The first picture came in a text message from Sarah Breland’s little sister. It showed the house at the end of the block from Breland’s family home in Denham Springs, flooded.
Then came a second picture. Breland’s police officer father, Cline Breland, was sloshing through the water on her street, trying to get back home after driving out to get gas.
While most of Sarah Breland’s friends at the University of New Orleans spent the weekend of Aug. 13 preparing for the first week of class with social gatherings and meet-ups, the junior English major found herself suddenly unable to think about anything but home.
Overnight on that Saturday and early Sunday, two-feet of water crept into her childhood home—the one raised on stilts 3-feet off the ground— and forced her parents and little sister to spend the night on second floor. That was the last thing Breland knew before she lost phone contact with them on Saturday night.
“I felt just helpless,” said Breland, who was working two weekend shifts at Lakeside Mall in Metairie while her family tried to cobble together a plan for escape.
The same weekend in New Orleans, junior earth and environmental sciences major Ashli Prosperie was monitoring the flooding reports over social media. As rain fell over parts of Southeastern Louisiana, water rose and homes were lost. And though Prosperie’s own home in was dry, it didn’t take long for her to start feeling helpless, too.
“I just didn’t want to sit around and be like, ‘poor them’,” she said. “But I don’t have a boat. I couldn’t go to Baton Rouge. I don’t have much to donate.”
The flooding that wreaked havoc on a nine-parish area has caused more than $8 billion in damage, according to a new estimate. More than 3,000 people are in shelters and more than 60,000 homes destroyed. The American Red Cross has called it the worst natural disaster in the U.S. since Hurricane Sandy. But New Orleans has been spared, a fact that has left some in the UNO community grasping for ways to connect, to help and—especially for those with family in the affected areas—to cope.
In Breland’s circle alone, she counts at least five other UNO students whose families are now struggling as a result of the flooding.
On Sunday morning, Aug. 14, Breland finally heard from her father. The family had been rescued by her uncle who dropped a boat in the water off the interstate and fetched them. They were on their way to take shelter in Breland’s grandmother’s home in Baton Rouge—a typical 30-minute journey that took six hours.
By Tuesday, Aug. 16, roads to Denham Springs began to open up. Breland and her boyfriend, senior interdisciplinary studies major Everett Fontenot, also from Denham Springs, decided to drive up. When Breland walked into her parents’ house, she was overcome by the smell, the scene.
Silt covered the walls up to about 3-feet high. Carpet was soaked. Hardwood floors were unrecognizable. Bugs were everywhere. Breland, an artist, discovered many of her irreplaceable belongings ruined: paintings, ink drawings, sorority mementos and more.
Back in New Orleans, Prosperie was formulating a plan to try to start a collection for flood victims at UNO. With rain expected to continue throughout the week, the situation was only projected to get worse.
Secretary of the Society for Earth and Environmental Sciences, Prosperie reached out to her fellow officers and the UNO Service Coalition, which was also already spearheading a drive for items needed by displaced flood victims: nonperishable food, clothing, blankets, pillows, sheets and hygiene products.
“As students we’re not able to donate much,” Prosperie, “but what we do have is better than nothing.”
Members of the Service Coalition Executive Board, including Courtney Davies, Andrea Mackie, Jasmine Cooley, and Jeanne Bankston, made boxes and collected donations in the Office of Student Involvement and Leadership, the Privateer Enrollment Center and Pontchartrain Hall North. Prosperie set up a station at the Geology and Psychology Building lobby. The groups are accepting donations through Aug. 29. Other organizations around campus started reaching out wanting to help. By Aug. 20, a week after the floodwaters rose, Prosperie alone had been contacted by the Pre-dental Society, Latin American Student Association, the Progressive Black Student Union, Students for Justice in Palestine and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, to name a few.
Nina Stewart, counselor and coordinator of outreach for Counseling Services at UNO, said efforts like Prosperie’s can go a long way toward helping those on campus who are affected by the disaster feel more supported by their community.
Breland, who would normally spend the first part of the school year engaged in social activities, said she’s found herself instead reaching out to friends whose families also find themselves in crisis after the flood.
“It’s harder to focus,” she said. “I’m not as interested in chatting and meeting other people.”
Weekends, she said, will be spent trekking back home and helping her parents clean out and rebuild.
Stewart said the act of reaching out to others in similar situations is a healthy way to help normalize the situation. But she also invites any students who feel they need more help coping to reach out to her department, where counseling services are available for free.
Breland and Prosperie agree, however, that it’s important for those who are not affected to look for and acknowledge those who are. Living in a city among people who lived through the devastating flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina should inspire a desire to help, not to dismiss.
“Be aware of it. Don’t just discount it,” said Breland, whose parents both helped with the recovery and response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “People say, ‘Things can be replaced, but people can’t.’ Yes, I know that. But it doesn’t make it any less crappy. I want people to help.”
Prosperie, clearly, agrees.
“Let’s do this as a University,” she said. “UNO has taken a hit before. It’s time for UNO to give back.”