Back to New Orleans
Richy Leitner was about to begin his second year at Tulane University late last summer when Hurricane Katrina disrupted his life and academics. This week, he's back in New Orleans as the university prepares to reopen its classrooms.
NEW ORLEANS It's been too long. I returned this week from what should have been my winter break for the spring semester of my sophomore year at Tulane University in New Orleans. But it has been a little more than winter break.
My fall semester at Tulane lasted a fleeting three days. I never even attended a class. I decided to try being an orientation coordinator, so I got to move in to my dorm about four days earlier than the rest of the upper-class students. I went to training sessions and was helping freshmen move in.
On the last Saturday in August, I was carrying boxes of freshmanware up and down the stairs of my old dorm to help the new students move in when our evacuation was announced. After helping a particularly luggageful freshman get her boxes into her room, I found the junior girl in charge of the moving-in process at the dorm standing on the front desk saying the dorms were closing at 8 that night and we should all get out of the city. The school had a way out if we could not set up anything on our own. Four hours later, I was on a plane back to my parents' home in Arlington, Va. Katrina barreled into southeastern Louisiana the next night.
My fall semester ended up taking place at James Madison University in the booming metropolis of Harrisonburg, Va. As for what was going on in New Orleans and at Tulane, I got my updates mostly from the Tulane website. I wanted to know what was going on in the city, but I did not want to deal with the constantly changing numbers and sensationalized reports of the devastation. I knew that in a few months I would know more about the real effect on the city than most people who followed the coverage daily and never went to the city.
I never doubted that I would come back to New Orleans if there was anything to go back to. It is hard to describe this city to someone who has never lived here. I have lived in the Big Easy only about eight months total, but that was plenty of time for me to realize that this place is nothing like anywhere else and that it is the place I need to be.
Now I am back. Driving toward campus from the airport, I saw many differences, like the blue tarps covering the roofs of too many houses, the FEMA trailers, the Jewish Community Center and a supermarket that are currently serving as FEMA headquarters, the line of damaged, abandoned cars arranged in a makeshift automotive graveyard below an underpass and the fact that most of the traffic lights are out and have been replaced by temporary stop signs to cite a few. But this is still New Orleans. Near the French Quarter, I ate at seminal New Orleans burger joint Port of Call, which stands mere blocks from the line of abandoned cars and a neighborhood that was entirely demolished. I walked in around 4:30 p.m., and already there was a small crowd at the bar. The jazz was playing, the food was great, and there was a lively crew drinking in the afternoon. This is still New Orleans.
I was greatly relieved to see that the uptown night scene was still alive and well. I think that the return of the college kids will have a great normalizing influence on the city. Tulane kids are nothing if not inspired to go out early, often, and full on. We seem to have a burning desire to pump our money back into the city, while the city pumps something back into us that makes us feel extremely happy to be back. We are here because we loved how it was here before, and we are going to try to make it as much like that as we possibly can.
As soon as I arrived, I knew I had made the right decision. There is something unique about this place. This is not the kind of place you leave lightly. It's great to be back, and I am looking forward to what the semester has in store.