When University of Massachusetts student Emily Morse left on Aug. 18 to spend a semester at the University of New Orleans, she had no idea her experience would be drastically cut short.
Only nine days after her arrival, Morse evacuated the city and headed to Texas to escape the rapidly approaching Hurricane Katrina.
Morse, a senior English major from Penacok, N.H., was enrolled in UMass’s National Student Exchange program, which sends students to universities all over the nation and allows them to experience different geographical and cultural environments.
Morse had always heard New Orleans was a good place to go, and she “fell in love” with the city right away. “The French Quarter’s just absolutely beautiful. [I loved] the different mix of people, and there’s always music on the street,” she said. “It was just a really lively city, and the people are so friendly.”
Morse had been warned that the university often experienced hurricane threats. During her first few days in New Orleans, a tour guide mentioned the city’s precarious situation. “The tour guide said that since New Orleans is ten to twenty feet below sea level, they’re always waiting for ‘the big one,'” Morse said.
However, she never expected a storm so severe that the university would shut down for the semester and she would find herself back at UMass this fall.
After several days of orientation touring the city, Morse attended three days of classes before the storm hit.
On the afternoon of Saturday, Aug. 27, when Morse returned to campus from Lake Pontchartrain, she was told the campus would shut down at 6:00 p.m. that evening.
Initially, classes were only cancelled until Wednesday. “We all thought it was just going to be a small little thing, so I only packed enough clothes for four days on the road,” Morse said. She left her computer, CDs and most of her clothing behind.
Morse and a group of friends drove to South Padre Island, Tex., where they spent a couple of days at the beach and visiting Mexico. “At the beginning, we were all like, ‘Hurricane break! Whoo!'” Morse said. “Once we realized how bad it was, we all felt kind of guilty for having so much fun.”
When the students saw that this hurricane was more serious than most, they drove overnight to a friend’s home in Fort Worth, Tex., where they quickly realized the gravity of the situation.
Katrina, one the worst natural disasters to ever strike the United States, left the city of New Orleans under 20 feet of water in many places, forcing thousands of people to flee and leaving many others stranded with a mounting risk of disease. The death toll in New Orleans alone could reach 10,000, said the city’s mayor, Ray Nagin, and the storm has displaced over one million people
While staying in Fort Worth, Morse received an email from Sheila Brennan, the program coordinator for domestic exchange programs at UMass, inviting her to return to the Amherst campus.
Although Hurricane Katrina was more severe than most hurricanes or earthquakes students have encountered, Morse’s situation was typical of a displaced exchange student, said Brennan. Students on domestic exchange have had their schools closed for natural disasters before, and displaced students will frequently choose to return to UMass. “I don’t think [this was] a more severe situation for the individual, because generally schools evacuate,” she said.
Morse returned to Massachusetts on Sunday and moved back into her apartment in the Boulders, where her roommates had been planning to cover her rent. She was quickly activated at UMass, and the provost’s office offered to assist her if she had any difficulty getting into classes.
“I think we did it as quickly as we possibly could,” said Brennan. “I encourage [displaced exchange students] to come back, not knowing when the university would open.”
Although she was disappointed that her semester in New Orleans was so drastically cut short, Morse feels very lucky. “If I ididn’t meet the friends I met because of the tour and orientation, I probably would have been at the Superdome, which would have been a terrible experience,” she said.
And although she lost belongings, she still has a home to return to.
“It’s just so tragic that so many people lost their homes, especially the poor,” Morse said. “People who couldn’t get out of the city were poor or handicapped in some manner, and then they had to go through the whole superdome thing, if they even made it that far.”
She wants to return to New Orleans to help rebuild, and hopes UMass will organize a program with Habitat for Humanity for students to go down south over Christmas break to help rebuild the city. “I know they have an alternative spring break, so maybe we could do an alternative winter break,” she said. “I want to make it like it was.”