Louisianans Swap Stories, Comfort at 'Hurricane Party'

September 3, 2008 — The idea took shape at a tailgate party before Saturday's football game.

Patrick Tyler and Elizabeth Tilton, University of Virginia students from New Orleans, were talking about Hurricane Gustav bringing back memories of Hurricane Katrina, which drowned their hometown three years before, almost to the day.

Tyler, then a first-year U.Va. student, didn't talk to his parents for a week, relying instead on text messages and intermediaries. Tilton, now a third-year, hunkered down with her family on the 17th floor of a swaying Hilton Hotel in the French Quarter so her parents, both doctors, could be available.

So they had empathy for first-years from the New Orleans area and the Gulf Coast who were watching Hurricane Gustav creep closer to their homes. Tyler and Tilton hit Facebook and Gmail chat, rounding up as many students as they could for a hurricane party.

On Monday evening, Pat Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer, and her husband, Wayne Cozart, threw open their home on the Lawn and provided the red beans and rice, jambalaya, cheese grits and Zapps potato chips.

And the students came. They talked football, dorm life, mishaps during the first week of classes. They also had New Orleans.

"I knew there were a lot of people from New Orleans at U.Va.," first-year student Felicity Fisk said. "It was good to see the faces."

Lampkin said she had worked with students during Katrina and went to New Orleans during a January term after the storm.

"I realized how difficult it was for the students who were at U.Va. living a normal day when they knew their families were under going hardship," she said. "We weren't sure how the storm would turn out and we wanted to make sure they knew we would help and understood that their minds were elsewhere most of the day."

Many of the students had known each other – or each other's siblings – in high school. Each had a Katrina story — families that evacuated, families that stayed; homes that escaped with little damage, homes that were uninhabitable for months.

Davis Zaunbrecher, a fourth-year student from Covington, La., said he watched Katrina coverage with a suite full of Virginians for roommates. "They wouldn't quite understand," he said.

Fortunately, he was able to connect with older students who did. "We have a common language and experiences," Zaunbrecher said. "We've experienced the same heartaches and joys of living there."

Tilton, whose brother Greg is a first-year student, said this time around her father again stayed at the hospital, but her mother evacuated with their younger brother, the pets and several Tulane University students who couldn't get home.

She said she feared the worst when she woke Monday morning to news that water was topping the Upper Ninth Ward levee, but by Monday evening she was relieved that flooding was not widespread.

Tyler, who has worked on rebuilding crews as part of the Alternate Spring Break program, said he would have hated to see three years of progress washed away. "It would be like starting over," he said.