the Katrina Writing Project, offering evacuees of all ages a notebook to write down their thoughts or compose poetry — whatever they wanted. Before long, people were seeking out volunteers to ask for a notebook.
“Often, we would hear people say, ‘I needed this,”’ says Paulette Guerin, an LSU senior and writing tutor who helped with the effort.
Classes at Clemson
It was much the same for high school and college students from New Orleans who gathered this month at Clemson University to reunite and write.
“They’ve lost a lot. But one thing they can keep is their minds — and their writings,” says Jim Randels, a teacher who helped found Students at the Center, a literacy and community service program in New Orleans that fosters student writers. Randels has temporarily located to Clemson but has tracked several of his students, now scattered across the country.
One of them, Maria Hernandez, had just started her senior year at Frederick Douglass High School in New Orleans when Katrina hit. After spending six days at the Superdome, she and other families left to try to locate her father, not knowing if he had survived.
“We had to sneak out of the Superdome and swim past corpses and bayou animals to find him. I sliced my leg in the process of avoiding a dead woman floating,” she wrote, describing how they later found her father alive.
Eventually, she and her family evacuated to Oklahoma, where she was placed in one high school, only to be moved to another in Tulsa.
Hasn’t found what she’s looking for
“Now after everything is said and done, I miss the high school that was supposed to be my alma mater. I’m afraid to get my class ring, because we might just move back again and I’d be stuck,” Hernandez wrote in an essay penned during the weekend at Clemson.
She also had registered to take college entrance exams while in New Orleans but, as of now, isn’t sure she’ll be able to take them. “It’s hard to keep going and pushing when you don’t even know if what you’re looking for is still there,” she said, referring to her home in New Orleans. “I’ve lost my home, my friends and my school. I’m always on the verge of tears.”
At the urging of a professor, Ashley Meyn, an LSU freshman who has some training as an emergency medical technician, also wrote down her experiences. After helping her own family evacuate, she went into New Orleans and spent two days helping the sick and injured from an ambulance parked on the highway.
“Things were moving relatively smoothly until the helicopters started bringing the evacuees from area hospitals,” she wrote in her essay. “How do you triage people that have been too sick even to leave the hospital? They ALL needed IMMEDIATE care! ... It was scary at times. The people waiting for buses kept getting anxious, children on respirators were running out of battery, and minor surgical procedures were being done in the middle of the interstate.
“But I knew I was helping people,” Meyn concluded. “It is a feeling like none other.”
Some also wrote about feelings that they were not doing enough.
In her online journal, Molly Kennedy, a high school junior at University Laboratory School in Baton Rouge, gave details about her time volunteering at a makeshift hospital wing for evacuees.
She included an excerpt from a conversation she had with an 82-year-old patient named Joe — and how she expressed frustration that she was able to do little more than make coffee and sit with patients to comfort them.
“Best kind of volunteering in the world, listening to people,” she recalled Joe telling her. “You’re doing more than your part. ... God bless you.”
‘We will survive’
Later that day, Kennedy saw Joe again when her mom came to pick her up, and she ended up thanking him for giving her a sense that, even amid despair, her fellow Louisianans would prevail.
“We will survive through this. ... And we will do what we can,” she wrote. “Because despite all the bad in Louisiana right now, I’ve seen an amazing amount of good, too. It’s hope. And it’s a start.”
Katrina also gave Keva Carr, a freshman at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La., a new perspective on New Orleans, where she grew up and wrote with others from Students at the Center while in high school.
“I thought I’d never look back. Well, I didn’t want to. I was tired of seeing the same old crooked things on my block ...,” Carr wrote in an essay she e-mailed to Randels after Katrina hit. “Why am I looking back now? Well, when a friend is in trouble, you do not turn your back on her. But in my case it’s a city. A city that has given me laughter and tears....
“I treasure it more now than ever. Because desperate times call for desperate measures. Because my city needs me. It needs my prayers, my hope, my words and my strength.”