An international exchange student lands in the path of the hurricane.
JUSTIN LAFLAMME HADN'T BEEN AT the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg for his year-long study exchange for much more than a week before the path of Hurricane Katrina came straight through campus. The third-year history student from Duncan had chosen Southern Miss out of his interest in American foreign policy. He wound up in the middle of the country’s worst natural disaster.
“Most of the school emptied when the hurricane warning came in,” Laflamme recalled in a phone conversation from his campus dorm. “There were only about 20 of us left, mostly exchange students or students who couldn’t go home to places like New Orleans.”
Ordered to stay in their dorms, Laflamme (the only Canadian in the group) and his roommates started feeling the hurricane at about ten in the morning on Aug. 29. In a couple of hours the power was knocked out and radio stations went off the air. “It went right over us and lasted several hours. We couldn’t really see much of what was going on but it made the windows rattle and they were leaking from so much rain. I wasn’t really scared. We didn’t have any idea of magnitude. They had told us a hurricane was going through, and to expect just a little wind and rain…”
It was a different story after Katrina passed and Laflamme was able to get out to have a look around. “There was debris everywhere, more than half of the telephone poles snapped right in half. There was no power unless you had a generator. Trees were through houses, onto cars.”
Laflamme and the other students banded together and helped wherever they could. They evacuated the international studies coordinator from her home, where a tree fell across the place. He survived on days of dry turkey sandwiches and water rations until the university’s power was restored, in about five days. The rest of town was without power for nearly three weeks.
The main campus in Hattiesburg lost a lot of trees and had wind damage to roofs. Alumni House was damaged from falling trees, as were a few other buildings. The roof of the university’s coliseum had to be replaced. The worst damage was 60 miles south of campus where the school has teaching sites and a research lab along the Gulf Coast. The marine education centre and aquarium were destroyed. The total bill for damages approaches $300 million US.
“People were in disbelief,” Laflamme says, “nobody had seen this kind of thing before. Definitely living through that sort of disaster makes an impression. But we really didn’t know the extent of the damage in New Orleans until quite a while after. It made us feel lucky.”