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A Break in the Weather


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Samantha morrison, a doctoral candidate at Tulane University, now lives with her two brothers in their New York City apartment while she takes free classes at Teachers College. Her luggage, with her possessions from her New Orleans apartment, sit in their living room.

It wasn't the surprise Samantha Morrison's friends had planned for her birthday.  Instead of opening the door on a room full of decorations and grinning classmates, Morrison - a Ph.D. candidate in Education and Psychology at Tulane University-'"found herself fleeing New Orleans on the eve of fall semester to avoid the path of Hurricane Katrina.

"At the time, I was upset that I was going to miss dinner," Morrison recalls. "I had no idea how bad it would be." Evacuations can be a routine part of life for New Orleans residents during the hurricane season, and Morrison, who had enrolled at Tulane in 2001 and was preparing to finish her coursework this semester, had heard many false reports of killer storms.

In fact, when she packed her car for Baton Rouge, all she brought was an overnight bag. After all, Tulane's Web site said that the beginning of the school year would be delayed by only one day.

The picture began to change when she reached Baton Rouge.  "It was overcrowded, and the power was already going out," Morrison says.  She decided to weather the storm at a friend's brother's house in Atlanta. By that time, though, the evacuation was picking up steam, which meant that the roads had become parking lots.  

"Traffic was at a standstill," Morrison says. "We sat there, listening to the storm reports on National Public Radio, playing a game of 'What Did I Wish I'd Brought With Me?' Photographs, jewelry - it was all still back there."

The trip, which took 14 hours and was accompanied by a barrage of horrific sights and news reports, left her numb. "We saw a car on the side of the road that had exploded, and was on fire. We just kind of looked at it, said 'Oh,' and kept driving."

Still, by the time they reached Atlanta, the storm had passed through New Orleans, and there was more good news than bad. New Orleans had been hit hard, but had survived. At seven in the morning, Morrison finally switched off the television set and allowed herself to go to sleep.When she woke up, 80 percent of her city was under water and she was effectively homeless.

Fortunately, Morrison grew up in upstate New York, and two of her brothers live in New York City. She joined them there the next day, and they turned their office into an ad hoc bedroom with an inflatable bed. They stored the few things she'd brought in the living room. "They consider it their contribution to disaster relief," she jokes.

 With life and limb secured, Morrison called her advisor at Tulane, but no one knew when or whether school would continue.  At that point, she began phoning around to universities in New York City to find a way to finish her class work. Even though the semester had already begun, Teachers College offered her free classes, and she signed up - one of four students and a researcher who would eventually take refuge at TC. "I was lucky," she says. "I had family here who could house me and a great university that would help me out."  

The first few weeks were tough. With no real home and only a week's worth of clothes, "I felt like a freshman all over again," Morrison says. Worse, all her research for her dissertation on children's responses to community violence was back in Louisiana. It looked like she would have to use pre-collected data.

Still, she says, "everyone at TC, from the registrar to admissions, was great to me. The professors were great, and made me feel incredibly welcome."

Finally, nearly a month after the storm hit, Morrison got word that she could return to New Orleans to check on her home.  "My friends and I all got together and made a sort of pilgrimage," she says. Luckily, her apartment, which is uptown, where the levees held, had been spared. Some of her friends were less fortunate. One's business had been obliterated; another's roof had caved in.

"You could only drive on some streets because others were covered with debris. As we drove, we saw homes with makeshift signs saying things like - 'You Loot, We Shoot!'  Not only were street lights not working, they were gone."  

Much will have been rebuilt by the time Morrison returns in the spring to Tulane, where she'll work as a Teacher's Assistant and apply for internships. Yet New Orleans will never be the same.  Morrison thinks often now of a pint glass she bought, in the seemingly long-ago days before Katrina, at a local bar. Printed on its side was a jocular list of "crazy" things about carefree life in the Big Easy.  Number five was, "If the levees break, everybody dies."

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