August 2007 marked two years since Hurricane Katrina bereaved the north-central gulf coast of the United States, and virtually destroyed one of our most historical and culturally rich cities: New Orleans, Louisiana. At this time, let us remember the devastation, displacement, and loss of life that was abruptly thrust upon thousands, and honor a community that still struggles to recapture what was lost and rebuild their once great city.
Fourth-generation Louisiana native, New Orleans resident, and Pepperdine University Ed.D. in Educational Technology (EDTech) alumna Dr. Elizabeth Rhodes shares with us her lifelong commitment to public education and ceaseless dedication to rehabilitate her homeland.
“There was a great sense of loss after Katrina devoured our city. My hometown was flooded and my family dispersed; the culture had been washed away and I wondered if it would survive. I quite literally lost everything I knew: my house, my neighborhood, my university, my grocery store, my post office, and more.
Two weeks after the storm, I found myself standing in a long and seemingly endless line at the public library in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I waited for two hours to use a computer for 30 minutes to reach out to friends I hadn’t spoken with since the hurricane hit. I wanted to connect with my colleagues from work, but our e-mail system was down.
I remembered a few addresses from when I was earning my doctorate at Pepperdine and reached out to Linda Polin, my dissertation chair from the EDTech program, and a few others. I wasn’t sure what to tell them. Reporting that I was “okay” seemed egotistical—even though I had no access to CNN, I knew there was suffering and death everywhere. I really don’t remember what my fingers typed, but I was copied on an e-mail that Linda sent to my cadre announcing that “Liz is fine.” Even now, that thought warms my heart.”
To say the least, the days that followed Katrina were fearful and uncertain. Rhodes was displaced from her home, her family and friends were scattered to unfamiliar areas, and she feared that she would lose her job due to the financial pressures placed on her institution by the hurricane. For two weeks she shared a relative’s small home with 35 family members and their
six dogs. There were no modern-day comforts to lessen the blow—no central air, no computer, no electricity, nothing at all. In the midst of disaster, Rhodes rose to the occasion and instinctually began helping the fractured community that she was immersed in.”
“There is a strong Catholic culture in New Orleans. I, as well as hundreds of others, went to stay in Baton Rouge. In an attempt to make do and better the circumstances around me (I also needed a break from 35 relatives), I volunteered at the Baton Rouge Area Foundation. A vivacious nun was running the makeshift community, and she paired me with a woman from the International Rescue Committee (IRC) who had worked in Indonesia after the December 26, 2004 tsunami.
We were tasked with organizing program-matic activities for children who were living in the temporary shelters across the Greater Baton Rouge area. We helped families transition from temporary shelters to the Renaissance Village Park (RVP), a retreat with about 500 trailers and many families with children. We managed to convince parents that they should enroll their children in local schools and helped in their adjustments to the new environment. We provided play activities for the pre-schoolers and played sports with the youth who were reluctant to go to school. Eventually we organized and trained volunteer local college students at LSU and Southern University to engage traumat-ized children in safe and fun activities.”
Elizabeth Rhodes comes from a family of educators. There are seven siblings total, five of whom worked in the public edu-cation system of New Orleans prior to the storm. She has worked in the field for 20 years spending much of the time advo-cating for children in need and fighting to raise the standards of public education. It has been her life’s work and commitment.
After living and working with the comm-unity of Baton Rouge for five months, Rhodes learned that she was among the more fortunate of her colleagues who did not lose their job. In January 2006, she was able to return to her post at Xavier University as the educational technology specialist. She and other faculty who returned to the city were provided FEMA trailers the following March and she currently resides there today. For the past two years, Rhodes has been working feverishly to put Xavier back on the map reclaiming its reputation as a popular and prestigious historically black university.
While many areas of New Orleans are still in disarray or changed beyond recognition, the campus of Xavier University has received an investment of resources and is virtually blemish free. There are no physical remnants of the devastation that passed through, which is much like the people of New Orleans themselves—they carry the hurt and wreckage inside.
Rhodes is mindful to keep her smile and maintain a positive stride. Positivity is integral to the collective morale of both the individual and community of New Orleans. While she does her best to persevere, it is not without a private anguish that seems to stem from the complexities of the communal need at large.
“I still wish that I could have done more initially in Baton Rouge. There was so much need. That RV park is still home for many individuals who have not been able to return home. I was very fortunate to come back to the city and still have my position at Xavier. Living again in New Orleans is comforting. It is good to be home. The rebuilding process is slow and frustrating, but if we are to return as a viable community we must remain positive.”
Rhodes holds steadfast to her sense of duty in New Orleans, and is dedicated to her “displaced community.” When asked why she does not throw in the towel and leave, she acknowledges the hardship of the situation, but ultimately replies, “We are a community of resilient people; we will survive.” Rhodes’ passion and dedication evokes a strong sense of hope. With more people like her, New Orleans’ survival definitely seems feasible.