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College students avoid disaster

Posted: Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Caroline Hiatt and Randy Kitchens sat in front of the television for several days recently watching the devastation that high winds and flood waters caused to their college hometown of New Orleans.


Caroline Hiatt (right), a sophomore at Tulane University in New Orleans, brought three students home to Martinez with her when they had to evacuate the campus. The students are: Randy Kitchens (from left), Dave Swank and Laura Linhardt.

Photo by Jim Blaylock

The pair, along with two new friends from Tulane University, evacuated the city Aug. 27 on an overnight road trip to the safety of Hiatt's Martinez home.

"We've been calling the Red Cross trying to volunteer and see what we can do because right now we are just kind of watching the news as our city drowns, becoming Atlantis," said 19-year-old Kitchens, a 2003 Greenbrier High School graduate of Evans.

Hiatt, 19 and a 2003 Lakeside High School graduate, is a sophomore at Tulane studying philosophy, math and computer science. Laura Linhardt, a 20-year-old sophomore from Chapin, S.C., joined Hiatt on the trip to Martinez. Hiatt and Linhardt are both resident assistants in dorms on the uptown campus. Their job on Aug. 27, which also was freshmen move-in day, was to evacuate the dorms before they could flee Hurricane Katrina's path.

"We had to close up first," Hiatt said, adding that they received an order at 10:30 a.m. that the dorms would be closed at 6 p.m. "We had to kick everybody out."

Linhardt said because many parents were arriving on campus with the 1,706 freshmen, the number to evacuate was much more than normal. But most parents were much calmer than if they were several states away from their children in the same situation. The order was to put bags down and leave either with your parents or on a bus to Jackson, Miss.

But it was still hard to handle, Hiatt said.

"It was the utter chaos of freshmen move-in anyway," Hiatt said. "You've got freshmen moving in and parents trying not to let go and trying to be overly helpful. Then you have got the evacuation on top of it. Complete and utter chaos."

Hiatt and Kitchens met Linhardt on Aug. 17 at RA training and the three met fellow student and storm evacuee Dave Swank, a 20-year-old junior, only a week before Katrina hit New Orleans.

"This has all been really quick," Hiatt said. "We all just met a few days ago... . On the 29th, we moved out and went together."

Since arriving at Hiatt's home Sunday morning, the foursome has watched the news constantly for updates on storm rescue and recovery to the point they can watch no more.

"When the mayor came over and said that they would not be able to move people back into the city for at least two months and it would be another month before they got power, I just about fell over," Hiatt said.

Swank, a junior psychology major, was restricted to seeing his hometown of Biloxi, Miss., on television. His family is safe, but it's not safe for him to return to Biloxi because his family home, which is only a half mile from the bay, is flooded.

It took nearly three days before he reached his family by phone and discovered they were safe.

"They took me in," Swank said, smiling at his friends. "I'm going to hang out with my friends for a while. Pretty much, I talked with my parents ... they basically said, 'At this point, you not coming back and meeting up with us in Mississippi is going to make life a lot easier.'"

Hiatt's father, James, doesn't mind having the three students, plus Kitchens, who is always at the house anyway, hanging around and sleeping in his living room.

"I'm glad they are here and they are safe," Hiatt's father said, adding that Linhardt is a good cook and Swank cleans the house. "We said just get out and get home. It looked scary on TV."

The group brought only a bookbag of clothes and other items with them, expecting to be allowed back on campus by Sept. 1. According to the Tulane University Web site on Thursday, the start of classes is still not set and could be as long as two months away.

News of campus damage has been promising so far, though.

"The most recent things we heard was that nobody had looted our dorms and they were dry," said Kitchens, a sophomore studying philosophy, math, linguistics and computer science.

The problem is that not much of the Tulane campus has power and there is too much debris on the streets and on campus to get there.

"It's not flooded," Hiatt said. "It's just debris everywhere. By debris, we mean 100-year-old oak trees in the middle of the road."

Hiatt said the campus is about 3 feet above sea level, only about 10 feet above the rest of New Orleans.

"It means we are not part of (Lake) Pontchartrain's expansion project."

And what does this mean for their fall semester and academic career?

Other nearby colleges such as Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge are accepting "academic refugees" from schools closed by Katrina's effects. Kitchens said he might end up there, but the others had not decided Thursday whether to go or wait it out for Tulane.

The group is checking the university Web site for updates and hopes to return to the city.

"If nothing else, to try and help," Kitchens said.

They had plans to head to Linhardt's home Saturday to attend a Red Cross volunteer certification course in disaster, shelter operations, shelter simulation and mass care.

"You kind of feel like we are the lucky ones because we are intact," Kitchens said. " ... Everyone else, they lost their homes, they lost everything they own."


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