When I told people I would be going to New Orleans for the summer as part of a DukeEngage service program, many commented on the food, the music, and the culture of NOLA. However, some were particularly adamant about how the city was built below sea level and how anyone choosing to live there was taking an unnecessary risk. While this statement demonstrates ignorance of the priorities, needs and roots of many New Orleanian families and individuals, it is based in truth. New Orleans is in a particularly vulnerable location for natural disasters and flooding when compared to many other U.S. cities. This vulnerability is furthered by infrastructure issues and climate change.
Our abrupt ending due to the rising waters of the Mississippi River gave all of us a taste of what it was like to live in New Orleans. As I watched the intersection of St. Charles and Broadway turn into a de-facto swimming pool, my peers sent videos of a flooded tavern they were taking shelter in and my worried parents sent sensationalized news reports and links to buy airplane tickets home. During all this time though, I never felt worried. This was unlike anything I’d seen before in Durham or my home town of Greensboro, but I was assured that this was normal for New Orleans. In fact, just two hours later, the roads had drained and everything seemed fine. Still, I kept receiving those news reports stating that Katrina-level flooding was headed for New Orleans and the levees weren’t tall enough with the height of the river. I got texts from friends asking if I was okay. Finally, after moving dorms to avoid potential flooding, it was decided that our program would evacuate New Orleans.
As we made our way to the airport on Friday, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. Especially after working at the Red Cross, I felt like we had an obligation to stay and help people recover from the hurricane. We had been trained on how to set up and manage shelters, and every day Victoria and I presented on how to be prepared for hurricanes and other emergencies. Luckily, the catastrophic flooding that was predicted did not occur in New Orleans, although many other cities and parishes inside and outside of Louisiana were affected. However, I am glad that we were able to educate some kids on the importance of emergency preparedness before this event. Hopefully it helped them feel a little safer, calmer and more prepared in the face of Hurricane Barry.
I am extremely grateful to have had to opportunity to participate in this program, and I sincerely thank every person who contributed to this experience. Although it may still feel unfinished, this program cultivated a love for New Orleans in me that I will carry for a very long time.