In Katrina's Aftermath, Duke Responds

November 30, 2005
Stuffing the truck: students gather supplies for hurricane evacuees in Louisiana

Stuffing the truck: students gather supplies for hurricane evacuees in Louisiana. Chris Hildreth.

Perhaps the most widespread story of Duke told in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was that of the three Duke sophomores who, upon seeing footage of the devastation, climbed in a Hyundai sedan, drove to New Orleans, entered the flooded city twice, and personally evacuated seven people who had been stranded by the storm and seemingly ignored by government-sanctioned responders.

The story was so powerful that Sonny Byrd, Hans Buder, and David Hankla quickly became media darlings, even appearing in an interview on CNN. They were highly critical of the slow progress made by official rescue efforts, telling reporters that they saw many buses either parked or leaving the city empty, as thousands waited to be evacuated from the convention center. They explained that they were denied entrance to the city initially and only gained access by forging press passes.

"Why were people stranded there for four or five days with no food and water?" Buder said to CNN anchor Soledad O'Brien. "We heard about it on Thursday, about three days after [the storm]. We drove in, and we have never been to New Orleans. And we made it [to the convention center] in twenty minutes in a Hyundai Elantra, completely over land."

Theirs was not the only humanitarian response to take root on campus. In fact, the university's response was large and varied. Duke Health System sent two teams of clinicians to the Gulf Coast to help serve the immediate medical needs of those affected. The first, a team of nine nurses and technicians specially trained in emergency preparedness, was sent to coastal Waveland, Mississippi, to help staff a 100-bed mobile hospital as part of North Carolina's State Medical Assistance Team (SMAT). Reinforcements from the regional SMAT team based at Duke's Trauma Center followed in weekly intervals to replace those coming home.

Less than a week later, a team of forty Duke doctors, nurses, and other staff members flew to inland Meridian, Mississippi, assigned to staff a U.S. government field hospital under the direction of the National Institutes of Health. "Unfortunately," Duke nurse Yvette West wrote in the team's weblog, "we learned that the patients were reluctant to leave their local areas--even though there may not be much left."

According to West, the group made plans to return home immediately, but were stopped on their way to the airport by the mayor of Meridian, who pleaded with them to reroute to a clinic in coastal Long Beach, just over ten miles from Bay St. Louis. "We arrived late in the evening and found an unorganized but functioning clinic set up in the school gym," West wrote. "By noon on Saturday, we had set up a patient receiving area that flowed into different stations--vital signs, physician visit, private area for physical exam, medication assessment with pharmacy consults, tetanus shots, and a private area for mental-health assessment."

Just days after the storm, Duke Chapel raised more than $17,000 in donations for Katrina victims during Sunday worship. The offering, the largest in chapel history, was distributed through the United Methodist Office of Relief.

Representatives of Duke Law School organized a "stuff the truck" event on campus, where they solicited donations of much-needed supplies--including clothing, food, toys, medicine, and personal and household supplies--to be loaded into an eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer and sent to a shelter in Shreveport, Louisiana, for distribution to evacuees. A local moving company donated more than 500 boxes to pack the supplies in, and TROSA, a Durham nonprofit drug-rehab program that runs a moving company, also donated its time to help pack the truck.

In the days immediately after the storm, as it became clear that many Gulf Coast universities would be forced to suspend normal operations because of damage from the storm, colleges and universities around the nation moved to provide temporary homes for affected students. Duke quickly made arrangements to accept a group of scholars from the area and enroll them as nondegree students, despite the fact that the semester was already under way. Those who qualified included North Carolina and South Carolina residents, siblings of current Duke students, and children of Duke faculty and staff members and alumni.

Fifty-one undergraduates and eighteen graduate and professional students from the University of New Orleans and Tulane, Loyola, Xavier, and Dillard universities enrolled and were settled on campus before the drop/add period ended. Duke covered their tuition and housing costs, as well as many fees. Students were required only to pay for their own food. Duke Stores provided a total of more than $22,000 in books free of charge for the affected students, as well as offering each student a $250 allowance for basic academic supplies.

Dwight Blass, a Tulane senior, describes the weeks surrounding the hurricane as "surreal." He says he is taking a full course load at Duke this semester. "I feel like a freshman again," he says. "It's humbling.

"I worry that when I go back to New Orleans, that's when it will really hit me. I'm still in a little bit of disbelief."

Besides humanitarian efforts, Hurricane Katrina sparked a wave of scholarly responses from Duke faculty members in various disciplines. Marie Lynn Miranda '85, an associate research professor at the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences, who specializes in the spatial analysis of health data, was enlisted by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences to identify toxins and health exposures in the devastated areas.

In a Raleigh News & Observer column, Karl Linden, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, argued against the "seemingly compassionate" response of pumping all the water out of the city as quickly as possible. "There is no doubt the water is a public health threat, if not an outright environmental hazard. So why then are we so quick to simply pump the water out of the city into the surrounding natural waters of Lake Pontchartrain and the canals, rivers, and Gulf that surround the city?" He pointed out that the city would still be covered in a toxic mud and warned that unplanned pumping could have long-lasting harmful implications for the lake ecosystem. He said restoring the city's wastewater treatment plants should be a top priority.

As experts across the country debated strategies for long-term rebuilding, Henry Petroski, Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of civil and environmental engineering, was invited by The New York Times to weigh in with his suggestions. In an op-ed piece dated September 10, Petroski pointed out that Chicago and Galveston, Texas, had both been at least partially raised at points in their histories to protect against flooding. "As daunting as it may seem to raise a major city," he wrote, "projects of similar scale have succeeded before. Prodigious amounts of material were displaced to build the Panama Canal, a feat accomplished with little more than steam shovels. With modern earth-moving and lifting equipment, raising New Orleans is certainly doable.

"Engineers are ready to come up with whatever it takes to rebuild New Orleans. The real question is how much the politicians are willing to invest. Whatever it will cost to raise or otherwise protect New Orleans surely will seem worth it when the next ferocious hurricane hits."

Orrin H. Pilkey, James B. Duke Professor Emeritus of geology, who has long warned of the pitfalls of construction within beachfront environments that change over time, argued for extreme caution in any plans to redevelop the area. "You just cannot justify massive building and rebuilding near the most dangerous property in the United States," he told The Washington Post.