Cheryl Nicks, RN, CNNP, CGT, CLNC, CPLC, had heard the evacuation warnings before. As a New Orleans native and longtime resident of the city, she remembered the times she had piled her belongings into a car and then sat in gridlock, only to turn around and come home hours later.
So when the evacuation orders for Hurricane Katrina came that August weekend in 2005, the Nicks family, like so many others, planned to stay put and ride out the storm. But as the warnings became more urgent, they changed their minds. On Sunday morning, August 28, they headed to a hotel in northern Mississippi.
The normal four-hour trip took the Nicks family 12 hours and ended with everyone sleeping in their cars in the hotel parking lot—their rooms wouldn’t be ready until the next day. On Monday morning, August 29, they turned on the radio to learn that the levees in New Orleans had given way and the city was under 20 feet of water.
“We all broke down and cried, because we realized we no longer had homes to go back to,” says Nicks, a former president of the New Orleans chapter of the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA).
Two years later, virtually nothing is back to normal for anyone who lived through Hurricane Katrina, one of the strongest storms to impact the United States in the last 100 years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. With winds reaching 127 mph, Katrina caused widespread devastation along the central Gulf Coast states. Coastal cities in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi—including New Orleans, Mobile and Gulfport—bore the brunt of Katrina’s force. More than 250,000 people were displaced and approximately 1,800 people lost their lives. Total damages were estimated to be more than $125 billion.
Many nurses displaced by the storm eventually came back to either little or nothing. Some chose to completely abandon the area and try to rebuild their lives in other parts of the country. Others lost their jobs because of the extensive damage to medical facilities. And nursing students had to make decisions about whether to return to their schools or pursue their degrees elsewhere.
The Friday before Katrina struck, Carolyn Mosley, PhD, RN, CS, FAAN, left the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center School of Nursing in New Orleans, where she was a faculty member, for a scheduled business trip to Knoxville, Tennessee. Thinking the hurricane was headed toward Florida, she took little more than the clothes on her back.
When the forecast changed Friday night, giving the hurricane a 95% chance of hitting New Orleans, Mosley urged family members to leave, then tried to get home to pack up her belongings. She got as far as the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, unable to find a flight into New Orleans or a rental car to take her there. She wound up staying with friends in Fort Worth. The next morning, she attended her friend’s church and was struck by the minister’s sermon.
“He talked about not putting all of our hopes and trust in material things, but to place it in the Lord,” Mosley recalls. “That was a very poignant moment. I felt as if he were talking directly to me. I realized I was not going to get off so easily.”
Watching the devastation unfold from Fort Worth, she waited to hear if her family had made it out safely. She soon learned that her mother, sister and a nephew were in a New Orleans hotel room.
“[My nephew] was telling me about how they lost power, how hot it was in the hotel, how there was no running water, how much water was outside, how high [the flood water] was, and that there were bodies floating all around,” she says. She later found out that her own home and a rental property she owned were a total loss.
Mosley spent the next several days gathering displaced family members from Houston, New Orleans and Arkansas at her friend’s three-bedroom Fort Worth home. After setting them up with temporary housing, she headed back to New Orleans and the LSU Health Sciences Center. The campus was severely damaged and is still rebuilding today. The university provides an ongoing “Katrina Facilities Update” on its Web site.
In the wake of the hurricane, the school arranged for a cruise ship to dock in New Orleans to provide temporary housing for faculty members who had lost their homes. Mosley stayed there for several months.
“I used to like cruises,” she says. But she soon found that being “stuck in that ship” was a far from pleasurable experience. “Just the tininess of the cabin, not being able to go anywhere, no TV, no radio, no telephone. To me it was very primitive.”
Facing eviction from the cruise ship in May and having nowhere to live since her family had all relocated, Mosley turned in her resignation and put her professional fate “in the hands of God.” Her prayers, she says, were answered by the College of Health Sciences at the University of Arkansas, Fort Smith, where she accepted a position as associate dean and director of BSN programs. She was recently promoted to dean and plans to retire in the job, but still hopes to rebuild her home in New Orleans.
Her experience as a Hurricane Katrina survivor taught her to stop taking things for granted, Mosley adds. “I enjoy life. I don’t plan to save anything,” she declares. “I want to spend [my life] from day to day because there is no guarantee that my body will be here to use the next day, and no guarantee that Mother Nature will allow me to [hold on to anything.]”
As the current president of the New Orleans Black Nurses Association, Rebecca Harris-Smith, MSN, RN, has heard more than her share of stories about displaced nurses. She herself was one of them, as were many of her chapter members.
Harris-Smith, a nurse coordinator for a philanthropic organization that trains RNs to start health ministries in their churches, fled to Houston when Katrina hit. The national NBNA, based in the Washington, D.C. area, tracked her through her cell phone, and she was able to get on her computer and track down her chapter members. The national organization—with the assistance of NBNA members in 34 states—helped ensure that Katrina evacuees from all of the affected areas were provided with clothing, medications, medical care, financial assistance and other urgently needed goods and services.
Harris-Smith stayed in Houston until October 2005, although she wasn’t called back to her full-time job until January. She was one of the lucky ones—her home in the West Bank area was not heavily damaged and she and her husband were able to move back.
Still, she says New Orleans is not the same city for her. “There are so many displaced loved ones and friends who will never be back,” she explains. “The city is struggling. The home I grew up in, near the Industrial Canal in the Ninth Ward, was completely washed away. I have friends who lost loved ones and family. How can you ever get that back? For me it will never be the same again.”
Harris-Smith continues to work with active chapter members who are still living in FEMA trailers and trying to rebuild their homes. Members were displaced to Houston, Atlanta and Mississippi, but many have returned to New Orleans.
“Just like anything else, it’s that family connection,” she says. “This is home. These are my people, so it’s like I just need to be a part of that.”
Dillard University, a private, historically black university in downtown New Orleans, was devastated by Hurricane Katrina. The storm and flooding left the university’s classrooms and campus buildings under more than 10 feet of water.
For Dillard’s nursing school, it would be a year before students and faculty were able to resume classes on campus. Unlike other academic divisions at the university, the nursing school gathered its senior class—many of whom had fled to areas around New Orleans—and resumed instruction in temporary off-campus locations in September 2005, just weeks after Katrina hit, says Dean of Nursing Betty Dennis, DrPH, RN. The school worked with Southern University School of Nursing in Baton Rouge, another HBCU, to share classroom space and a skills laboratory, as well as to secure student housing.
Dillard’s sophomore and junior nursing students were more scattered throughout the country after the storm, so the nursing division worked with colleges and universities all over the map to help its displaced students enroll at those schools to continue their studies. “Many of the universities really were very cooperative in understanding what our students were going through and helping them to get through this without [having to interrupt their education],” Dennis reports.
By spring 2006, the entire university had relocated to the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel on the Mississippi River. The university worked with the hotel to set up classroom space, with additional classrooms set up across the street at the World Trade Center of New Orleans.
With the consent of the Louisiana Department of Education, the university created two 13-week semesters, allowing students to stay on course with their studies. The Class of 2006 graduated in July rather than May, but the exterior of the campus was cleaned up enough to allow for a traditional graduation on the lawn of the Avenue of the Oaks on campus. Seven nursing students graduated with that class.
“Just about all of our students came back after the storm, which is a great testimony to the university,” says Karen Celestan, senior director of university communications and marketing. Two years after Katrina, the Dillard University campus is operating at about 75% capacity and will welcome its largest freshman class—250 students—this fall.
Even though the campus restoration is progressing, Dillard’s nursing school—along with every other nursing school in the Gulf Coast—continues to be tremendously impacted by Katrina. Many health care facilities still have not reopened, leading to a shortage of hospital beds. Before the storm there were more than 2,000 hospital beds in New Orleans. Two years later the city is still inching back, with less than 1,000 beds available.
“We need clinical facilities in order to implement the [nursing] program. When there are problems with the number of facilities and health care providers, there are problems with us finding the clinical experiences our students need,” Dennis says. “We are being very creative. We’re doing a lot of outreach, working together with other nursing programs. We’re doing all we can do to provide those experiences.”
Celestan says the university is probably three to five years away from being completely restored. The campus is still cleaning up, repairing damage and rebuilding what was lost to the storm. “Everyone is trying to get their programs back together,” adds Dennis.
Randi Horne was a sophomore nursing student at Dillard University when Katrina struck. She, too, didn’t take the hurricane warnings seriously at first, deciding to head back to her hometown of Houston only after a girlfriend called to offer her a ride. The normal five-hour trip took 10 hours.
Horne watched the news reports from Houston, waiting to hear something about her school. Instead of enrolling at another university, she decided to stick it out at Dillard. She’d already paid her tuition and she felt a sense of loyalty to her professors. So when the call came in spring 2006 to resume classes at the Hilton, she headed back to New Orleans.
The experience of going to school in a luxury hotel was “not as nice as it sounds,” Horne remembers. With no library facilities or the usual amenities available on a college campus, she had a hard time finding a place to study.
“Nursing students don’t just study in the daytime,” she explains. “We study at night and whenever we can find time.”
When big conventions came to town, the school had to give up its classroom space in the hotel’s ballroom. And when the students did have class, the divider walls did little to muffle the sounds of the class next to them.
“It was hard to focus, but we wanted to finish school, so that’s what we had to do,” Horne says. “We had to set so many examples for everyone because we wanted to show we could still come back and succeed [in spite of] the hurricane.”
Horne graduated this year and is in the process of weighing her nursing career options. The hurricane, she says, taught her to be flexible. “I learned to endure,” she emphasizes. “I’ve learned to be patient, to work with as few resources as possible.”
Joe Ann Clark, EdD, RN, is the executive director of the Louisiana State Nurses Association (LSNA), based in Baton Rouge. Shortly after the hurricane hit, the 1,079-member association established a relief fund to assist nurses displaced by Katrina.
To date, 228 nurses have received an average of $500 apiece from the fund, which is still collecting money and providing grants. Clark says donations have come in from all over the world from businesses, nursing organizations and individuals.
Although the applications for assistance have slowed in the past few months, Clark still receives pleas from displaced nurses trying to get back on their feet. “Many of the nurses had lost everything they had. Some of them were [displaced to other cities] but were still having to pay mortgages from New Orleans,” she says. “The stories on those applications are really horrific. Some of [these nurses] were very ill and had no income.”
An LSNA member is putting together a book about the relief fund recipients. The association plans to donate sales from the book, which should be finished by this fall, back to the fund.
The Mississippi Nurses Association (MNA), based in Madison, Miss., also established a relief fund for hurricane-affected nurses. Initially, about $80,000 from the fund was used to pay the licensure renewal fees for every nurse on the Mississippi Gulf Coast who needed assistance, says Ricki Garrett, MNA executive director.
The 1,800-member association has about $56,000 left in its fund and is working on how best to utilize the money to help the most nurses on the Gulf Coast. The fund received a $200,000 boost in April of this year, when Johnson & Johnson held a fundraising event. Garrett says those funds will be used for nursing scholarships, assistance to schools of nursing whose facilities were damaged by Katrina, and mental health continuing education.
“We are seeing a large number of nurses with chronic fatigue syndrome and mental health issues related to the storm,” she explains. “There are many nurses on the Gulf Coast who are still living in FEMA trailers two years after the hurricane. Those individuals are not only trying to work and take care of their patients, they also have to deal with insurance adjustors and FEMA and other government entities. In a lot of cases, more than one family is living in that FEMA trailer, so you can imagine the stress levels of these people.”
Garrett predicts it will be at least 10 years before the Gulf Coast is completely back to normal. “People thought if they survived Hurricane Camille in 1969, nothing could be worse than that,” she says. “Katrina was so many hundreds of times worse than Camille.”
In Mississippi, the requests for help from nurses, nursing schools and students have not slowed, even two years later. MNA members have made several trips to the coast to bring relief supplies to hospitals, clinics and schools. Scrubs, stethoscopes, watches with second hands, toiletries, clothes and books are all items in demand.
Garrett says it’s easy for people who live in other parts of the state to forget what’s happening on the coast. “The nurses in the Mississippi Gulf Coast are still struggling daily,” she maintains. “We hope people will remember that.”
After the storm, Cheryl Nicks and various members of her family scattered to Arkansas, Atlanta and Baton Rouge, marking the first time in 40 years the tight-knit family was not all living in the same city.
When Nicks finally saw her New Orleans home in October 2005, she was relieved to find it had taken in only two feet of water. Although mold was growing three feet up the wall, she realized it wasn’t a total loss after all. She moved back into her house, sleeping on a futon and cooking on an electric hot plate during the six-month renovation. She also returned to her job at New Orleans’ Touro Infirmary, a not-for-profit faith-based hospital.
“I needed to go home and be back in my house,” Nicks says, even though it was lonely and scary in her neighborhood for a while because so many residents had still not moved back. Today her house is 95% completed, but she doubts that many of her friends and neighbors will ever recover from the storm.
“We’ve lost families, communities, friends, neighbors, people who will never ever return,” she says, adding that the bodies of two childhood friends were found in the attic of their house during the recovery process.
Asked why she felt the need to return to New Orleans, Nicks’ reply is simple: “Where [else] do you go? There’s always going to be something—tornadoes, earthquakes, hurricanes. Where do you run to? I don’t believe you can run from disaster. This is where my roots are. My grandparents are buried here. This is home for me.”