By Jennifer Vazquez
Hurricane Katrina struck roughly seven years ago. Aside all the physical damage to the Gulf Coast and all the lives that were, unfortunately, lost, Katrina brought with it a slew of survival stories and memories that will forever be engraved in the minds of those that experienced the catastrophe.
Even though, we, as New Jersey residents, live in a relatively safe region, in terms of the lack of geographical phenomena – such as hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes –Katrina has, nonetheless, impacted some Jerseyans.
Take Jaszmine Hawkins, for example. This charismatic, 25-year-old Jersey native lived through the unfathomable nightmare that was Katrina.
Hawkins was a college student in New Orleans’ Xavier University, barely commencing her freshman year. She was in her first days of her collegiate career when Katrina destroyed the city.
“I wasn’t even (at Xavier) a few days –I think I just had one class– then, the weekend came and that Monday the storm hit,” she said.
According to Hawkins, the emotions of those in the area were diverse. There were those that were panicking and an equal number of individuals who didn’t think too much of the upcoming “storm.” However, with the hurricane fast approaching, Hawkins and other students were asked by the university, on a Sunday, to buy all necessary items –such as food and personal hygiene products– with the ultimate goal for all to be back at the dorm by a certain hour since the doors would be locked and no one would be able to get in or out.
Since her dorm building had “a higher foundation,” according to Hawkins, the building was considered a safe zone for others in the university. Because of this, additional students were brought to “ride out” the hurricane in her dorm building.
“The people that lived (in the dorms) opened up their rooms to all the people that came to stay there,” she said. “But that night, early morning –when the wind started coming– they packed us like sardines in the back hall where there were no windows (in case of flying debris).”
However, Hawkins didn’t grasp the severity of the situation until she glanced out a window
. “It was 9 in the morning but it was so dark,” Hawkins recalled. “I remember looking underneath this door and seeing and hearing the wind outside. It was all gray and you couldn’t see anything. From my dorm room you could see the Super Dome, but that day, you couldn’t even see that.”
Water started rising quickly in Hawkins’ dorm building. She says that the water levels could have been caused by the damage the levees succumbed to, but doesn’t necessarily remember if the time that the water started rising in her dorm –which, she says, ultimately reached about four feet up with the time the levees gave way.
With water levels rapidly rising, Hawkins and the rest of the student body seeking shelter in her dorm building, were rescued.
“On the fifth day … we saw the police and fire department come by boat and pick up all the students,” Hawkins said. “What was supposed to happen…was that we were going to be transported to the Interstate, to higher ground, and there would be buses waiting for us.”
However, that was not the case.
“We were on the Interstate for another eight hours … and the military trucks finally came to pick us up and take us across,” Hawkins said. “Then we waited another three to four hours (for buses) … The buses came and they started dividing people…My roommate and I went to Southern (University) in Baton Rouge knowing that there was an airport there.”
After the evacuation, being caught in chaotic highway traffic, Hawkins and the others were taken to another university campus to rest for a bit and take showers. Despite their ordeal, they were asked to go on their way after a few hours. Up to this day, Hawkins is not sure why the refuge made everyone leave after a certain time.
“I don’t know whether it was to let other (evacuees) rest,” she said. “I just don’t know.”
After taking a plane back to her home state, Hawkins enrolled in Seton Hall since they were offering free tuition, for a certain time period, to students from the Gulf Coast. However, following many talks with her parents as to whether she should go back to finish her studies or not, Hawkins decided to give New Orleans another try, by re-enrolling at Xavier. However, her independent soul and artistic passion led her to putting her studies aside for the time being.
With all her ambition, drive and positivity, it is an absolute shock when one finally realizes that this optimistic, young and creative woman survived an ordeal that most of us – hopefully! – will never encounter.
“(Katrina) is part of who I am,” she calmly and confidently said.