College of Liberal Arts

University of Mississippi

Devastation Brings out Compassion, Scholarly Interests

The devastation Hurricane Katrina wreaked upon Gulf Coast residents touched deeply the lives of students, faculty, staff and administrators in the College of Liberal Arts. The College community went right to work providing basic necessities and consolation to storm victims. Months later, their work continues.

Immediately after the hurricane, 19 cadets in the Army ROTC program withdrew from school to join their National Guard units on the coast, where they helped clear roads, facilitate search-and-rescue efforts and distribute supplies.

“I could not be more proud of their willingness to help,” said Lt. Col. Joseph Blackburn, chair of military science. “They recognized that while school is important, the need to help relieve suffering and save lives is much more important. Their self-sacrifice speaks volumes.”

Department of Sociology and Anthropology faculty, their spouses and friends drove supplies to the coast several times after the hurricane and brought to Oxford a Bay St. Louis family left homeless by the storm.

“The destruction from Hattiesburg to the coast was mind-numbing,” said associate professor Kirsten Dellinger. “Houses and trailer homes were windowless, roofless, crushed by trees.”

Chair and professor David Swanson and his wife, Rita, led a second relief team.

“It was heart-wrenching to see people living on the streets, especially those multigenerational families,” he said.

Retired English professor T.J. Ray coordinated the Oxford Resource Center, which enabled UM, Oxford and Lafayette County to maximize efforts to provide food, water, medical supplies and shelter to hundreds of arriving evacuees.

“The emotional needs of those who came to us ran pretty deep,” said Ray. “Even with local ministers offering hope, when people returned and saw they had nothing left, it was pretty overwhelming.”

Through the Psychological Services Center, doctoral students in the Department of Psychology offered free counseling services to help people come to terms with the tragedy and its ramifications, and assistant professors Stefan Schulenberg and Laura Johnson provided training for those who wanted to know more about helping disaster victims.

People weren’t the only survivors rescued. Herbarium Curator Lucile McCook, Associate Professor of Biology Cliff Ochs and other volunteers helped recover plant specimens from the damaged Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs. Parts of the collection were sent to various regional institutions for conservation.

The weeks that followed Katrina found the College diversifying its efforts to help victims recover and explore the storm’s impact on the South’s demographics, language and culture.

The Department of Art organized a sale to raise funds for the Red Cross and the Southern Arts Federation Emergency Relief Fund, which used them to assist coast artists and arts organizations.

“We sold about 130 pieces,” said graduate student Kim Noll, who helped coordinate the event. “We had works from students, alumni and faculty, and raised $6,139.”

Accommodating students

Weeks after the fall semester began, the College opened its classrooms to 63 students from colleges and universities shut down by Katrina. Among them was biology major Samantha Smith, a University of New Orleans sophomore from Ocean Springs.

“[UM] did not have any of the classes I was in [at UNO], but I did get into some fantastic classes that will apply to my degree,” said Smith.

Upon her arrival, Smith found a faculty mentor in biology professor Stephen Threlkeld, who offered her a work-study job. In awe of her spirit, Threlkeld said, “There is not a day that goes by that I’m not amazed at how resilient she seems to be. It’s humbling to me.”

Dillard University freshman Brandis Shaw, a biology/pre-med major from Pope, enrolled in College Algebra three weeks after everyone else but said her instructor, Marlow Dorrough, was especially helpful.

“I offered her individual help in the mathematics lab or in my office, and she pulled herself up to speed,” Dorrough said. “She didn’t miss once since the day she came and was always attentive in class. She steadily improved, and that’s what I like to see.”

With more than 1,400 students from the beleaguered region enrolled at UM before Katrina struck, it was inevitable that many would face difficulties and need to balance family and school requirements. Among them was junior journalism major Brian Mackay of Pass Christian.

“I got a text message from my brother that the house had been destroyed,” said Mackay. “I missed a whole week of classes when I went home to help the family, and it was nice to know that I could go and not be penalized.”

Since then, it has been challenging for Mackay to study while worrying about his family. He credits his journalism instructors and the women’s basketball team (he’s a team manager) with helping him cope.

Studying Katrina

The College’s response to Hurricane Katrina included several conferences, panel discussions and research projects aimed at unraveling the storm’s consequences.

Population, housing, economic and social losses were examined by a panel during the Southern Demographic Association conference hosted by UM’s sociology and anthropology faculty. Those losses, as well as Mississippi coast residents’ perceptions of relief and recovery efforts and the role social networks played in their ability to obtain physical and emotional relief, will be studied further by sociology, economics and political science faculty with $96,200 from the National Science Foundation.

“Understanding these social networks could prove valuable in preparing for and recovering from future disasters,” Swanson said.

A panel of the College’s linguistics faculty discussed the consequences of displacing New Orleans and other residents.

“Linguists often discuss language death and the shaping of dialects, but rarely do they see such phenomena unfold right before their eyes, as they did with thousands of people moving out of the New Orleans area,” said Donald Dyer, chair of modern languages.

“In the case of Katrina, we are seeing the potential extinction of Mississippi French and Isleño Spanish, and the displacement and relocation of the New Orleans English dialect,” Dyer said.

“Are Mississippi French and Isleño Spanish gone forever?” he asks. “Who will come back to New Orleans, and will the city ever ‘sound’ the same? And will the people from New Orleans who have moved to other parts of the country reshape speech patterns in those areas with their massive linguistic influx?”

The Center for the Study of Southern Culture’s program, “Katrina: The Future of the Gulf Coast,” featured sessions on the state of economic and social recovery.

“The purpose was to assess the state of rebuilding on the coast and share visions of a rebuilt coast,” said center director Charles Wilson. Co-sponsored by the Department of Political Science, the conference was a project of the center’s Future of the South initiative supported by the Phil Hardin Foundation.

“The Katrina Conference illustrated the potential for the new Future of the South Symposium, creating a dialogue among leaders about an important problem facing the region,” said Richard Forgette, chair of political science.

“Conference participants gave diverse perspectives on the state of recovery,” he said. “The sessions had a theme of capital-building in the aftermath of the hurricane—economic, social and cultural.”

An adviser to the Governor’s Commission on Recovery, Rebuilding and Renewal, former Mississippi Gov. William Winter said that because the local and state governments are unable to provide the funding necessary to rebuild the Gulf Coast and its communities, the nation needs to come together to help coast residents.

“We still have too many people literally living on the ground,” Winter said. “Three months after the hurricane people are living in tents. This has to be our top priority.”

“Covering Katrina” was the theme for Journalism Week, which enabled students to visit with journalists who covered Katrina and ask them some tough questions.

“We critiqued our performance as journalists, and our students learned some wonderful lessons from the pros,” said journalism chair Samir Husni.

Students in UM’s Association of Black Journalists went to New Orleans and Mississippi’s coast to survey damage and report what they found in the inaugural edition of Our Voice.

“The mainstream press often fails to accurately capture the essence of the African-American experience,” said assistant professor Michael Cheers. “They [media] cover the fringes of African-American communities, often extracting inflammatory sound bites but rarely stick around to do depth reporting, to tell the complete story.

“The hurricane is over, but the story is still unfolding,” Cheers said.