AFTER THE STORM: Alums in the Gulf Coast and Florida Reflect on Hurricane Havoc and Help

by Shannon Ballard


The 2005 hurricane season was particularly severe, with some names—
Dennis, Rita, Wilma, and especially Katrina—being etched forever in
history. Sage checked in with several Russell Sage College alumnae
in affected areas.


Force of Will

Charlynn Besser Will ’74 of Mobile, Ala. rode out Hurricane Katrina at the hospital where she works. “We were in ‘black plan’ mode—the hospital’s highest alert for weather—for two days. Staff was called in before the storm hit, and everyone worked, ate and slept at the hospital until it was safe to leave,” recalls the Sage nursing graduate and administrative manager for the University of South Alabama Children’s and Women’s Hospital.


After the storm, they treated patients—mostly children—with minor injuries, trauma and a lot of allergic reactions from insect stings and bites, Will recalls. “Everything got stirred up outside. Bees, spiders and bugs were disrupted—their habitats had been destroyed also.”


Will and the staff were ready for transfers from hospitals in harder-hit areas like New Orleans, but they never came. “We were in the same emergency mode as them,” Will says. Most transfers were sent further north to Montgomery and Birmingham. Mobile saw its share of hurricane damage.


“We’re right on the water—we have lots of rivers and bayous, and all that rose up,” Will says. “Parts of southern Mobile County were as devastated as Louisiana and Mississippi. There was some wind damage, but mostly it was flooding from the storm surge.”


Many Gulf Coast families, having weathered so many hurricanes in their lives, no longertake precautions or evacuate when they should, Will says. “The mentality of some is: they survived Camille, they’ll be fine. But Camille was a wind hurricane; Katrina was a water hurricane. It was devastating. We had staff at the hospital who lost everything.”


Power was out for days and even weeks; the storm’s reach was so extensive that resources were overtaxed. “We treated a lot of serious asthma-related issues; pollen and other environmental agents had been stirred up, and people who were normally treated at home had no more medicine or power to turn their nebulizers on,” she says. “The hospital was the one place they could come for both until pharmacies regained power.”


The hospital was in hurricane mode for nearly two weeks, providing more than medicine to victims. Many patients’ families were displaced and staying at the hospital, with only the clothes they had on their backs. “Their lives were completely changed. Social support structures took awhile to get back online, and in the meantime, we were their lifeline,” said Will.


The hospital appealed to local civic and church groups to provide meals to those who had no money for the cafeteria. Consequently, meals were brought to the hospital twice a day for two weeks. Hospital employees also set up a Care Closet, with donated clothing, toiletries, andother basics for families in need and collected money to help them purchase pharmaceuticals. “In such a situation, providing care takes on a completely different meaning,” Will says. “It makes you realize how lucky you are, and what
a great staff you have.”


The Heart of Texas

Katie Dowling Laza ’99 of Friendswood, Texas and her family made a tense drive to Dallas to escape Hurricane Rita in late September. She and her husband, Tim, had just officially adopted their four daughters. Immediately after the court ceremony in Houston, “which was like a ghost town by that point,” they piled in the minivan—her in-laws followed in another car—and the family caravan made the slow drive north. “You sort of run on adrenaline when something like that happens,” she says. Fortunately, they had made hotel reservations days in advance as a contingency plan; all the hotels were sold out, already overcrowded with evacuees of Hurricane Katrina. Conditions were crowded and deteriorating, and the people were restless and disorganized. But the Laza family approached it like an adventure. They took the girls to the Fort Worth Zoo, and had a birthday dinner for one daughter at a Mexican restaurant.


After four days camped out in hotels, they returned home. Friendswood had escaped Rita’s path and their home suffered no damage. But the ripple effect of one more hurricane was noticeable. Laza, a guidance counselor who studied English and Secondary Education at Russell Sage, and her husband, a geography teacher, had helped enroll more than 100 students displaced by Hurricane Katrina in Houston area schools. After running again from Rita, most did not come back and are still adrift.


Making a Difference

Andria Obermayer Hanley ’88 of Miami said that even for Florida, this was a much busier and more disruptive hurricane season than usual. Most severe were Dennis in August, Katrina in late September, and Wilma in October. Her children were home from school a total of 12 days for hurricanes. After Wilma swept through, a huge fallen tree blocked Hanley’s driveway, but fortunately, the city sent out teams of workers to aid in recovery efforts—including police and SWAT members—who helped cut up and remove the tree.


Hanley is president of the Junior League of Miami, Inc., a service organization of more than 1,000 women dedicated to supporting women, children and families; promoting volunteerism; and improving communities. The Junior League owns one domestic violence shelter and provides programming at another; both were at capacity with people displaced from the hurricanes. And when sustained power outages forced the shelters to throw away everything in their refrigerators and freezers, the Junior League bought gift cards for residents to replenish the food supply. They held a food drive for another of their grant recipients, Church Notre Dame de Haiti, to supply staples to its congregation. The League offered assistance to the American Red Cross and some members chose to get trained to serve in disaster relief efforts.


Hanley, a Public Administration major at Russell Sage, credits being a resident advisor (RA) with teaching her many of the skills necessary to organize events, motivate people and unite a group of women who are different in many ways, yet have in common a need and desire to make a difference.