The Journey Home

BY MARK NEWBERG

This wasn’t the semester we expected. None of it. We didn’t expect a hurricane to come barreling toward the coast. At least not for real. We didn’t expect to flee our city. At least not for long. We didn’t expect to scatter to the far corners of the country. At least not until graduation. And we didn’t need more stories to tell. At least not like this.

By now everyone knows the background. Hurricane Katrina’s track, its vicious winds and pounding surf, cut a swath through the south that still boggles the mind. A storm of such magnitude, Category 5 when the call came to run, was more distant nightmare than omnipresent fear. It’s part of New Orleans lore; the killer storm that swamps the city. But the levees have always held. So it was, with that in mind, that everyone packed to leave. Some took more, some took less, but all expected to return. The difference is, this time we can’t.

The city we knew no longer stands, though it’s struggling to its feet. Like a punch-drink fighter kneeling on the mat, New Orleans is face to face with its future, and we’re going back. We’ll be there for the resurrection, whatever form it takes. We may not have needed another story, but we’re going to get one, and it’ll be quite a tale.

When people think of New Orleans, it always involves relaxation and revelry, food and fun. From the French Quarter and Bourbon Street to the Garden District and St. Charles Ave., the touristy areas of the city survived better than most. Bars on Bourbon reopened early, and stayed open late. The magnificent mansions still grace St. Charles, though the street cars no longer run. Some restaurants are open, and Mardi Gras will go on. The old crescent, the part of the city everyone knows, the part built on the high ground by the Mississippi River, is still there, but it’s not the same. Before Katrina, New Orleans was a vibrant city with an exotic soul. It was a study in the art of life. Today, it’s waiting for life to return.

Step beyond the crescent, to the parts of the city rarely seen, and the story is darker still. In places like Mid-City, Lakeview and Bucktown, Gentilly, the Ninth Ward, and New Orleans East, Katrina’s wrath is written in indelible ink. These are the areas hardest hit, the places most have never heard of, and home to most of the city’s residents. I haven’t been back yet, but pictures and phone calls tell this story all too well. When the levees failed, the water rushed in, and though it’s dry now, the damage remains. These are the parts of the city most in need of a helping hand, and the places least likely to see one, at least anytime soon. That’s what we’re for. That’s what this next generation of leaders, our generation, ought to be ready to do. To head to New Orleans and face, head on, the greatest domestic crisis in the past forty years of American democracy.

There are rosy moments, to be sure. There’s the indomitable spirit of those who remain. The Cajuns, who give New Orleans so much of its flavor, who rode out the hurricane with Tulane’s president in the student center, with boats, guns and resolve, still call New Orleans home. The sense of humor that prompted a homeowner’s handmade sign, during the height of the looting, informing “visitors” that he was “sleeping inside with two dogs, an ugly woman, a shotgun, and a claw hammer” is still intact, even if the infrastructure to which it was wed is not. There are lifelong residents who refuse to leave, and there’s us, part of the great New Orleans diaspora, who have a school to return to.

Tulane students, grad and undergrad, have spent this domestic semester abroad at over 500 different institutions. At HLS, twenty-five of us found true shelter in the storm. The paths we took to get here varied, but not the welcome we received. My own path took me from New Orleans to Austin, then Houston, Beaumont, and a place called Hope, Little Rock to Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville and Blacksburg, to DC and New York, Hartford to Boston, and an embrace with open arms.

There is no playbook for what happens when a major American research university is forced to cancel a semester. No playbook for 12,000 students set on their own, toting only what was thrown in their car or carry-on, and their determination to continue their education in the face of catastrophe. There may not have been a playbook before, but there is now, and it’s been written by HLS.

There’s no way to express my gratitude for what’s happened here, for the way we’ve been welcomed. The administration deserves every accolade it receives, and still more than that. With hardly any advance warning they organized an orientation, a crash course in institutional intricacies, and helped us feel at home. They’ve helped smooth the transition, the jarring nature of it all, and helped us settle in far sooner than we ever would have on our own. The BSA’s donation drive helped insure we’d have what we needed, like Blue Books to replace those that floated away, or the backpack I’ve carried, donated by somebody I’ll never know. Our registration was a pivotal moment, a realization that we could still be students in a setting we could recognize. Settling into class was a gift of peace of mind in the midst of swirling uncertainty, as we were welcomed by professors and classmates alike. It was an academic environment we could relate to, the ironic comfort of legal thought, made more prescient by the circumstances.

There have been issues, the most vexing of which involves the transfer of credits. A full semester at Tulane is 14-15 credits, while here at Harvard the number is 10-12. The workload is little different, but the allocation system is. Despite our efforts to find a workable solution, perhaps a simple adjustment, turning 10 credits into 13, 11 into 14, and 12 into 15, Tulane has displayed a great faith in the rigidity of its own rules, and hasn’t yet budged. As important as it is for graduation though, it’s nothing compared to what we’ve already faced.

We’ve stared down the loaded barrel of a Category 5, and come out the other side. We’re returning to the city and school we left, and we’re carrying this semester with us. Come join us, in late January, when we host Pro Bono Publico, a national gathering devoted to the future of New Orleans. Join us in flying the flag of leadership, and help us rebuild our city stronger and safer than it’s ever been; because never again is too soon, and forever is just long enough.

Information on Pro Bono Publico: An Expression of Gratitude and Renewal, can be found on the web at: www.abanet.org/lsd

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