Imagine graduating from high school and deciding to start fresh in a new, exotic location. Imagine shopping for supplies, packing and saying goodbye to your closest friends. Imagine boarding a plane and arriving at your college of choice, the place that will serve as your home for the next four years. Now, imagine your dreams shattered as, after only half an hour, the threat of a deadly natural disaster forces you to evacuate.
For John Gagliardi, now a freshman open-options major at the College, this scenario is reality. Enrolled as a student at Tulane University in New Orleans, Gagliardi had barely set foot on campus when he and his father were forced to flee the wrath of Hurricane Katrina.
Gagliardi and his father arrived in New Orleans on Friday, Aug. 26.
“We had heard reports that a hurricane was likely, but no one expected it to be as severe as it was,” he said.
Gagliardi spent Friday and Saturday getting acquainted with his new home city.
“I chose to go to Tulane because I wanted a change of pace,” he said. “I wanted something new, and New Orleans seemed like such an exciting place to be.”
On Friday, he sampled some of the city’s native cuisine. On Saturday, he and his father toured the infamous Bourbon Street, which is home to New Orleans’ yearly Mardi Gras festivities.
“That was a lot of fun, and I’m really glad, especially now, that I got to visit it,” he said. “It was the most memorable part of the trip.”
On Sunday morning, Gagliardi arrived at Tulane at 9:30 a.m. to begin the check-in process.
“I was lined up in front of a residence hall with a crowd of other freshmen waiting to get checked in,” he said. “All of a sudden, one of the people in charge stood up on a table and announced that we had to evacuate by the afternoon.”
Before departing, Gagliardi had time to leave some of his belongings in his room and meet his would-be roommate.
“We had a short period of time to move our belongings in before we had to evacuate the campus, so the last thing I did was make my bed,” he said. “I left with a backpack.”
Leaving New Orleans by air was impossible, because the airports had already shut down. They had to leave, though, so Gagliardi, his father, his roommate and roommate’s family decided to drive out of the city in a rental car.
“It took 12 hours to get out of the New Orleans area,” Gagliardi said. “The city was a maze due to contra flow, which is when they turn both sides of the highway flowing out of the city. When we finally did get on the right road, we were inching along or stuck in gridlock for hours.”
Gagliardi was amazed at the different reactions that New Orleans residents had about the storm.
“A lot of people were boarding up windows of houses and businesses, but some people were really nonchalant about the whole thing,” he said. “I remember the janitor of the hotel was taking his sweet time polishing the wood on the front door.”
The most harrowing part of their escape occurred when Gagliardi and his fellow travelers had to cross the bridge over Lake Pontchartrain.
“The lake had risen so that the bridge was not very high off the water and the waves were getting pretty rough,” he said. “We had to park on the bridge because it was total gridlock, so we got out of our car and started talking to some of the other people. Suddenly the storm hit with a lot of rain, and the wind was so strong it shook the car.”
They spent the rest of the day driving west across Louisiana in a frantic attempt to outrun the storm.
That night, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in New Orleans, causing catastrophic destruction that has since become ingrained in our collective conscience.
There were no hotels available, so the group sought refuge at a hurricane shelter in St. Francisville.
“The living conditions there weren’t great,” he said.
Luckily, a volunteer at the shelter offered to house them for the night, and they gladly accepted.
“We stayed there until the next afternoon after the hurricane passed, and then we went back on the road,” he said.
Gagliardi’s father was able to get a flight out of Jasper, Texas home to New Jersey. Meanwhile, Gagliardi spent a week in Austin at the home of his roommate.
“We watched a lot of the coverage on the news and we were just blown away,” he said.
In his opinion, all levels of the government wronged the people of New Orleans.
“I don’t think the people of New Orleans got the government aid that they needed,” he said. “This was a national crisis and the government didn’t seem quick to come and help. The people who stayed in New Orleans aren’t to blame as much as people may think. They’ve been told to evacuate in the past when there was no storm and many of them couldn’t have gotten out of the city easily if they wanted to.”
But this time, of course, there was a storm – and eventually, Gagliardi had to accept the fact the he would be unable to return to Tulane for the fall semester. A resident of Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, he began examining his in-state options.
“I saw that (the College) was recruiting kids from the South and advertising on its Web site,” he said. “I chose to come here for two main reasons. First of all, the school has a really good reputation. Second, I already had a friend here, so at least I would know someone when I got here.”
The application process was easy and painless.
“I sent in a transcript and got in pretty quickly,” he said. “Everyone was very accepting.”
About two weeks after evacuating from Tulane, Gagliardi moved in to Cromwell Hall and officially began his freshman year – albeit not at the institution where he had originally planned.
Still, Gagliardi is making the best of the situation.
“I’m loving it here so far,” he said. “I’ve been asked a lot of questions about my experience, especially when I first moved in. But everyone has been really nice and sympathetic.”
As far as Gagliardi knows, Tulane plans to reopen next semester.
In a letter to Tulane students and faculty posted on Sept. 14 on the school’s official Web site, President Scott Cowan wrote, “Based on everything I know today, Tulane University will be open this spring for our faculty, staff and students. Let me assure you that my optimism is based on facts, not wishful thinking. Every day our team reports improvements in all areas critical to our recovery.”
When Tulane does reopen its doors, it is likely that Gagliardi will return so that he can study architecture, a major not offered here at the College.
“Most likely, I’ll go back,” he said. “But it is still a decision I need to make.”
Surprisingly, he shows no sign of worry at the prospect of another hurricane hitting Tulane and the city of New Orleans in the future.
“I’m worried about the shape the city might be in now more than another hurricane,” he said. “My family and I have a lot of trust in the school, and feel that it will create a safe environment for its students to return to.”