Of Hurricanes and Heroes

December 19, 2005

In his second year of college, Todd Lee is trying to decide between a career in business and becoming a lawyer. He spends his days in class and his nights studying. He frequents the library and residence hall cafeterias. He's even taken some time to work out at the Student Life Center. In many ways, Lee seems to be a typical Baylor student. 
But there is nothing typical about Lee. He isn't even an official Baylor sophomore. Lee is one of the 25 undergraduates who found their way to Baylor after Hurricane Katrina temporarily closed their institutions in Louisiana and Mississippi. 
The displaced students represent 10 colleges and universities and hometowns in four states. Most had some connection to Baylor. Some have family or friends who already were enrolled. Others were staying with family in the area. Still others, like Lee, came to Waco seeking refuge at a shelter.
Surviving the storm
The last weekend of August 2005 was a busy one for Lee. He was preparing for the beginning of his sophomore year at Loyola University in New Orleans. Classes were set to begin Monday, but Lee still had to work all weekend. His job at Wal-Mart was keeping him busy, especially since forecasters had begun to talk about a hurricane that was making its way into the Gulf of Mexico and heading toward Louisiana.
Like many who live in hurricane-prone regions, Lee paid little attention to the forecasts. Tropical storms, and even low-level hurricanes, become little more than nuisances to most lifelong residents. But by Saturday night, the strengthening storm made everyone take notice.
"I was really oblivious to how dire the situation was," Lee says. "We've sat out storms in the past and have never left. But when I turned on the 5:30 local news that night, I started to think about getting out. I'd never seen a storm track like this."
Lee began contacting family members, trying to convince them to leave the city.
"I'm just a broke college student, but I used all my money to get my sister and nieces out of town," he says. "I gave them everything I had to put gas in their car and go."
He also tried to convince his mother to leave. But she and her husband felt they had to stay in order to care for his ailing mother, who needed dialysis treatments. Lee's younger brother was determined to ride out the storm at the apartment they shared in the Ninth Ward. But Lee was determined to get his 77-year-old grandmother to higher ground.
"She didn't want to go, but I begged her to come to the Superdome with me," he says.
New Orleans' Mayor Ray Nagin had just announced that the stadium would be opened for the elderly and those with special needs. Lee helped his grandmother pack a few essentials, grabbed a few personal items and left for the Superdome Sunday morning.
As they arrived, the rains began. Along with about 4,000 others, they waited in line for five hours before making it inside. There, without a cell phone and no way to contact his mother or his brother, Lee and his grandmother waited and prayed.
In the early morning hours of Monday, Aug. 29, the day his classes would have begun, Lee woke to hear the winds howling around them.
"There was a guy next to us who had a radio, so I asked him, 'Is the hurricane here yet?'" Lee says. "He said, 'Don't worry, son. When it gets here, it'll knock.' It turned out to be true."
Several hours later, during what Lee estimates were the worst hours of the storm, he could hear it. "It sounded like something was beating on top of the Superdome. It really sounded like knocking," he says. 
That's when they began to see debris falling from the ceiling. "You couldn't see the holes, but it started raining in," Lee says. "It didn't even seem like something from nature. It was getting louder and louder, and it started shaking."
Lee watched as larger portions of the roof blew away. Then a scoreboard fell, and later a speaker. Lee moved his grandmother to a walkway under the seats where he hoped she would be safer. "I was amazed, but not really scared," he says. "Most things were being blown outward, and we just watched it go."
As the storm passed, people inside the stadium began to speculate about what the city outside must look like. Members of the National Guard told them it was unlikely anyone would be allowed to leave until Wednesday.
By Tuesday, word had spread that the levees had not held. People who had stayed in their homes were being evacuated to the Superdome by helicopter. With them, they brought stories of devastation, bodies in the streets, flooding and looting.
The apartment Lee shared with his brother was in the Ninth Ward, where the worst flooding occurred, and just a mile and a half from where the first levee broke.
Unable to sleep that night, Lee went to watch the helicopters arrive, hoping that one of them would be carrying his mother or brother. 
"I was really upset with myself for leaving my brother behind. I was really worried," he says. "It was the worst feeling I've ever had in my life. My mother might be dead; my brother might be dead. After a while, I was just looking for any familiar face."
By Wednesday, Lee started formulating a plan to leave the Superdome to look for his brother, but his grandmother begged him to stay.
That afternoon, she sent him to stand in line for water and food, which now were being rationed among the growing crowds. While he was standing in line, a woman came up to him and said she'd hold his place and that his grandmother needed him.
As he made his way through the crowd, he could see his grandmother, but not who was with her. When he got closer, he found her talking to his brother. "I was really happy and angry at the same time. I was so glad to see him but so mad that he stayed," Lee says.
His brother, who had spoken to his mother by telephone on Monday, had spent nearly three days first wading in water up to his knees, then floating around the city in a car tire. He'd tried to make it to his mother's home, but was turned back and later evacuated by the Coast Guard.
The next day, buses began arriving to transport people from the Superdome. Lee, his brother and his grandmother stood in line for nearly 16 hours. "My grandmother stayed awake and stood the whole time," he says. "I even slept for about an hour on a pile of garbage. She wasn't feeling well, but she stood until the next morning."
After putting his grandmother and brother on the bus, Lee says he tried to get back into line so others could get on. "There was a little girl crying right behind me; I could feel her tears on my back," he says. "I didn't feel right going ahead of children and elderly people."
But Lee's grandmother came back to the line, found him and linked her arm around his. She refused to board the bus unless he came with her.

Todd Lee

The road to Baylor
At bus stops along the evacuation route, people met the refugees with clothing, toiletries and goods. In Mesquite, Texas, a local Burger King delivered the first non-MRE meals they'd had in days.
Early Saturday morning, they arrived in McKinney, Texas. A shelter provided breakfast, showers and air mattresses. They got their first glimpse of television news and registered on the Red Cross "safe" list. He later found his mother on the same list. She had been at the Convention Center in New Orleans, just blocks away from the Superdome.
Soon after arriving in McKinney, Lee caught a ride to the local Wal-Mart, which immediately gave him a job. After one night's sleep at the shelter, he worked his first shift Sunday night. A shelter volunteer who gave Lee a ride to work one night told him about Baylor. "Her kids go here, and she told me about Baylor letting students come here," he says.
Baylor, like many colleges and universities, was providing tuition, fees, room and board to students enrolled in schools closed by Hurricane Katrina. Karen Klinger, assistant director of student activities, was the point person for finding lodging for the displaced students, as well as finding ways to make them feel welcome.
"It was amazing," she says. "I was genuinely overwhelmed by the generosity of this community. Not just Baylor, but Waco in general."
Students were housed in any remaining residence hall beds, then in apartments. Student organizations, individuals and even one floor of a residence hall "adopted" displaced students.
"The idea was to help them through the transition experience: find classes, the nearest grocery store, something to do on the weekends," Klinger says. "There was no financial obligation, but some groups went ahead and did things like buy books for their student."
The displaced students technically are not transfer students, but are "transient non-degree-seeking students," she says. They are given this distinction so their credits are transferable to any institution.
And, although she knew their stays would be temporary, Klinger says she'll miss them. "They're all just remarkable," she says. "Honestly, in this situation, I think I would've dropped out of school. Emotionally, I couldn't handle it. They've done exceptionally well."
Administrators not only wanted to meet the physical needs of the displaced students, but address emotional concerns as well. Jim Marsh, director of Counseling?Services at Baylor, opened his doors to the students immediately. He also offered a support group, but few people attended and most came simply to meet others who were in their same situation.
"They had questions about how things worked, information about financial things and to talk about how they got here and their plans for going back," Marsh says. "It's an important step in dealing with something like this."
A good support system and staying connected, he says, are important. And, he too is impressed by the students' ability to keep going following a disaster. "Think about all they've been through, all the changes," he says. "I think someone who's able to stick with this is pretty resilient and able to adapt. I think sometimes we underestimate people's resilience."
Keeping up academically also has been a challenge to the displaced students, who started classes weeks behind their new Baylor classmates. "It takes a lot of mental energy for anyone to stay on top of academics," Marsh says. "It says a lot for their ability to just do that."
When Lee first arrived at Baylor, he says he couldn't focus. "All I wanted to do was watch CNN and get on the phone to my friends and family," he says. "But with all the work I had to do to catch up in my classes, I couldn't do that. It distracted me, and that was probably what I needed most."
It took Lee about a month to feel caught up in most classes, but he says he stuck to it because he wanted to finish strong. "Baylor has been great," he says. "The professors are really impressive, and they've gone out of the way to help. Everyone here is so focused."
Lee also was impressed with Baylor's hospitality. "I'm just here all alone, but so many people have reached out to me, taken me out to eat, even professors," he says. "Someone even donated a used truck for me to use."
Going home
But as much as he's enjoyed his stay at Baylor, what he wants most is to go home. He arrived with a shelter-issued suitcase of the barest essentials. His only personal belongings from his now-flooded apartment in New Orleans are a few DVDs and a Captain America action figure. He wants to go home to see what survived. "Next to my life, the things I value most are photographs and things from my family," he says. "I'm hoping they were on high enough ground."
As much as Lee wants to return, however, he isn't sure he wants to go back until the levees are rebuilt and a new system is in place. He's still angry about what he sees as a lack of planning. "It's not just the problem of the current politicians, but of all the public officials for the past 40 years," he says. "There's enough blame to go around, but now it's time to find solutions."
Lee worries that the city he's returning to may never be the same because people will be afraid to come back.
"It's the people who made the city, the atmosphere. There was nothing else like it," he says. "We weren't a rich society. We were rich in heart. New Orleans loses its soul if the people don't come back."