It was four days before school at Tulane University would begin when Sam Repshas of Reston arrived in New Orleans.
Just three months after graduating from South Lakes High School, Repshas was beginning his first year of college, leaving Reston for the first time in his life. He planned to major in performing arts.
That Friday, Aug. 26, Repshas bought books for his classes. The next morning, Repshas, along with his father and mother, pulled up to his brand new dorm, the place he’d call home for the next year.
With help from returning students, it didn’t take long to unload the car and move into his fourth floor room. As he was getting to know his roommate, a student from Chicago, word spread throughout the dorm.
“An hour after he got settled,” said Don Repshas, Sam’s father, “we were told he would need to evacuate.” Hurricane Katrina was heading straight for the Big Easy and getting stronger.
“There were still no alarm bells going off,” Don Repshas said. “We knew it was going to be a nasty storm, but nothing catastrophic.”
Leaving Sam’s belongings behind in the dorm, the family decided to drive seven hours away to Birmingham, Ala., where Sam was able to see a friend who was also getting ready for school. “We stayed there in a holding pattern,” said Don Repshas.
At this point, Sam Repshas said that he expected to be back in New Orleans in a few days. He said the school had reported that it would re-open Wednesday, Aug. 31.
THEN THEY STARTED to hear reports of the hurricane strengthening. By Sunday the family was committed to going home. They made a stop that afternoon in Auburn to give Sam Repshas a chance to see a friend. Then early Monday morning, they drove back to Reston.
“We listened to the radio all day,” said Don Repshas.
Glued to the news, the Repshas didn’t know what to expect. “During the day [on Monday], we heard reports that New Orleans had missed the brunt of the storm, then on Tuesday we heard that the levies started to go,” said Dale Repshas, Sam’s mother.
Over the next few days the total devastation that was Katrina saturated the airwaves and broadcasts. New Orleans was 80 percent underwater. Government officials have said the death toll will likely reach the thousands. Many more thousands have been displaced, and the city will require billions of dollars to rebuild.
“I was getting calls left and right from friends wondering what had happened and making sure I had been evacuated,” said Sam Repshas. “I really didn’t know everything that was going on. I was finding out from the news just like everyone else.” At first, Sam Repshas said he didn’t expect the magnitude of the destruction. “I didn’t know it would be so horrific,” he said.
By Friday, the president of Tulane University, Scott Cowen, announced that the school would have to close for the semester.
“Since my relocation to Houston, I have had more access to information about the situation in New Orleans. I was hopeful that recovery would soon progress,” said Cowen. “However, given the ongoing situation in the city, I am forced to make an extremely difficult decision — Tulane University cannot hold a fall semester on its campus.”
Cowen went on to thank the “avalanche of support” from other colleges that have agreed to take in students for the semester.
THIS PAST WEEKEND, Sam Repshas visited the University of Virginia and the University of Richmond, trying to figure out where he would end up this semester. He decided on U.Va. His mother shopped all weekend, trying to replace all the things Sam Repshas left down in New Orleans — his computer equipment, clothes, toiletries and stereo.
While Sam Repshas is now a week late starting school at U.Va. and his future at Tulane is up in the air, he feels first for all the people still suffering in New Orleans and along the Gulf coast.
“I don’t have it bad at all,” Sam Repshas said. “At worse, I was inconvenienced. I think it’s important to recognize that.”
Sam Repshas’ first visit to New Orleans came last April. He had visited several colleges in many cities, but said that he knew Tulane was where he wanted to go because of a spark he noticed in New Orleans. “The city was alive,” said Sam Repshas, not completely able to explain why the city was so alluring.
“If I decide to go back, I’ll be part of a program to help the city rebuild,” said Sam Repshas.