Steven Siegel’s first semester of college didn’t turn out like he’d planned.
Less than three months ago, Siegel was eager to begin his freshman year of college at Tulane University in New Orleans. Just two days after his arrival, he fled the city and left most of his belongings behind in his dorm room as Hurricane Katrina approached. He’s been living at home in Potomac ever since, one of many local Tulane students riding out the semester at home. Nearly a dozen Churchill alums — including seven ‘05 graduates — left Tulane in August and enrolled at Washington area universities. Siegel’s classmates Danny Jumblatt and Casey Finger are both taking classes at the University of Maryland, while Ali Gross transferred to George Washington University.
“It was really hard, but you look at what’s going on on TV, and you feel grateful that you didn’t lose everything,” Steven Siegel said. “I was really upset that I wouldn’t be able to go to school like a lot of my friends were [but] in the grand scheme of things, it’s not as big a loss as losing your home or being displaced permanently.”
It’s a common refrain for the Siegels after the last 10 weeks — not ideal, but everything could have been much, much worse. For that, they are all thankful.
“It’s certainly not what you’d hope for,” said Laura Siegel, Steven’s mother. “As upsetting and disruptive as it is for Steven … as least he had a home to come back to.”
STEVEN SIEGEL ARRIVED at New Orleans on Aug. 25, two days before Tulane’s freshman move-in day. It was a Thursday, and he followed the weather predictions with interest as he unpacked. He’d met Tulane classmates online through Facebook.com, a college student networking site, but he hadn’t had time to meet in person before the warnings grew dire that Saturday, Aug. 27. A family friend knows Tulane’s dean of students. On Saturday, “he called my dad and told him that I should pack some things and just get going.”
Unable to get a flight out of New Orleans, Steven Siegel drove on Saturday to Jackson, Miss. “Traffic wasn’t terrible,” he said. “If we had left two hours later, it would have been.”
He spent a night in Jackson, then flew back to Washington.
Safely back in Potomac, Siegel watched on television as post-Katrina floods ravaged the city. For a couple of weeks, his immediate plans were in limbo. He considered joining the Red Cross and traveling down to Louisiana to help recovery efforts. He traveled as far as Atlanta or as near as College Park to visit friends in college. Before long, he enrolled for nine credit hours at George Washington and awaited news about Tulane’s plans for reopening.
TULANE WILL REOPEN next semester. The university chartered two cruise ships that will house students whose off-campus homes were destroyed. Two weeks ago, they invited its students to return to campus and retrieve any belongings they left behind. The Siegels flew down to New Orleans, anxious to see the fate of Steven’s belongings, which were on a ground-level floor. Most of the news was good — his clothing stayed dry during the floods. “It didn’t even smell or anything,” Laura Siegel said. Steven’s Playstation 2 was among the items that were gone, however.
The trip was an eye-opener, even for a family that closely followed news about Katrina’s aftermath. “You see the stuff that happened on television, but until you really go down there [you don’t comprehend] what kind of damage it can really do,” Steven Siegel said.
A drive down Canal Street and through New Orleans’ central business district was especially powerful. Many buildings on Canal Street near the French Quarter were burned out, and chain stores were closed behind shuttered windows. In the Convention Center, Laura Siegel saw workers in haz-mat suits cleaning the entrances.
Closer to Tulane, the Siegels saw the roof of a gas station lying in the middle of the road, crooked road signposts with the signs hanging upside-down, and intersections where the traffic lights weren’t on. Roads and sidewalks were littered with damaged furniture and mattresses. “People were just tossing out refrigerators, and just left them on the side of the road,” Laura Siegel said.
The Siegels met some New Orleans parents who sent their children to school in Connecticut after the hurricane. Every two weeks, the parents fly to Connecticut to visit their children. “My kids would be going off the deep end,” Laura Siegel said.
“It’s not like the people who live there, and their neighbors aren’t coming back,” Laura Siegel said. “Their lives are going to be a lot more disrupted than the kids who are at the university.”
LIFE ISN’T BAD at home, Steven Siegel said. He takes three courses at George Washington, and the schedule allows him to sleep in. “I’m just kind of playing the semester out,” he said. He’s eager to return to Tulane in January, and begin a “normal” collegiate life, like those of the friends he visited in the past two months.
Laura Siegel is thankful “that the school’s reopening and he can go back — not that I want to get rid of him,” she said. She is less sure whether to be thankful that Steven’s sister Danielle, a Churchill junior, is considering applying to Tulane. “I just hope my nerves can handle three more hurricane seasons — maybe more.”
<sh>‘It Just Worked out Fortuitously’
<bt>Steven Siegel left New Orleans on Saturday, Aug. 27, and his Tulane roommate and Churchill ‘05 classmate Casey Finger left the city one day later with his parents Heidi and Stephen Finger and Churchill/Tulane classmate Danny Jumblatt in a rental car.
One day after the Fingers landed in New Orleans to move Casey into his dorm, they attended a university “Town Hall” meeting at Tulane on Saturday. University administrators told students and their families that university would close for the next three days.
The meeting left the Fingers with the impression that they shouldn’t stray too far, just to return four days later. “That to us kind of minimized the seriousness of the storm,” Heidi Finger said.
The Fingers put Casey up in a hotel room on Saturday night at the Pontchartrain Hotel in the Garden District, and it was not until the next day, when New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin ordered a state of emergency and city-wide evacuation, that the family got in the rental car and left town.
“We were in a state of shock,” Heidi Finger said. “We didn’t know where to go. People were leaving, but we didn’t know anybody around there. … They just [directed] you this way, and we went.”
By that time, outbound drivers were directed to Route 10 East, due to overwhelming congestion on the westbound highway. The initial traffic was bumper-to-bumper, going 1-2 mph, and even after the cars began to move, it took them nearly six hours to go 90 miles. The good news was that the Fingers were headed in the right direction toward home — Route 10 led to Route 34 North, opened to four northbound lanes. Twelve hours later, the Fingers and Jumblatt were in Chattanooga, Tenn. “It just worked out fortuitously,” Heidi Finger said. “We just realize, ‘Oh, we can drive home.’”
When the Fingers returned to Potomac, the university had shut down for the semester. They realized how fortunate they were to be back home. One of Casey Finger’s friends stayed at the Hilton for more than a week after the hurricane, living on rationed food.
“We were very fortunate to have a rental car,” Heidi Finger said. Before they arrived in the city, the parents had debated whether to bother with one, or use public transportation. “A lot of people don’t realize that the people stuck in New Orleans weren’t just poor people.”
CASEY FINGER IS THANKFUL that the University of Maryland, College Park, accommodated him on such short notice. An early September phone call to the Maryland admissions office and he was in a dorm room with 12 credit hours of courses — the envy of nearly every college-bound high school senior.
When Finger made the call, he’d been at home for a week-and-a-half, and had resumed working his summer job at Burning Tree Country Cub. “I contemplated just taking the semester off,” Finger said. “I just decided that it would be better to have a few courses.”
Socially, Casey Finger doesn’t feel like he skipped a beat, even though he arrived too late for freshman orientation. His best friend Kyle Smith (Churchill ‘05) is also a freshman at Maryland, and Finger joined the university’s water polo team.
“For parents of an only child, we have enjoyed having him near home,” Heidi Finger said. They see the Terrapins’ water polo matches, and Casey returns on occasion to do laundry.
A golfer on Churchill’s state champion squad in ‘04, Finger left his clubs at Tulane. They’re still there, the Siegels have verified, and Finger will return to New Orleans when the school reopens in January. He’ll miss his friends at Maryland, but remains eager to start life as a Tulane student.
“I’m just happy that [Maryland] was so accommodating,” Finger said. “I’m also really happy that Tulane is going to reopen.”