Carleton College devotes a day to Katrinaby Art Hughes, Minnesota Public Radio
Seven months after Hurricane Katrina shredded the Gulf Coast and drowned the city of New Orleans, Carleton College in Northfield hopes to find a way to keep the public's attention trained on the disaster. Carleton cancelled classes Friday to devote time to reliving, discussing and studying Katrina. Organizers of the symposium hope to inspire students and others to rekindle the sense of urgency the nation felt in the period immediately following the storm.
Northfield, Minn. — You might say the subject of Carleton anthropology student Lauren Flexon's senior thesis came to her out of the blue.
Her original idea was a lengthy study on descendents of slaves living near her home in South Carolina. She took her thesis notes with her on a family vacation to New Orleans. They arrived the Friday before Hurricane Katrina struck. She rode it out in a French Quarter hotel.
"When we were finally evacuated, we were air-lifted out and could only take a handful of stuff with us and I didn't take my notes. It wasn't on the forefront of my mind at the time."
Back with her academic advisor at Carleton for fall semester, she lamented the loss of her research. The advisor pointed out her experience in New Orleans would provide a good starting point for a new senior thesis. Before her evacuation, she spent days roaming the streets, talking to people and trying to make sense of her situation.
Next week, she will hand in her research. She studied the prevailing rumor among locals that officials deliberately breached the Lake Ponchartrain levee to spare the city's more affluent neighborhoods. Fluxon wanted to know how such an outlandish theory could persist among the city's residents.
"As I started to do research and started to look at the city itself and look at the demographic of the city and the history of the Mississippi River and history of flooding in New Orleans--the more you look at it the more you can understand why these rumors were formed," she says.
Fluxon linked the rumor, race, economic status and the Great Mississippi River Flood of 1927. That's when the levies were dynamited to send raging waters to the lower class St. Bernard Parish instead of the wealthier parts of the city.
Fluxon is one of the many people who will appear in the day-long academic event at Carleton, in which geologists, economists, political scientists and artists bring their thoughts to the question, "what now?".
Carleton President Robert Oden says the Katrina disaster rises to the level of attention by Carleton because of the depth of suffering and the natural response it triggers in people to help. He also says Carleton faculty and administrators steadfastly refuse to let the magnitude of the storm fade.
"We're not going to fix everything tomorrow, or next week, or next year or a decade from now. I'm aware of all our foibles and weaknesses, but I do know we stand a much better chance of fixing some of them to the extent that we concentrate on them and are aware of them and keep them in our minds, than if we forget them," he says.
The symposium goes beyond panels of experts talking. There are also faculty and student art exhibits, live music, a book club and special meals all centered around the hurricane and the affected areas.
Kimberly Smith, an associate professor of political science at Carleton and a lead organizer of the symposium says even though the images following Katrina have turned from desperate residents trapped on their rooftops to more mundane discussions of FEMA funds and levee construction, the crisis is still unfolding.
"There are still thousands of people displaced," she says. "The city has not been rebuilt. It's hasn't recovered yet. Its an ongoing issue. It's an open, gaping wound on the body politic."
Smith says while it's not easy, the American public still has a responsibility to revisit the causes and results of the storms devastation.
"We can require the government to wake up. We can wake up ourselves to this. But human beings have an amazing capacity for a kind of blindness, I think--a kind of protective blindness. So there's the potential that it wouldn't be a wake up call. There's a potential we won't pay attention and we won't do what we need to do in response," she says.
The Katrina disaster is a touchstone if not a focal point for many Carleton courses. Bev Nagel, an Associate Dean of the College and teaches an introduction to American Studies course, says like it or not, Katrina is now part of what it means to be American.
"There are both an academic part of what I hope comes form this--and an academic result--that being a better understanding and awareness on the part of our students, but also I hope it stimulates some involvement, some action," she says.
A dozen Carleton students just returned from a spring break house-building trip to the Gulf region. Another group of 18 students organized a disaster clean-up crew last December. Many of them will take part in the college's Katrina symposium.
- Morning Edition, 03/31/2006, 6:50 a.m.