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Gulf Coast Students Tell Their Stories

Three Mount Holyoke seniors, Mollie McDermott '06, Katy Smith '06, and Devi Yalamanchili '06, experienced firsthand the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina and share their account of the natural disaster.

Mollie McDermott's Story

After going unscathed through several hurricanes in the past, Mollie McDermott ’06, from Mandeville, Louisiana, says she was in denial that Katrina was going to hit. She left for school before the storm came since she had to be on campus for orientation. Her parents evacuated at the last minute when the magnitude of the storm became clear. In Mandeville, which is on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain, directly across from New Orleans, McDermott says the extent of damage goes by the rule of three: one in three houses is fine, one has some damage, and one is in bad shape. Her family was one of the lucky ones.

McDermott and a friend stayed in Baltimore the night after the hurricane hit. “We were almost celebrating because the levees didn’t break. The next morning, everything completely changed. That’s when I started madly trying to call people.” It would be almost a week before she talked to her parents, who left Louisiana and went to Arkansas. McDermott’s father went back to help FEMA with the rescue effort, staying in the family’s home and receiving emergency rations. Her mother is now back in Mandeville as well. “We’re extremely lucky,” McDermott said. “I don’t know anyone else whose house is fine.” One of the hardest things for her is that her family is now scattered all over the country. And some aren’t going back. “I’m used to having my family all in one place. Christmas will be such a different experience,” McDermott said. On a grander scale, her biggest concern is that the city won’t ever come back. “Those who can go back and rebuild have money," McDermott said. "Those without money can’t move back. And it’s just as much their home.”

McDermott is the cochair of the student organization CAUSE, a community service group that already has several fundraisers in the works. They have donation bins set up in all academic and administrative buildings on campus, and they’re having a craft sale September 14–16 and a bake sale September 21–23, both in Blanchard Campus Center. They are also planning an organization competition, where student organizations will compete against each other to raise as much money as they can in one day.

McDermott is grateful for the outpouring of concern from the community. “The support on campus has been stellar,” she said. “I’m lucky to be here, be safe, and be in a position to help.”

Katy Smith's Story

Katy Smith '06 from Jackson, Mississippi, reflected on her experience with Hurricane Katrina at the 9/11 Vigil on Abbey Green.

The first thing I’d like to say is that I don’t even have a right to be here, among you all. I’m from Jackson, Mississippi, where all the people count their blessings every day because they escaped the worst of it. Trees fell, roofs were damaged, power lines came down everywhere. But only one woman died. So it’s ridiculous to describe my suffering, since thousands of people south of Jackson have lost their homes, their jobs, their loved ones, and in some cases, their dignity.

So what I can tell you that would be new? Perhaps few of you have personally seen a convention center overflowing with evacuees, cramped into a foreign city and entirely dependent on the kindness of strangers. Perhaps few of you have seen truckloads of dogs who have been swimming in contaminated water for days in cages stacked above their drowned companions. These are horrible things to see, but with the utter despair comes the highest kind of hope. My home lost power for over a week, and with the shortage of gas and no way to prepare or refrigerate food, we ended up eating crackers and dry cereal for most of our meals. For the first few days, I complained. But I quickly realized that the city was rising to its feet in the midst of its difficulties, in a way that I’m sure will be echoing along the completely devastated Mississippi Gulf Coast and the swamped New Orleans.

The morning after the hurricane hit, my mother and I took a walk in the streets of our neighborhood. Under a perfectly benign blue sky, everyone was already in their yards, raking, picking up, sorting, arranging fallen limbs into manageable piles. As we picked our way through the downed trees and power lines, we spoke with neighbors we’d never met before, and everyone had the same words on their tongues. For an entire week, Jackson only spoke Katrina, and it managed to connect us in a way nothing had before. For a week, we stopped talking about politics or the economy or the city gossip. We started instead to speak of what needed to be done, right then. Our shelters were overwhelmed with donations. Our Red Cross couldn’t take any more volunteers. Our local TV stations would post needed supplies on the bottoms of their screens, and I was told that whenever a new item was posted, the need was completely filled within an hour. The poorest among us gave everything they could, and the wealthiest gave proportionately. Native Mississippian John Grisham gave $5 million—more than initial donations from the NBA, Major League Baseball, and Wal-Mart combined.

I’ve never loved my state the way I did that week, and it was very difficult to return to a land where people talk about normal things, everyday things. I think the worst possible result would be for people to forget, because the one million displaced Southerners will need the strongest support this nation can give for years to come. They won’t forget because they can’t, and I think it’s presumptuous to assume that any of us should be able to forget. I still have nightmares every single night, so I can’t imagine what those who went through the worst of it are dreaming of. My mother is volunteering with the Red Cross, and a few days ago, she met an evacuee who worked as a tour guide in New Orleans. At the end of their conversation, he told her that when she visited New Orleans in a year, he’d give her the best tour of the city she’d ever have. It’s hope and memory that will pull us through—belief in the future and remembrance of the past. So what do we do in the present? Be thankful every day for our health, our safety, our friends, our neighbors, and donate every penny we can spare to the relief effort.

Devi Yalamanchili's Story

Devi Yalamanchili’s home in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, suffered a lot of wind damage from Katrina, but she said her family was lucky because they had no flooding. She too has been through several storms that threatened the city but never hit her home. “We didn’t even think it would hit New Orleans,” she said. Her home was without power for a week, and cell phones didn’t work, so it was several days before she could track down friends who were attending Tulane University and the University of New Orleans and who had been forced to find alternative plans for the fall semester.

Yalamanchili changed her flight from New Orleans to Baton Rouge and arrived at Mount Holyoke safely, although her parents’ car is still stuck at the New Orleans airport. The firsthand accounts she has heard from friends have been heart wrenching.

"They say it was chaos. The National Guard would pass up people’s houses, so they started shooting," Yalamanchili said. "Their families were dying. They were starving. There was no clean water.” And the worst part, Yalamanchili said, is that the poorest parts got hit the hardest.
Baton Rouge is now seeing an influx of evacuees looking for homes and jobs. Her father is a medical doctor with clinics in nearby towns and has been offering free services to evacuees.

Her friends at MHC had no idea if she was OK until they spotted her on campus. “They were so happy to see me,” Yalamanchili said. As for the city that she loved and where she went all the time with friends, she’s not sure what’s going to happen. “I don’t think it’s possible to rebuild the city to what it was before. There’s no city left.”

On the Web:

Hurricane Katrina Index

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Copyright © 2006 Mount Holyoke College. This page created and maintained by Office of Communications. Last modified on June 13, 2006.