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Surviving Katrina

1 Jun

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When we met Ann Schexnyder at her pink shotgun house in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward in November 2011, it had been six years since Hurricane Katrina.

Yet she was still living without electricity. She was living without a furnace and air conditioning. She still didn’t have hot water.

In fact, she didn’t even have an official occupancy permit to be living in her home, which, following the devastating flood caused by Katrina, had once been filled with three feet of water.

Ann’s story is both unique and similar to every homeowner’s experience in the Lower 9th: The hurricane and flood were just the beginning. The years post-Katrina were the real nightmare.

Ann chose to move to her neighborhood in 2002 for its history and affordability. Her 19-by-100-foot home was built in two stages: one in the 1850s and one in 1910. The back, older half of the house used to be a social club.

That she’s living in her house – after being completely displaced for nine months and living in a FEMA trailer in the backyard for three years – is a testament to Ann’s strength and tenacity.

She had to fight with her insurance company, which for six months insisted she had no homeowners’ insurance. She had to fight with governmental agencies. She got ripped off by unscrupulous contractors.

But she’s rebuilding, little by little. She heads up community meetings. She chases thieves out of her neighborhood.

“Guys would drive by with trailers full of [stolen] doors. I called the cops, but it was like screaming in the dark,” she said of the first two or three years after the flood. “I became [a self-appointed] safety officer. I walked down the streets with a hammer in my hand, [asking these guys], ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’”

Hurricanes are nothing new to Ann (’85 art & design), who grew up in Louisiana. She also grew up in a house without air conditioning, which helps her deal with her current situation.

“I can tolerate being miserable,” she said. “I’m not bothered by things that bother other people.”

Still, it’s been a battle.

“If it happens again, I’m not doing it,” she told us in November 2011. “It’s not that I couldn’t. I just wouldn’t.”

Postscript: Despite the fact that she still needs to install gutters and finish the floors, Ann now describes her house as “definitely livable.” Some of the work was completed by the crew of “American Horror Story: Coven” after Ann’s home was featured on that television show. “Now that I can see an end to the renovation, I will finally be able to put Katrina behind me,” she says.

So many stories to tell

16 Nov

I’m back in Ames with 3,067 miles on the rental car and dozens of stories to tell. Our maiden VISIONS Across America trip was a huge success.

After driving south for two days, Jim and I photographed and interviewed four alumni in Austin, Texas, all with wonderful, diverse careers and interests. (Austin is a great city, by the way.) I completely overbooked our appointments, but the stars must have been aligned because we managed to see everyone and still get to our Iowa State party that night ON TIME. The party was hosted by Mark and Kristin Gibson. Mark is a 1982 metallurgical engineering, and Kristin also attended Iowa State. Both of their kids are ISU students: Meredith is a senior in chemical engineering, and Spencer is a freshman in engineering.

Mark and Kristin were amazing hosts, opening their home up to local alumni and serving up a table full of yummy food — including cardinal and gold chips shipped by a friend from Ames! Austin ISU Club members are extremely active, with gamewatches every weekend during football season, and it was great to get to meet some of them.

Not only did the Gibsons host the party, but they also graciously allowed Jim and me to spend the night in their home, took us out to dinner, and fed us breakfast the next morning. Now that’s what I call hospitality! I feel like I have a dozen new friends in Austin.

The morning we left Austin, we drove to Houston to meet with Richard Schmidgall, a 1983 aerospace engineering graduate who works as the contracting officer’s technical rep for the Orion project at NASA/Johnson Space Center (formerly with the Space Shuttle). We were allowed into the coveted Building 9 — the building with the full-sized mock-ups of the Space Shuttle, Orion, parts of the Space Station, and other simulators. Astronauts actually train on this equipment, so it was a real thrill to see it. Richard will be featured in the VISIONS Across America issue of the magazine, so I don’t want to give away too much about him…you’ll just have to wait.

Later that evening we arranged an Iowa State party with the help of Brian Banker (’08 aerospace engineering). Brian is a liquid propulsion systems engineer at NASA, and he serves on the Alumni Association’s Young Alumni Council. He posted an invite in the JSC daily newsletter and we sent out a few emails, but I didn’t expect the great turnout that we had at Boondoggles, a bar and restaurant about five minutes from the space center. At least 20 Iowa State alumni who work for NASA turned out for the party. (Note to self: Bring name tags and write down all the names of  people Jim photographs…I did a lousy job. But, in my defense, I was busy meeting everyone.) It was a very good time, and Iowa State is extremely well represented at NASA.

Our travel pace slowed down a bit after we left Houston. We spent a full day getting to New Orleans, La., our second “official” state. There we met Ann Schexnyder, a Louisiana native who came to Iowa State in the 1980s for a degree in art and design. Ann will be featured in the magazine. She gave us a fascinating tour of her home and her neighborhood in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward. Of course, no visit to New Orleans is complete without experiencing the French Quarter; we walked through the streets with Ann and ate a delicious meal of gumbo, rice and beans, and local seafood at the Gumbo Shop.

One of the nicest surprises of this trip was how much I enjoyed our next stop: Oklahoma City. Our mission there was to interview and photograph Leslie Baker, the director of marketing for the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, for the magazine. Leslie is a 1986 ag journalism graduate. We spent all afternoon and early evening with her. What a great museum! I expected history and artifacts, which it has in abundance, but the museum also features incredible Western art.

I wish we could have spent more time in this wonderful city. We walked the grounds of the botanical gardens and visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial, but there was so much more to see. The city’s tourist map lists 85 attractions, including the Bricktown entertainment district and several other museums.

Our final state on this trip was Arkansas. We met Shirley Koenen in Bella Vista. Shirley received her master’s in counseling degree from Iowa State in 1989 — the same year her daughter graduated from ISU — and spent much of her career in California. She and her husband, Leonard, recently retired to Arkansas, and they’re celebrating their 50th anniversary later this month. Shirley was full of energy and kept us entertained all afternoon. She has had a fascinating career.

So…four states down and 46 to go. I’ll be posting stories about the alumni we met in Austin soon, so check back often!