EP in New Orleans Post-Katrina

Brock M. Tice, Ph.D. Student

Brock M. Tice, Ph.D. Student

I have lived in New Orleans for seven years. Each year, toward the end of the summer, we and others in the Gulf Coast region face the threat of hurricane season. New Orleans is always particularly at risk because it is shaped like a bowl. Most of the city is below sea level, walled in and protected by a large system of levees. Thus, if a reasonably large hurricane comes along, it is best for everyone to leave the city. Many people find this silly and refuse to leave the hurricanes always go too far west, or curve east as they approach land. Two days before Hurricane Katrina made landfall, I was asked to help with hurricane preparations. I scoffed, made some comment about it going east, and then went along with the preparations anyway. Katrina did turn east at the very last minute, but it was too little and too late. A popular bar in New Orleans, the Bulldog, gives away pint glasses with various amusing sayings and information printed on them. One of these glasses has a list of tourist information about New Orleans, including (paraphrased): New Orleans is below sea level. If the levees break, everyone will die. Nobody seems concerned about this. To all those who claim that New Orleanians were clueless about the levee situation, I present as counter-evidence this Bulldog glass. The issue is certainly complicated citizens expected the levees built by the Army Corps of Engineers to hold up within the specified range of hurricane strikes. They did not. I don't have to tell you what happened in the two days following our preparations and evacuation the whole world watched in disbelief and horror. Our lab went through a diaspora. Dr. Natalia Trayanova, the head of the lab, was in China with graduate student Xiao Jie for a conference. The rest of us evacuated to the homes of friends and family, literally spread from coast to coast. Tulane University's uptown and downtown campuses flooded. Our equipment was on the fourth and fourteenth floors of buildings in those campuses, and did not sustain damage, but our computational resources for research were without power, air conditioning, or network connectivity, leaving the lab in the lurch. Efforts to recover offsite backups from Tulane proved fruitless, as the university administration had much bigger problems to deal with. We watched and read the news, looking for information on the recovery of New Orleans, but were unable to get beyond the sensationalism of the major media outlets. The most informative updates came from bloggers and LiveJournaling residents toughing it out in the recovering city. Once the floodwaters drained, a few members of the lab talked and snuck their way past police checkpoints into the city and onto campus, and retrieved our fileserver and workstations. Others, including myself, dug through the soggy remains of their belongings, and salvaged what they could before moving on. By the beginning of October we were able to settle in at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, where we were welcomed by the Department of Biomedical Engineering. Specifically, our fellow scientists and collaborators in the labs of Drs. Yoram Rudy and Igor Efimov generously shared their time and resources to allow us to continue our research and our lives. Many of our colleagues from other universities offered us the use of their computing clusters as well. Time passed quickly for us in St. Louis. The weather turned colder, a phenomenon that we are not used to in the deep south. We prepared to return to New Orleans, while waiting for a recovery plan from Tulane. On December 8, 2005, we got what we were waiting for. The renewal plan can currently be found at http://renewal.tulane.edu. If you wade through the buzzwords and the spin, you will find out that a significant number of graduate programs were suspended throughout the university, and that every department in the School of Engineering except for Biomedical Engineering and Chemical Engineering was to close its doors within 18 months. This spawned a Save Tulane Engineering movement by students, and significantly changed the tone of the school to which we would return in January. Four months after the city was rendered uninhabitable, we were able to return to our homes and our University. A few weeks after the announcement of the renewal plan, we packed up our labs and apartments, bade farewell to our hosts, and made our way back. It was the strangest experience I have ever had. Even four months after the fact, boats remained marooned next to freeway ramps, sitting on the ground, their lines still tied to guardrails where they were docked during the flood. Vast graveyards of flooded cars lurked under the freeway in what were once carpool lots. Most of the traffic lights in the city simply did not work. St. Charles Street, along which Tulane is located, felt barren. The hundreds of live oak trees that line it had been stripped of many of their branches and all of their leaves by the hurricane's winds. The familiar electrical noises of the dark-green streetcars were noticeably absent, replaced by the roar of city buses. The former population of the city was replaced by contractors from Texas and Mexican immigrants. People felt and acted differently. My friends and fellow students and I noticed an interesting phenomenon: when people's homes, belongings, and places of employment were thought to have been destroyed, they began to mentally detach from those things. Upon returning to find some of them intact, people purged. Thrift stores and charities filled up and began to turn away donations as people got rid of the things that they found they could live without. People who thought of New Orleans as home, as somewhere they could never leave, had left without assurance that they could return, and so it was that people began to leave once more. Our lab was among those that left. Almost exactly one year since Hurricane Katrina made landfall, our lab has been re-established as part of the Institute for Computational Medicine at The Johns Hopkins University. It is exciting to meet and work with a new group of scientists, and we are familiarizing ourselves with Baltimore and JHU. I am trying to get over my homesickness, though. I always thought the song Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans, was a little trite, and it was certainly overplayed during the Katrina fiasco. In spite of this, I find myself humming its catchy strains and mentally replaying my years in the Big Easy. Our EP lab may have moved, but a piece of my heart is still there.