Katrina forces college kids to new schools

Would-be roommates at Tulane to spend fall at U. of I.

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Max Rasche and Sean McKay planned on rooming together this fall at New Orleans' Tulane University. After Hurricane Katrina struck the city Monday, Aug. 29, the two Oak Park and River Forest High School graduates and longtime friends scrambled to get into new schools.

Rasche and McKay arrived with their parents a day apart on the Tulane campus the weekend of the storm. Hurricane Katrina was classified a mild but still dangerous Category 1 storm as of Thursday, Aug. 25.

By Saturday, the boys and their families were driving out of New Orleans after school officials announced that the campus would be evacuated. Both families were planning to return to the campus within days. Those plans were quickly dashed as Katrina escalated to a Category 5, the deadliest classification for a storm.

"When we woke up the next day [Saturday], it had reached a Category 5 and that's when we knew that this wasn't going to be just a couple of days," said McKay, 18, who's studying mechanical engineering. "This was going to last a lot longer."

The aftermath of Monday's storm, already being considered the most severe in U.S. history, has touched the lives of a number of Oak Park residents. Those more direly affected are residents of Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, the hardest hit of all.

More than 1 million of New Orleans' 1.3 million residents fled the city early Monday. Katrina's high winds raised water levels about 28 feet, well over the 18-foot levees protecting the city, 70 percent of which is below sea level. More than 80 percent of the city flooded after the levees collapsed. Tornados and flooding also affected parts of Mississippi and Alabama. Thousands remain trapped or homeless as relief efforts continue.

"I was there for 30 minutes, and I was already meeting people," said Rasche, 18, who entered Tulane as an undeclared freshman. He and McKay are attending the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which agreed to accept them. Other state universities and those in Chicago have agreed to accept displaced students.

"I feel kind of helpless," said Rasche. "I was all ready set to go down and now I have to come back home."

The dorms, they have been told, were spared severe damage, but their clothes and other belongings are still on campus. Both moved in last Saturday. By 6 that evening, school officials evacuated the campus.

"They were already doing evacuations by the time we arrived," said Diana Rasche, Max's mother. "I knew in my head that we were going to leave as soon as we unloaded his boxes."

Leslie Webb, whose son, Frank, was also moving into Tulane last Saturday didn't think the storm would turn out as it did.

"The mayor [of New Orleans] was calling for evacuation by 11:35 [a.m.]," she said. Her family later drove to, and stayed overnight in Jackson, Miss. "I didn't think it was going to be bad until the flooding up to that point. We just thought two or three days. We had no idea."

Parents whose kids enrolled in Tulane have developed their own support system. They have been contacting each other trying to locate possible alternative schools. Webb's son, Frank, is now enrolled at Triton College. Despite the tragedy, Frank and others still have hopes of attending Tulane.

With Tulane no longer an option in the foreseeable future, some parents began contacting the schools that had previously accepted their kids. But things were so uncertain that some students weren't sure where they'd finally end up.

Those who are finally in school are making the best of the situation.

"This is all happening so fast," said McKay, who drove down to U. of I. Friday. "I didn't know where I was going, but my dad called me and said, 'Pack your bags; you're going to U. of I.' I'm not sure what's going to happen. But if I enjoy it, I'll stay."

With thousands in the Gulf Coast still reeling from the aftermath of last week's deadly hurricane, Oak Park citizens have rallied to help those in need.

The United Way of Oak Park, River Forrest and Forrest Park had been collecting donations since Wednesday. Everything was going to be sent directly to United Way organizations in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana.

But on Tuesday, more than 10,000 evacuees from New Orleans arrived in Chicago. As many as 50 to 60 families are relocating to Oak Park. Oak Park's United Way have decided to keep those donations here for evacuees. People are still encouraged to donate, said Kate Wenzel, United Way of Oak Park's executive director.

"We're trying to give [people] options about how they can contribute and what are the best ways to give people the help they need," she said. "We still want people to give, but we think it's important for donors to know where their money is going."

Other local organizations started their own relief efforts days after the Hurricane struck. The Cat Practice, 323 Chicago Ave., is collecting cat and dog food to ship to Louisiana State University's School of Veterinary Medicine. The school was seeking food and other donations for the animals in New Orleans. The practice focuses mainly on care for felines, but is collecting dog food, too.

Many displaced residents of the Gulf Coast have made their way to Oak Park with several more surely to follow. As early as last Thursday, Oak Park's Infant Welfare Clinic, 320 W. Lake, received a New Orleans mother and her baby daughter. The daughter was set to start school before the hurricane struck, said the clinic's Executive Director Elizabeth Lippitt. The daughter may need to receive her immunization shots again if she enters a local school.

At Rush/Oak Park Hospital, 520 S. Maple Ave., nurses were deployed to Baton Rouge, La. Tammy Venturella, an R.N. at the hospital, went down Thursday. R.N. Denise Andrew will leave in a couple of weeks, said a hospital spokesperson. The nurses are volunteer members of the Illinois Medical Emergency Response Team (I.M.E.R.T.). The hospital is also taking donations for relief.

Shirley King, daughter of blues singer B.B. King and Oak Park resident will perform at a benefit concert at Brooks Middle School, Friday, Sept. 23, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10, $30 for families. Call 524-5621 or email treynolds@op97.org to reserve tickets. School parents will sell homemade baked goods for additional donations.

King last spoke to her father, who lives in Alabama, on Aug. 28. He left Atlanta as the storm was approaching and is doing fine, she said.?#34;Terry Dean

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