|Laurie Phillips in front of the state icon, a magnolia tree.
Some people thought Hurricane Andrew was a hell of a storm when it struck the South in 1992. And it was, after all, the most destructive natural disaster in U.S. history—until Hurricane Katrina trumped it in 2005.
But for New Orleans resident Laurie Phillips ’86, Andrew was a cakewalk—or a walk to the ice-cream store. In fact, due to the power outages, “We were forced to eat all the ice cream in our refrigerator,” she recalls with a laugh.
“After Andrew, I didn’t even remember being aware when it was hurricane season,” she adds. Having lived through Katrina, she’s now acutely aware. “All of a sudden, it’s an issue. I’m extremely aware of weaknesses in the levees.”
Phillips, technical services coordinator in Loyola University’s library, joined the line of refugees on Interstate 55 Aug. 28, the day before Katrina smacked the Gulf Coast, leaving 80 percent of New Orleans underwater and 800,000 people around the Gulf home-less. She and then-husband Bill Gibson landed in their home state of Pennsylvania, by way of Jackson, Miss.
Phillips was welcomed by the Dickinson library staff and spent three months here in a temporary, part-time position, still doing work for Loyola via Internet and phone. She left in December ’05 with a feeling of gratitude for her alma mater’s assistance and a mermaid charm presented by her fellow librarians.
In mid-February 2006, Phillips and her cat Lucy were able to return to her rented duplex five minutes from Loyola’s campus. “I was only out of my house for five-and-a-half months,” she says. “I am incredibly lucky that I didn’t lose any people, that I still have my same place to live and that I didn’t have any major losses of property. If I didn’t still have my job I definitely would have left.
“I had thought about leaving but decided to stay,” she says. “I’m very happy here. I love where I work, and this is where my friends are. I went through a divorce this year, so I was glad to be here with friends.”
While her marriage was a casualty of Katrina, a happier loss was that of 60 unwanted pounds since the storm (she had lost 35 pounds prior). Post-Katrina, Phillips is looking fabulous and feeling great.
While Phillips is back on her feet, much of the city is still limping. In the New Orleans area, 204,000 homes were destroyed or damaged and, as of early December, only 52,300 residences had received building permits. Late last year the population was around 200,000, less than half the pre-Katrina number. That means a lot of missing labor and, unfortunately, that includes law enforcement.
“The police are in a difficult situation right now,” relates Phillips. “They don’t have enough people. Nobody has enough people, so it’s hard. The population is smaller; people are having a hard time hiring. Crime is up, especially in Central City. It’s very noticeable.”
While her employer for the last 16 years, Loyola University, was left reeling from the storm, it is recovering, she says. “For the most part, the students came back, but it will take years to rebuild. You don’t recover from that loss of revenue and enrollment quickly.”
Life in New Orleans in 2007, Phillips says, “is a mixed bag. But I don’t feel my life is in danger. People were really on edge, wondering what was going to happen this hurricane season. At first, I said I wasn’t going to evacuate again. It’s just too hard to be away and not know what’s going on, but do I want to be in a city without power, not able to drink the water?”
Seeing the city, and particularly her church, Rayne Memorial United Methodist Church, which sustained $3 million in damage, rebuilding has been gratifying. Especially when she met one particular band of volunteers at her church last summer.
“It was a group from Dickinson,” she says. “When I ran into them I was wearing my mermaid necklace, with the charm that the people from the library gave me. They saw the Dickinson parking sticker on my car. The kids thought it was fun to come all this way and find a Dickinson person here.”