Fighting devastation with open wallets and open arms

Oct. 6, 2005, midnight | By Justin Vlasits Clair Briggs | 15 years, 8 months ago

When Caroline Kuttner, a 2004 Blair graduate and current sophomore at Tulane University, grabbed a backpack full of clothes and road-tripped to Houston with a few friends on her school's orders, she thought it was just a precautionary measure for Hurricane Katrina. "We get evacuated at least every other year because of threats from hurricanes," she explains. "No one thought that this was any different."

But it was. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Katrina was the most destructive storm ever to strike the United States. Winds of up to 175 mph left behind ruined houses, flooded streets and floating corpses. Now, weeks later, Kuttner is back in Maryland, shocked at the television images of debris where her old dorm room and city once were.

Instead of just watching the devastation, Kuttner and her mother created the web site "Renew Orleans" to inform people of ways to help the relief effort. Many Blair students have responded to the call for help; according to an informal Silver Chips survey of 100 students conducted on Sept. 13, 62 percent of students have contributed to the relief efforts in some way. These students have opened everything from their wallets to their homes for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.

One dollar at a time

While Kuttner's firsthand experience with the hurricane's destruction motivated her to action, others help simply because of the horrors they've seen on the news. For senior Scott Rathbone, Hurricane Katrina's impact is too devastating to grasp. All he can comprehend about the tragedy is numbers: 1,000 confirmed deaths, according to CNN, and 372,000 students who cannot return to school, according to U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings.

The enormity of the situation compels Rathbone to help in any way that he can. As the secretary of student organizations for the Student Government Association (SGA), Rathbone has spent his lunch periods walking around the SAC with other SGA members, collecting donations for the Red Cross. As of Sept. 22, the SGA had raised over $1,645.

Like the SGA, the Blair chapter of the National Honor Society (NHS) has collected contributions from Blair students. NHS members asked students to donate to Project Backpack, an organization started at Walt Whitman that gathers backpacks and fills them with supplies for children displaced by the storm. Over the past several weeks, 43 backpacks full of items from stuffed animals to crayons to binders were collected from Blair students for the hurricane victims, says NHS President Natasha Coleman. According to the MCPS web site, more than 6,000 backpacks were collected in Montgomery County.

Coleman believes Project Backpack is also beneficial because it sheds light on an often overlooked group of victims. "It was something started by kids for kids," she explains. "A lot of people forget that there are kids out there suffering, too."

Taking matters into their own hands

Still, Rathbone wishes that he could do more for the hurricane victims than just donating to relief efforts. He would like to follow in the footsteps of his brother, 2000 Blair graduate Allan Rathbone, who will travel to New Orleans to help cleanup efforts later this month. "It makes me wish school hadn't started so I could go with him," Rathbone says. "I want to be there, helping. I want to take matters into my own hands."

Senior Gillian Couchman realized that, even though many of the victims of the hurricane are getting immediate resources and care, they have an enormous long-term problem: beginning a new life with almost nothing. Couchman and her family decided to open their home to a family in need. "Right after we saw all the terrible stories of people on the news, my mom just decided that we had the space, so it was something we needed to do," explains Couchman. "My mom called the Red Cross the next day."

For now, the Couchman household shows only small signs of change. The basement has been cleared out, and extra beds have been set up downstairs. A lock was put on the basement door to give the new family some added privacy. Still, Couchman knows the change will be dramatic. "It's weird, because it's almost like my whole life is about to change — I'm practically adding to my family!" exclaims Couchman.

As new families settle into the Washington, D.C., area, Couchman's life will not be the only one to change. More than 70 new students from the Gulf Coast have enrolled in MCPS since the hurricane, according to the MCPS web site. Senior Sebastian Johnson, the Student Member on the Board of Education, applauds MCPS students for taking the initiative to "reach out to these students and make them feel welcome." On Sept. 26, Johnson took a day-long tour of two of the schools the new students are now attending in order to greet these students as members of MCPS. Johnson hopes his trip will help ease the trauma of displacement for the students and help pave the way for recovery.

Shane Perrault, a psychologist for the Adolescent and Adult Behavioral Consultation, says in a phone interview that displaced children and adolescents could show symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, such as anxiety and depression, for years to come.

Still, Kuttner believes that those who are not directly affected by a tragedy often continue with their lives and forget about what has happened. "I look back at how I reacted to the tsunami, and I felt bad, but it was easy to move on," she says.

But this time, Kuttner will not move on: She is already planning on returning to New Orleans next summer to work for Habitat For Humanity with her friends, confident that New Orleans will return to the vibrant city she once knew. "I know it's not going to be the same for awhile, but it's just that kind of city people love too much to let it die," she says.

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Justin Vlasits. Justin Vlasits is a CAP senior who enjoys It's Academic, baseball, guitar and frisbee in addition to watching weird movies and contemplating the meaning of life. Justin is also a revolutionary member of SGR and will someday overthrow oppressive capitalism all over the world. More »

Clair Briggs. Clair Briggs is a junior in the Blair Magnet. She's really excited to be a part of Silver Chips this year! In her free time, Clair likes to spend time with her friends and she likes to eat Chipotle. She loves country music, California, and … More »

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