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Big problems in the Big Easy: How a hurricane shortened one DukeEngage program this summer

Students stranded in a restaurant, a shuttle to a new apartment building and eventually an evacuation all added up to a dramatic two days for students in DukeEngage-New Orleans.

With soon-to-be Hurricane Barry bearing down on the Louisiana coast, and thunderstorms already leaving parts of the city drenched in feet of water, DukeEngage made the decision to pull its participants out of the city in the middle of July, ending the program more than two weeks early.

Students were aware of the storm forming over the Gulf of Mexico as early as the first week of July but largely ignored it—or accepted it as a normal part of the summer in New Orleans, as their co-workers told them. By the weekend of July 6, students were preparing for a soggy few days, as forecasts showed consistent thunderstorms and rain over the course of the week.

Despite rain arriving steadily over the course of the week, the weather didn't truly take a turn for the worse until the chaotic morning of July 10, a Wednesday.

That day, a mandatory evacuation was announced starting Thursday morning for Plaquemines Parish—the Louisiana equivalent of a county—which is part of the New Orleans metropolitan area. That order was followed by another mandatory evacuation for low-lying parts of Jefferson Parish, which borders the city.

Although the storm had not yet made landfall or even formally become a hurricane, its torrential rains were already sweeping into the city.

"The streets were underwater, there were reports of people driving the wrong way on the roads, and flash flood and tornado warnings were constantly flashing on our phones," wrote sophomore Ashwin Kulshrestha, who was a DukeEngage participant and is also a staff reporter for The Chronicle.

The trip to work that morning was an adventure. For some—the lucky students—their travel left them drenched and taking shelter in a stairwell to wait out a tornado warning.

For others, a routine streetcar ride left them face-to-face with the risks of a tropical storm.

Sophomore Arjun Juneja recalled being stuck in a New Orleans tavern as floodwaters crept up from rain.

"As I was riding the streetcar on early Wednesday morning, as we drove along, staring out the window, I noticed side streets filling up with more and more water," Juneja wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

Because of the rising floodwaters, passengers were shepherded off the streetcar and into a nearby tavern. Although at first he was unconcerned, stoically looking at the flood as part of the New Orleans experience, the water continued to climb. It eventually reached knee level before it receded. None of the students were hurt, yet Juneja seemed unlikely to forget it anytime soon.

"It was a surreal experience that I hadn’t experienced until then and don’t think I will ever again," Juneja wrote.

By the afternoon of July 10, Program Director Ashley Brown Burns contacted students to let them know that Duke—and local housing officials at Loyola University, where the students were staying—had decided to move the students to another building in a less flood-prone part of the city.

Although the new apartments were only a 10-15 minute walk up the street, officials believed that the students would be safer on Loyola University's main campus, rather than down the street at the school's Broadview Campus, where they were being housed at the time.

The program moved quickly to get the participants to their new housing. Barely more than an hour after they were notified, the students met to discuss what was going on. Another hour later, the students had packed for a couple of days away from their usual building and taken a shuttle to their new apartments.

With no clear timeline for how long they would be at the new building, all that the DukeEngage participants knew was that they were still supposed to report for work with their community partners on the morning of July 11.

Overnight, plans changed. At 6 a.m. the next day, as students were preparing to wake up and head to work, Burns sent a message informing the students that DukeEngage had decided to suspend the program.

Suzanne Shanahan, Nannerl O. Keohane director of the Kenan Institute for Ethics and co-director of DukeEngage, told The Chronicle that DukeEngage decided that the program should be terminated in the interest of student safety.

"The situation was being continuously monitored and unfortunately, the weather forecast remained the same with significant potential for additional flooding," Shanahan wrote in an email. "At that time, we made the decision to bring the students home."

By 9:15 a.m., they were back to their original dorm—the Broadview Campus building—and preparing to fly out later that day. Before noon, the students hopped on a call with Kathy Sikes, senior assistant director for student programs and outreach for DukeEngage. The call with Sikes was the end of their New Orleans experience.

"Shortly after the call with Kathy Sikes, we departed for the airport and after many delays all ended up reaching home," Juneja wrote.

Despite the delays, all students were home by July 11, Shanahan wrote.

In the end, the storm's path shifted, sparing New Orleans from the worst effects of the storm.

Despite the near miss, all three participants who spoke to The Chronicle agreed that DukeEngage officials had made the right decision. Although many students felt that they had much left to do in the city and unfinished work with their community partners, the risks of the storm were undeniable.

"The predicted rain and storm surge coupled with the fact that the Mississippi River was expected to overtop the levees surely seemed like it was going to be a disaster," junior Lauren Berman wrote in an email to The Chronicle.

DukeEngage-New Orleans focuses on public health and human services. Participants in the program volunteer with community organizations on a broad range of issues related to the city. The program started May 31 and was originally scheduled to end July 27, according to the DukeEngage website.

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