Notre Dame alumni caught in the storm

Author: Mary Pat Dowling

Justin Halls ’05 never expected his career path would depend on which way the winds blew. Newly placed with Teach for America in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina hit, Halls was transferred to Houston in anticipation of a wave of evacuees. Then along came Rita, further displacing students and creating a surplus of teachers. The federally funded Teach for America organization made a deal with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and, five months after graduating from Notre Dame, Halls was managing the FEMA Disaster Recovery Center in Saint Charles Parish. He and his staff of about 50 helped evacuees apply for relief benefits. The workers faced complex situations at the center, he said, as they attempted to “make the system fit the people and their real-life situations.” One satisfied client came back with a pot of gumbo. As for the disgruntled, Halls would like to point out the plight of the earthquake victims in Pakistan. Americans are lucky to have a system in place, imperfect as it is, he said. “But I can’t say preachy things to applicants.”

Rev. Joe O’Donnell, CSC, ‘55 of Phoenix, is a spiritual care team member for the Red Cross. For three weeks in September, he helped comfort 1,300 Hurricane Katrina evacuees —ranging in age from 2 weeks to 99 years—who were flown to Phoenix. “Volunteers grabbed them, hugged them, got their names and helped them find a place where they could put their heads down.” He was put in a supervisory position for both the Red Cross and police department “in trying to keep some of the clergy in line to make sure there was no proselytizing,” he said. "When people are at their most vulnerable time in their life, you don’t come in and tell them you have all the answers."

Amy Maher ‘88J.D. and her husband, Roger Smith, were making plans to go into the disaster area just as the residents were getting out. As regional coordinators for Noah’s Wish, an animal rescue organization, they knew many residents would have to flee without their pets. Maher helped with the door-to-door search as Noah’s Wish rescued and cared for approximately 1,900 animals in and around Slidell, Louisiana. “It was so quiet out there. That was the weirdest thing. But that makes it easy to find them,” said Maher, an assistant state’s attorney in Madison County, Illinois. Every pet was either reunited with its owner, placed into foster care or adopted. “The people were so appreciative.”

Paul Bonitatibus ‘71 had his mind on his 3,300 employees and their families in the aftermath of Katrina. President of consumer and business banking for Hibernia National Bank, the largest bank in Louisiana, Bonitatibus oversaw relocation of about 98 percent of his employees to temporary headquarters in Baton Rouge or other bank branches, and the dispersal of emergency grant money. “I never heard anybody complain,” he said. His concern was also with the displaced customers who showed up at branches in need of cash, while computers at the bank’s central location in downtown New Orleans were disabled because the building lost its air-conditioning. The inconvenience could have been remedied in one day, as bank employees secured back-up tapes, boarded rafts dropped to them by helicopter and rowed across the street to be picked up atop the Tulane Medical Center parking garage. But the helicopter was chased away by sniper fire. “Our people spent the night on the roof.”

John Sweeney ‘83, a chief of general surgery at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, volunteered through the first night as thousands of evacuees arrived at the Houston Astrodome. He replaced lost medications and heard the stories of hundreds. Most gratifying, he said, was the opportunity to connect people. A couple in their 80s who had not talked to their children in the Pacific Northwest told him: "Our kids probably think we’re dead." Sweeney’s co-worker pulled out his cell phone, and a tearful long-distance reunion ensued. With the scoreboard flashing names and phone numbers throughout the night and the weary on cots covering the field, said Sweeney, “the whole thing was quite surreal.”

Ron Blitch ‘76 is also an alumnus of Holy Cross School in New Orleans, an elementary and high school, that sustained about $20 million in damage when the Industrial Canal gave way to the Ninth Ward, destroying about 40,000 homes. Blitch notes that Father Basil Moreau, CSC, who sent Father Sorin to found Notre Dame, also sent members of the Holy Cross order to New Orleans in 1859 to found a school along the Mississippi River; that later became Holy Cross School. He hopes Notre Dame “rises to the challenge now to put Holy Cross School under its wing as an important institution in a very fragile neighborhood.” Its students, 70 percent of whom come from outside New Orleans, routinely assist homeowners, and the administration was influential in establishing a police substation in the neighborhood. "It’s a real security blanket there." Blitch is in partnership with Ken Knevel ‘74 at Blitch/Knevel Architects, Louisiana’s third-largest architectural firm. They want to influence the development of “trailer cities that are real livable communities with churches, post offices, stores, schools and parks, instead of what FEMA typically does—and did in Florida after Andrew—where they just line up thousands of trailers on white gravel. They’re like internment camps.” Blitch hopes the Notre Dame School of Architecture will give students the opportunity to design such a project. “This is real life.”

Paul Christmann ‘89 was the catalyst for much of the good alumni were able to accomplish in the weeks following the Gulf Coast hurricanes; the Internet information center he set up enabled alumni from all over the world to post information on displaced friends and family, offer assistance with housing needs, employment or academic placement, and extend warm wishes. Christmann, president of the ND Club of New Orleans, evacuated with his wife, Noel, their children and the club’s allotment of Tennessee football tickets. “It took a month and a half to contact all the club members who had purchased tickets and get them distributed,” he said, noting how fortuitous it was that the club trip was for a game later in the season. Along with campus officials, Christmann organized the student-alumni service project that took place in New Orleans during winter break.

Cathy Connors ‘95MSA, vice president of the ND Club of Houston, emailed the young alumni who were medical students at Tulane University in New Orleans when she learned they were transferring to Baylor University and needed housing. Connors placed 12 students with Notre Dame families. "They’ve opened their doors to them for however long they need to stay," which will likely be the entire school year, Connors said. “It makes me so proud to be from Notre Dame and to see so many people open their hearts and their homes. The whole alumni membership here stepped up to the plate in numerous ways.” Connors tells the students who say they wish there were some way to thank the families: “Don’t worry about what you can do now. Just get your medical degree, and do some good in the world. Pass it on somewhere else.”

Tony Roberts ‘79 led one of the dozens of alumni club relief efforts that took place in areas far from the Gulf Coast. The president of the ND Club of Orange County, California, set the club’s fund-raising mechanisms into high gear and says donations via the club website were “almost overwhelming.” Roberts maximized the donations by challenging two local Catholic high schools to raise money to be matched by the club. The schools raised more than $11,000, which went to the 2nd Harvest Organization of the Gulf Coast. The club’s matching contribution was sent to the New Orleans club to distribute. Roberts knows that the Notre Dame network would also help Southern Californians. “But for the grace of God we’re one earthquake away from the same situation.”

Matthew Gracianette ‘87 left the San Francisco Bay Area in early October with his girlfriend, Kris Putnam, donations of nearly $7,000 and a van full of supplies—bound for his hometown of New Orleans. He also carried a heavy heart; his Uncle Pat died in the flooding of his home. “It was heartbreaking for all of us,” Gracianette said of his extended family. “He was a powerful figure for us, such a good-hearted soul.” In New Orleans, Gracianette saw Kevin Jordan, M.D., ’81, medical director at Touro Infirmary, who was an inspiration for Gracianette’s career in medicine. Hospital personnel lauded Jordan as their “organizational hero” for his leadership in evacuating the hospital and then restoring medical services, said Gracianette, a pediatrician with Kaiser Permanente in Novato, California. It wasn’t until reaching the ravaged Mississippi towns of Waveland, Bay Saint Louis and Pearlington that Gracianette found remaining populations on which to bestow their goods. “They were ecstatic that we had supplies,” Gracianette said. “These people were poor . . . and then this. It was amazing how strong they were and how much faith they still had and how appreciative they were.” The goodwill ambassadors were invited back for better, more hospitable times. “They wished they could cook us some gumbo.”

Bill Carnegie ‘01MSA loaded up a truck at the Northern Indiana Food Bank on September 7 and drove to Baton Rouge, just in time to experience Rita. He assisted with food distribution for a week. “The need was so incredibly great I felt compelled to go back,” said Carnegie, who was then director of the South Bend food bank. In Baker, Louisiana, he was assigned for another week as temporary director of an emergency distribution center. After supplying a feeding site near Lake Charles that provided three meals a day to 8,000 people, he toured Louisiana coastal communities to determine locations for additional sites. Sheltered by tents and trailers, the people would still congregate where their churches had stood, Carnegie said. One group prayed at the statue of Mary that had fallen from its place on the steeple of Our Lady of Assumption Church near Cameron. Rescued from the rubble, it had sustained one small crack. Near Greensburg, Carnegie dropped off breakfast for about 50 evacuees “stuck in a little community shelter.” He had intended to document the scene, he said, but the people "just looked so despondent, I couldn’t bring myself to take that picture. It didn’t seem right. I hope they are in better places now."

Elizabeth Abeyta-Price ’84, president of the Notre Dame Club of Stuart, Florida, led an empathetic outpouring from hurricane-weary Floridians who had a sense of what Gulf Coast victims had gone through. “We just had to do something, and yet the magnitude was of such a different order.” Abeyta-Price organized efforts that raised more than $12,000 and sent two tracker-trailer loads of food and supplies to areas south of Mobile, Alabama. Camping gear was the priority of the first trip to residents who were still “living on the pads of their houses, waiting for insurance adjusters to come by.” She coordinated with Mobile club members, who distributed the goods, and with Armellini Express Lines, which supplied the truck, driver and gasoline. Despite the damage in Florida caused by hurricanes Gene and Frances in 2004, she said, “Now the consensus is that we were a little bit inconvenienced by our hurricanes. It was nothing compared to Katrina.”

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