Storm Stories Rebuilding Lives, Returning to a Different World Features
Features  |   February 01, 2006
Storm Stories
Author Notes
  • Marat Moore, managing editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at
    Marat Moore, managing editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at×
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School-Based Settings / Professional Issues & Training / Features
Features   |   February 01, 2006
Storm Stories
The ASHA Leader, February 2006, Vol. 11, 1-19. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.11032006.1
The ASHA Leader, February 2006, Vol. 11, 1-19. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR1.11032006.1
Nearly six months after Hurricane Katrina, speech-language pathologists, audiologists, and researchers, faculty and students in communication sciences and disorders are returning to work throughout the Gulf Coast region.

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Shortly after the storm, The ASHA Leader interviewed several members in the New Orleans area to determine the storm’s short-term impact on their professional and personal lives. At that time, most members’ workplaces were shut down indefinitely and members were in the process of temporarily relocating to other areas. But now the situation is clearer for many affected members, and they have made decisions about whether to return home and start over, in some cases, or to move on and build their lives in a new location.
Homecoming at Xavier
On Jan. 17, Xavier University opened its doors to students returning to a New Orleans forever changed from the vibrant city they evacuated one week into the fall semester.
After four months in Houston, New Orleans native Ashley Jones, an Xavier senior majoring in speech and hearing and planning to apply for a master’s program in speech-language pathology, returned to school a different person. Her extended family-15 people representing three generations-lost five homes in different parts of New Orleans when the weak levees broke and Lake Ponchartrain poured into the city. Two are located in neighborhoods that may never be rebuilt.
She almost didn’t come back to New Orleans and Xavier, after her family evacuated to Houston and she enrolled in a university there. But her family wanted to return, and Xavier offered a compressed schedule, with the fall course load offered until April, and the spring semester running from May until August.
“Before the hurricane, I was into myself, thinking about my plans and my life,” Jones said. “Now, my family has lost everything. Most are older people who love this city and don’t want to leave it, but they can’t find anywhere to live.”
Some Xavier students didn’t return because of the housing shortage in New Orleans, where rents have spiked due to the limited supply and influx of construction workers.
Joe Melcher, an active ASHA member and chairman of Xavier’s communication department, said enrollment now stands at around 2,900, compared to approximately 4,000 before the hurricane.
“Nearly 75% of Xavier students have returned-much higher than we expected,” he said. With no endowment and no money yet from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Xavier borrowed nearly $40 million to rebuild its bricks and mortar and resume its academic programs, retaining its strong focus on health care education.
As the nation’s only black, Roman Catholic university, Xavier sends more black students to medical and pharmacy schools than any university in the country. It also offers the only undergraduate program in New Orleans with a speech and hearing major.
But Xavier is still a work in progress: some land-line phones are still down, Internet access is spotty, and the communication building is hooked up to an external generator. The university had to lay off nearly one-third of its faculty and staff because of storm-related budget cuts.
Although Melcher’s home was spared major damage, many colleagues and students are in temporary housing. He supports them and shares his three storm-recovery mantras-“be patient, be flexible, and be positive.”
“You cannot imagine, without seeing it, the devastation,” he said, recalling his first trip back to the city in October. “Everything was brown-like looking at a sepia-toned photograph. No shrubbery, no birds, no signs of life, no color. Cars were caked with dirt, and you could see into houses that looked like they’d been abandoned for 100 years.”
Schools: “There Is Really No Description”
Several SLPs from St. Tammany Parish school system on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain wrote e-mails to The ASHA Leader describing the impact on their school district, and on the children they serve.

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They described loss of office space necessitating long commutes, and a lack of copy machines, assistive technology equipment, and funds for materials among the long list of challenges that still exist nearly six months after Katrina.
“As a therapist, everything has changed,” said Deena Mahler. “There was an exodus of people here, and our whole community is trying to catch up. The new students have had a variety of disorders, backgrounds, and experiences, as well as different reactions to their displacement. In a word, the entire experience has been surreal.”
She noted that a number of children with Asperger’s syndrome and autism has moved into her school-but appear to have no stronger reactions or behavioral issues related to the storm than other children.
“Most of the children are happy to feel safe and cared for, and most have been displaced into their extended families, which is a source of support. Many say nothing about the storm. During the holidays, the usual excitement that children express was noticeably absent.”
Parents, Mahler said, are “under daily stresses and life changes that they cannot conceal from their children. Secondary infrastructure issues have many people on edge-traffic, resources, long lines, and tedious frustrations.”
Memory loss is a big issue, she said. “Nearly everyone for a few months after the storm kept saying, ‘I can’t remember what you just said,’ or ‘My memory has been so bad since the hurricane.’ Someone said that we are the collective body of post-traumatic stress syndrome, and memory problems are a symptom.
“There is really no description that fully captures this experience. We are continuing to move in the afterwinds of the hurricane,” she said. “Most people are fatigued by Katrina conversation, and want to move on.”
Emily Homer, assistant coordinator of the speech-language program in St. Tammany Parish, noted, “We lost many students in our parish, and then gained students from other parishes,” she said. “There was concern about possible layoffs because of the loss of revenue. Now we have the opposite problem-SLPs are leaving for a variety of reasons, so we have to move people around to cover all the students.”
In Plaquemines Parish southeast of New Orleans, Janel Mumme, an SLP with more than 22 years’ experience, is back to work despite losing two homes and an office. In September, when she was in touch with The ASHA Leader, she was living in her husband’s office in a city water plant. She’s now living in a FEMA trailer that “could be parked in my former master bedroom,” she says.
Her school system has made a commitment to retaining employees despite receiving no money yet from FEMA.
“We have to rebuild our schools, programs, and records all from scratch,” she said. “Our school board may go into debt to start building now and try to get FEMA money later. And some of our kids are living in three-bedroom homes with three or four families.
“Unlike other schools that laid off entire faculties, ours is spending every last dime in reserves and rainy day funds to keep us working,” Mumme said. “Our three undamaged schools are serving the entire parish. We are overcrowded but we had great schools prior to the storm, and they are just as good now.
“Life is getting better, but is far from normal here.”
LSU’s Cruise-Ship Dorm
Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center (LSUHSC), located across I-10 from the Superdome, offers New Orleans’ only graduate programs in communication sciences and disorders. When all the buildings flooded, students and faculty relocated to the LSU campus in Baton Rouge, and were able to resume classes on Sept. 26.

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“We were shut down for four weeks, but by extending the semester by two weeks, we’ve had nearly a normal schedule,” said Bob Turner, an LSUHSC faculty member who teaches in the AuD program and commutes from his home north of New Orleans.
The continuity-and the warm welcome extended by the LSU program in Baton Rouge-resulted in few student or faculty losses from LSUHSC, although some staff were furloughed. Turner said LSU’s audiology students were fortunate because LSU Baton Rouge has a communication sciences and disorders program that just completed a state-of-the-art renovation of its building.
“The staff have been so gracious. They’ve shared everything with us, and we’ve worked our teaching schedule around theirs,” he said. “One good thing that came from the relocation was an increased level of cooperation among the two campuses.”
LSUHSC brought a Finnish cruise ship to Baton Rouge, and several hundred support personnel, faculty and students are living on board. Cabin space is tight, but housing and two meals daily are free for students. Computer access is provided in cabins and open areas of the ship.
Natalee Allen, a first-year AuD student, had transferred to another program in northern Louisiana, but decided to return to LSU, and found friends to live with in Baton Rouge.

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“My classmates and I have bonded as survivors,” she said, “and our professors have been commuting from all over southern Louisiana to teach classes and supervise clinic. Many are living in temporary locations, and their dedication to teaching is beyond anything I could have imagined.”
LSUHSC plans to return its programs to the New Orleans campus in stages, beginning with researchers who depend on grants and who suffered the loss of laboratory animals, research materials, and refrigerated samples lost when the power went out.
Audiology and speech-language pathology students hope to return by March, with a new class of speech-language pathology students beginning in May, according to Sylvia Davis, head of the speech-language pathology program at LSUHSC. New AuD students will begin in August.
On their return they’ll face another housing crisis.
“We don’t have that much on-campus housing, because we’re a health sciences center,” Turner said.
The upshot: LSU’s dorm-liner may cruise back to New Orleans.
Global Conference Comes to Xavier

As a sign of solidarity for both New Orleans and Xavier, the Sixth International Conference on Diversity in Organisations, Communities, and Nations will hold its annual conference in New Orleans this June. Originally scheduled to be held on Xavier’s campus, the conference has been moved to the Sheraton Hotel and will be held June 12–15.

The conference theme is “Human Rights, Diversity, and Social Justice.” Special sessions will be devoted to poverty and race in relation to Hurricane Katrina.

“This conference will bring international attention to New Orleans and to Xavier,” said Joe Melcher, chair of Xavier’s Communication Department and one of the local coordinators of the 2006 conference. “Hosting this event will allow Xavier professors and students an opportunity to establish relationships with scholars from around the world and facilitate further scholarship and networking.”

The conference will explore modes of diversity in real-life situations of living together as a community, and the effects and uses of diversity on a variety of communities in the context of globalization.

For more information, to register, or to submit a presentation visit

Judy Hearne: “Every Day Is a Special Occasion”

Image Not Available Katrina was the second hurricane in six years to hit Judy Hearne’s beachfront home in Ocean Spring, MS. Hearne, an ASHA Legislative Councilor, and her husband rebuilt after Hurricane Georges in 1998 completely destroyed their home.

“We built on stilts, so this time we still have part of a house, but there are very few homes around us,” said Hearne, a private-practice SLP.

“What helped me most was going back to work right away, because being in private practice with a self-employed husband, I was worried about paying the bills,” she said.

Hearne works with the state health department’s early intervention program, and has been doing evaluations in FEMA trailers. She is staying with the parent of a young client with Asperger’s syndrome in a rural area where her dogs can be housed, while her husband is living in a FEMA trailer on their house site and supervising repairs.

“We’re going to see a whole new set of disabilities or delays that are Katrina delays. Many of these children are having problems since the storm. There is so much grief,” she said.

Since the storm she appreciates more fully the simple joys of daily life.

Image Not Available“I just dug up four plates out of the sand behind our house, and they matched-then I found my mother’s sterling silver in the mud,” she said. “After Katrina, I refuse to save nice things for a special occasion-every day is a special occasion. And when I have a 6-month-old who smiles at me and communicates, it’s something to celebrate.”

Two Clinicians, Two Paths

Tiffany Hebert and Meghan Hall worked together as staff SLPs at Children’s Hospital in New Orleans. Five months later, Hall has returned to the hospital, and Hebert has happily relocated in Houston. Both faced obstacles in the transition, but love their work now.

Image Not AvailableHall is back in her position as an SLP at the hospital after two months in Pensacola, where she worked and considered a permanent job.

“I came back because I love New Orleans-the culture, food, music, the accents-and wanted to help rebuild it,” said Hall.

Only about a third of the hospital staff has returned, but patients are being sent to her hospital from Texas and Mississippi, and inpatient beds are full. Two floors have not reopened because of lack of nursing staff.

“I’m very optimistic,” she said, despite her estimate that three-fourths of the city is deserted. “It’s changed me as a clinician, for the better. Not working for a month made me appreciate my job and realize how much I love what I’m doing-and where I am.”

After evacuating New Orleans, says Hebert, “Professionally, it was a shock to lose my patients. The storm interrupted and basically terminated treatment for my kids including a teenager in intensive rehab following a near-fatal car accident three months before the storm and a 1-year-old awaiting further cardiac surgery with feeding/swallowing issues.

“Close relationships were severed with kids and families, and my co-workers, most permanently. Personally, the devastation to my home, my community and my city and its citizens left me in a state of panic and disbelief. I cried for four straight days until the federal government finally sent in assistance.”

She first went to Dallas, still reeling with grief. “I went to Starbucks and began crying when I looked at the front page of the newspaper showing horrifying images of my city. The Starbucks employees insisted that I have all the coffee and goodies I wanted! But I had to get out for fear I’d never stop crying.

“I am now in Houston, in my dream job. It is amazing how life works. I’m surrounded by excellence in a facility that offers cutting edge treatment, and see a varied caseload of children in the inpatient setting, my ideal population.

“For me, Katrina was a painful and devastating event, but the professional changes have been outstanding. I carry both the joy and the sadness of my new reality with me every day.”

Helping Members Affected by Katrina

Since the hurricane, ASHA has heard from many members affected by the storm who appreciated the Association’s resources and assistance. ASHA created a special Web site shortly after the storm hit. The site, which contains links to various sources of assistance, offers Katrina-affected members a link to colleagues. Members gained the chance to learn about job leads and other opportunities to help rebuild their professional lives.

The Executive Board supported additional assistance to members. A letter went to members in affected areas informing them that ASHA would waive 2006 membership dues, certification fees, CE Registry fees, and the 2005 Convention registration fee. All 2006 fees were waived for any special interest division(s) to which members belonged in 2005. The association also provided product replacements and discounts.

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February 2006
Volume 11, Issue 3