Katrina shatters the new lives of two young alumnae, and gives them plenty to consider.
by Maura Stephens
Last year we ran a first-person account by Jenny Rizzo '01 about her experiences covering Hurricane Charley in South Florida as a reporter for a news channel. That hurricane was devastating to the region, but this year Hurricane Katrina dwarfed it by comparison, all but destroying, as it has, an entire region of the United States.
The College has accepted two students who were displaced by Katrina, and there are other stories of students, faculty, staff, and alumni who have suffered losses because of the storm. And the College is reaching out to help those affected (see "President's Corner").
This story is about two 2005 graduates, Erin Schubmehl and Cari Zebrowski, (pictured, above, in Aladdin's last May) who had moved to New Orleans over the summer in the Teach for America program. They were in their first weeks of teaching when Katrina turned their lives, and hundreds of thousands of others' lives, upside down.
"There are things about New Orleans I really miss now," says Cari Zebrowski. "I miss riding the streetcar, going to CC's for a coffee and the newspaper on Sunday morning, walking to the bars on the weekend, shopping at the thrift stores and antique stores on Magazine Street, paying cheap rent for an amazing apartment, seeing my students every morning. . . ." On September 26, along with 29 other Teach for America teachers, Zebrowski opened a temporary school in Houston for children displaced from New Orleans
"I am suffering from the loss of my community, my new church, and the city I already loved living in," says Erin Schubmehl. "The images of that once beautiful city showing so much unimaginable suffering in the week after the hurricane were unbearable. What a sobering view of poverty and race relations, as well as governmental negligence." Schubmehl is now back in New Orleans after evacuating twice, once to Memphis for Katrina, and then, just three weeks later, to Atlanta before Hurricane Rita hit.
Zebrowski's degree is in business administration, with a concentration in marketing; she minored in art history and Spanish. Schubmehl majored in English and minored in music. The two women were roommates in their freshman year at Ithaca and remain close friends.
"I'd first heard of Teach for America from a friend the summer of my sophomore year," says Zebrowski, "and I was impressed by its mission and how well it was run. I have always been interested in not-for-profit organizations, but I really connected with TFA." In her senior year she worked for the organization as a campus campaign manager, recruiting other IC students to apply to become corps members. She then applied to TFA herself, and in February she learned she had been accepted.
"I joined because I couldn't, and still can't, just sit and watch as the education gap between low-income and high-income areas steadily increases," says Zebrowski. "I can't just sit and watch as thousands of children go to school without the same opportunities I had. I knew that I could use my education, skills, and dedication to make a difference."
Schubmehl is back to her old school, but nothing is the same.
Zebrowski piqued Schubmehl's interest in the organization, and Schubmehl decided to apply as well. "Teach for America offered a unique opportunity to serve for at least two years after college before deciding to stay in education or go into another field," she says. Schubmehl also felt that the experience of affecting the public education system positively would help her no matter where she ended up professionally. "Cari listed New Orleans as one of her 'highly preferred' placement choices because Edna Novak, math professor Dani Novak's daughter, was her boss with Teach for America and had been placed for two years in New Orleans," says Schubmehl. "I listed that as my first choice as well. I had never been to New Orleans, but I was really excited to live there."
After graduation both women went to Houston to begin a five-week intensive Teach for America Institute training. Besides the core curriculum to help them become effective teachers, Zebrowski's training included teaching a third grade bilingual (Spanish) class.
Zebrowski was assigned to teach first grade at Langston Hughes Elementary School in Orleans Parish; Schubmehl was placed teaching second grade special education at Garyville Mount Airy, about a 50-minute commute west of New Orleans in St. John the Baptist Parish. Both women moved to New Orleans in mid-July, where they shared a two-apartment house in the Garden District with six other Teach for America teachers.
"I was impressed and scared by New Orleans at the same time," says Zebrowski. "It was a new culture, and at times it felt like a foreign country. In New Orleans the pace is slow, the people smile more, and everyone 'speaks' -- this means they greet you!"
Says Schubmehl, "The city was so beautiful, and conversely in so much pain, even before the hurricane (as the country is seeing now). "I loved the area I was living in, and became really attached to the city."
"Being part of Teach for America allowed me to meet lots of people quickly," adds Zebrowski. "Families welcomed us into their homes for Southern cooking; school principals invited us over for cookouts and seafood broils, and my fellow corps members were the best group of people I have ever met."
Zebrowski began teaching just seven school days before Hurricane Katrina hit. "My first week of teaching was the hardest week of my life [until then]," she says. "I immediately realized I did not truly know what I was jumping into before I jumped. New Orleans, despite its rich culture and amazing people, had many problems -- the problems that were revealed to the world by Katrina. The poverty level was a shock to me. I'd been warned about potential problems teaching in a low-income community, but I don't think anyone could understand until they are faced with it. I got to New Orleans and realized that previously I was ignorant of a lot of things. I thought I understood poverty, I thought I understood violence, but I really did not. I'm not saying that after a few weeks I am an expert, but I was just exposed to so much in such a short time that my perspectives on those issues and life in general changed."
Zebrowski with students on the first day at the new school
Photo by Beryl Striewski
All eight people living in the two apartments in their house packed up on Saturday afternoon (August 27), as soon as the press conference ordering the evacuations was finished. Zebrowski left early with her other two roommates, taking back streets to try to avoid traffic, heading to Austin to stay with friends. "I did not bring my car or my clothing because I did not expect to be gone more than a few days," she says. "I left with four shirts, two sets of jeans, my laptop, and my teaching books to make lesson plans for the next few weeks."
"I didn't go to Austin with my roommates," says Schubmehl, "because my mother and aunt were already on their way to New Orleans with a car full of my stuff that still hadn't been moved to my apartment from home in Pembroke, New York [between Buffalo and Rochester]. Instead I evacuated with three of the people from the downstairs apartment. I left my car in New Orleans because I was concerned about it making it through the traffic jams -- it needed the exhaust system replaced and overheated easily." The group headed to Memphis.
Both sets of evacuees hit snarled traffic and had to wait in long lines for gasoline. "It took about four-and-a-half hours to go 20 miles out of New Orleans to LaPlace, but I would do it over again 100 times if it meant I didn't have to be in New Orleans after the hurricane hit," says Schubmehl.
"When we were in our house listening to the press conference and frantically packing what we thought we would need for three or four days away from home," she continues, "we heard a reporter ask the governor how people without cars were supposed to evacuate. Her answer was to offer any open seats in your car to your neighbors. We all commented that all our neighbors in the Irish Channel/Garden District/Uptown area had cars, and probably the means to evacuate. But we were all very concerned about our students and whether or not they had the means to evacuate. We had no idea Saturday afternoon that the governor's comment and the ineffectiveness of that plan, or lack of plan, would have such a huge impact in the next two weeks."
By the time Zebrowski and her friends arrived in Austin that night, they learned that the storm was a category 5.
"I can't explain how awful the next week was for me and my fellow Orleans Parish teachers in Austin," she says. "We watched CNN and MSNBC with the hope that the hurricane would somehow miss New Orleans. We knew that our students were the ones in the Superdome, our students were the ones who couldn't afford to leave the city. We attempted to drag each other away from the TV by visiting Austin and San Antonio, but nothing would take our mind off of it. At times one of us would just start crying and then everyone would sit there staring straight ahead. We were lost for words because there was just nothing to say."
"On Tuesday night we turned on the TV and heard about the levees breaking," Zebrowski remembers. "Everyone in New Orleans knew about the levee situation, but no one really thought it would happen when they were living there. We kept thinking maybe in the future or 'someday.' "
Schubmehl and her friends ended up in Memphis around 1:00 Sunday morning. "I met my mother and aunt the next day. We spent the next three days in Missouri, so we didn't get hit by or have to drive through the storm," she says. The three women then set out for Pembroke, New York, arriving on the Thursday after the storm. All the time in Memphis and in the car gave her plenty of time to think.
She had taken classes with history and environmental studies assistant professor Michael Smith at Ithaca College, classes that, she says, gave her insight into the tragedy of Katrina. "Michael Smith's classes gave me the background for most of the broader issues I am dealing with right now," she says. "I took United States History Since 1865, U.S. as a World Power, and the History of American Environmental Thought with him. Those classes and his teaching style gave me the ability to see the complexities of the poverty and governmental structure in New Orleans, as well as the environmental impact of the hurricane. [What I learned in] the Environmental Thought class has also allowed me to see the connections between poverty and environmental pollution."
Schubmehl has returned to her teaching assignment in Garyville Mount Airy with a dozen other teachers. She has been living temporarily in rural Belle Rose, closer to her school, while determining if it is safe and practical to move back to her apartment in New Orleans. Although St. John the Baptist Parish was not directly affected by the hurricane, thousands of evacuees have relocated, temporarily or permanently, in the area -- just as she has. "There are over 1,500 new students in my school district, and four new students -- three evacuees from Katrina and one from Rita -- in my class," Schubmehl says. She struggles to explain how the tragedy and its aftermath have affected so much more than daily school life. "When I was 'evacuated' at home, I didn't realize the emotional and mental impact that coming back [to work] was going to have," she says. "It is like a war zone. Every day on my way to work there are military helicopters, planes, and Humvees on the road, going back and forth from Baton Rouge. Not to mention the seven chemical plants that I pass on the way from Belle Rose to Garyville. I had become accustomed to eating organic food and not having to worry about the water I was bathing in or brushing my teeth with, but living in very rural Belle Rose, organic food and safe ground water aren't really options."
Another jolt to her system was having to drive everywhere. She hadn't needed her car in New Orleans except to get back and forth from school. "We lived so close to the streetcar on St. Charles that we could go almost anywhere in the city from our house," she says. She has been relying on carpooling with friends.
Cari and Erin's back yard
On October 1, five weeks after Katrina, Schubmehl and her friends went back to their house in New Orleans for the first time. Her car started up, a big relief. "The house, the main part, miraculously was untouched," she reports. "Our back deck was completely blown off. Our neighbors' porch fell on top of our house, or should I say their back deck is leaning on our roof (their house is higher than ours), but so far our house seems okay. The refrigerator was about the most disgusting thing I've ever seen, and the whole place smelled dank and moldy, with no air circulating, but that was about it. We were very lucky."
But she and her two roommates, who since losing their teaching jobs to Katrina are working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency in temporary services, are not placing any bets as to when they will be able to return home for good. Although power was restored in late September, by mid-October there was still no drinking water. "You're not even supposed to shower or wash dishes or clothes," Schubmehl says, "and there's no place to buy food, groceries, or gas, and no EMS services. So we are waiting to go back, to see what happens."
In the meantime, all of this has been a huge adjustment, and she is still working on it. "Rural Louisiana," she points out, "is the complete antithesis of Ithaca and New Orleans, two cities I was really comfortable in."
Zebrowski returned to her parents' home in upstate New York after a week in Austin. "Coming home after being away three months in the 'real world' was hard," she says. "I never expected to be returning home with practically no possessions, no job, no money, and completely lost." After being home for a week and constantly in touch with Teach for America, she decided to join 29 other Greater New Orleans TFA corps members who were working in Houston, along with KIPP (a network of free open-enrollment college-preparatory public schools in under-resourced communities), to set up a school for displaced New Orleans students.
"Getting on the plane for Houston was not easy," she says now. "As my mom dropped me off at the airport, I have never felt so excited and so scared at the same time. I knew I was being given the opportunity to do great things, but I was scared because this was a completely different direction for my life than I had planned."
In the next three weeks the 30 new teachers secured a location, filled out what seemed like tons of paperwork, located New Orleans students at churches and relief centers, spoke to parents, enrolled students, cleaned the building, made school daily schedules, and "everything that goes into beginning a school," Zebrowski says. They used a closed Houston Independent School District building. "Amazing things happened in three weeks," she reports. "We created a school."
The school opened on Monday, September 26, and is called NOW (New Orleans West) College Prep. Zebrowski is the art teacher for grades k-8.
"I am so proud to be a part of this school," she says. "This experience has been the hardest and most challenging of my life. I feel in the last few weeks I have tested my determination and my flexibility, and now I know I am stronger than I thought. This is the whole reason I joined Teach for America: I realize I have to be strong because I have a great opportunity to make a difference."
Like most disasters, Katrina brought out the best and the worst in people. These two young women, fresh Ithaca College graduates with their whole lives and the promise of new experiences before them, were caught up in a wave of human tragedy, human kindness, and human resourcefulness that makes the experiences of people twice their age pale in comparison. As Schubmehl and Zebrowski grapple with decisions about where they might head next, one is tempted to whisper to them: Greatness sometimes comes sooner than later, and sometimes it takes a monumental hardship to make one rise to it.
Read updates about Teach for America in Greater New Orleans.