William & Mary

Post-Katrina conversations

  • Post-Katrina conversation
    Post-Katrina conversation  Members of Drew Stelljes' service-learning class reflect on what they experienced in New Orleans.  
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As members of Drew Stelljes' "U.S. Response to Katrina" service-learning class prepared to travel to New Orleans this semester, many wondered if the people they would meet still were talking about the Aug. 29, 2005, storm that decimated the city. Although class discussions focused on issues of access, race, economics and education, students speculated whether, on the ground, those same conversations had worn themselves out.

After a week onsite, students concurred that the answer definitely was "No!" According to Kristin Corcoran, "The pre/post Katrina dichotomy still dominates everyday conversations. … [It] seems to have become a new way to mark history and time."

A scene from New Orleans. Courtesy photo.On the ground, students were enveloped within the stark physical contrasts between sections of the city that were thriving and those that, more than two years later, seemed untouched. More than that, they entered the minds of residents through conversations and through helping repair houses, serve at a food bank and tutor young children. The latter experience caused Christine Liow ('10) to observe, "These kids can't even graduate from fourth grade. What kind of plans do they have for themselves? Do they even have plans?"

Rachael Reeves ('09) pointed to a library that was rebuilt in a neighborhood that was not rebuilt and suggested no one is taking leadership and providing direction for recovery efforts. Trevor Buckley ('09) considered those who were rebuilding in the devastated areas and wondered, "Are these people the seeds for change? Are they going to be catalysts for new communities, … or are they in defiance and denial?" As they considered the challenges faced by residents of the city, students also questioned their own commitment to their communities. Liz Ketner ('08) said New Orleans showed her that the basic problems there exist closer to home. She reflected, "We saw so much white flight in New Orleans, and so many problems with the school system. I wondered, if I lived here, would I send my kids to these schools. What would I do? What will I do?"

Upon their return to Williamsburg, members of the "U.S. Response to Katrina" discussed these and related issues in a class that was videotaped at the Swem Media Center.