3 April 2006
High in the February sky, a flock of cranes angle into the maroon sunset and prepare their gliding descent into a nearby rice field. On the ground below this V-patterned formation, a group of students, faculty and employees from LSU Health Sciences Center—New Orleans are huddled next to a plastic shelter for protection from the cold wind. It’s not easy in the Big Easy anymore. After the battering ram sucker punch of Hurricane Katrina, it’s life on the run. Displaced from their jobs and homes, they wait for a yellow school bus that crunches into the gravel parking lot and stops in front of them. A makeshift line assembles. On this forced journey in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, there is no pecking order.
Faculty of all rank, sport coats draped over their arms, punching Blackberries and carrying suit cases, accordion files and umbrellas, step up and into the bus. Students clutching pillows, CD players, boxes of pizza, book sacks and anatomy bone boxes stuff themselves into seats designed for 8th graders. Employees (from custodial workers to Assistant Director of Payroll) drag suitcases, laundry bags, cartons of bottled water and laptop computers down the narrow aisle.
Along a twisting asphalt road, the bus lumbers up the protective levee to a moored Baltic cruise ferry called the GTS Finnjet. Flying the flag of Finland, she is the temporary residence with a rudder for over 600 students, faculty and staff, who are participating in the recovery of an academic, research and patient care organization that, so far, has refused to fail. Water drove them from their homes and jobs and now, each day, they eat, sleep, work and live while floating on the brown, muddy current of the Mississippi River.
* * *
Dockside. A bitter wind, cross current, is whipping up froth on the pre-dawn surface of the river. Corliss Quillens (Accounting Technician), who evacuated her New Orleans 9th Ward home in a National Guard rescue boat and survived a week in the Super Dome, has seen enough water for a lifetime.
This morning, the rising water levels of the river have elevated the boat and passenger departure is precarious. Quillens, who has moved up her retirement date, is bundled in layers of clothes to protect her from the icy blast. Checking for slippery spots, Quillens steps slowly down the steep ramp. Gripping the chain rail with one hand and holding her cell phone with the other, she is in conversation with her insurance agent about a check that has been lost three times in the mail.
“I’m tired. Really tired,” an exasperated Quillens says under her breath. “I’ve moved so much that they can’t find me. Tell you the truth; I don’t know my address anymore. You can’t get mail on the boat and I’m afraid to have them mail it to my job. I tried to rent a post office box but the waiting list was too long.”
* * *
There is no white flag above Cabin 4132. Trying to keep Allied Health (Cardiopulmonary Science) Physical Therapy senior Tricia McDonald from graduating is like trying to drown a shark. When the Finnjet’s gangplank lowered on October 10th, McDonald was the first student to register on the boat. How she got there is a test tube sample of raw determination.
Like other students, McDonald discovered student housing was available on the Finnjet in Baton Rouge through the LSU emergency website. Rumors about the ferry swarmed like mosquitoes on a summer bayou: rooms were small and cramped; roommates were selected at random, first come, first serve. “When I first came on the boat I thought my room (with four beds) was really tiny,” McDonald remembers, “but when I walked around I was really happy with all the space they had to study. The boat was just what I needed.”
McDonald lived at 2316 Trio St in Chalmette, which was Ground Zero for Hurricane Katrina. As the surge of water, mud and chemicals rose with frightening speed (the watermark reached 12 feet), McDonald’s parents put the three dogs and two cats in the attic and swam to a neighbor’s second story house. They broke through a window. Rescued a day later, they were brought to a warehouse where they were given a half a glass of water twice a day. The pets weren’t so lucky.
McDonald had evacuated a day earlier with her best friend and fellow student Kelli Ford. “I went to sleep Saturday night, thinking the storm was Category 1,” McDonald remembers. “Kelli was honking in the driveway Sunday morning and telling me we had 20 minutes to leave. It was a Category 5.” McDonald threw some clothes in a bag, a toothbrush and some deodorant and, like Thelma and Louise, the two girls were off and running.
Using a combination of interstate and back roads, McDonald and Ford reached Shreveport (364 miles to the north) seventeen hours later. They stayed in an unfinished house—two rooms, 12 people. “It was a bare shell,” McDonald recalls. “Without television we didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know if my parents were alive or dead for one week. I couldn’t sleep.”
From a borrowed cell phone that was showing one bar on the battery, McDonald’s father finally reached her a week later. “I started crying when my Dad called,” she says. “I wasn’t sure if they had made it out.”
So much for the kindness of strangers---McDonald and Ford were told that their 5-day stay in Shreveport would come to $500. After coming up with the money, they were off to Bossier City where they lived with a retired RN, who gave the girls the key to her house. Next stop was Houston, where they lived in a pool house behind a couple’s home. The owners gave them money for food, clothes and loaned them a car. Unsure when school would re-open, they signed a six month lease on an apartment (they still owe $5,500 on the lease). With each move calculated to get closer to school, the girls next lived in a log cabin at a campground in Lake Charles, Louisiana, eating MRE’s (meals ready to eat).
“We didn’t know where we were going to stay from night to night half the time,” McDonald says. “Something in me said that I had to keep going. I didn’t work 3-1/2 years to quit at the end.”
Pearl River, Mississippi was McDonald’s eighth city and third state in one month. She commuted two hours each way to attend the opening of classes in Baton Rouge. “Everybody was looking at me like I was a foreigner,” McDonald says about being the first student on the boat. “I felt relieved that I didn’t have to drive so far any more. I was really wore out and doing bad on my tests. I needed to settle down and start studying. I didn’t care how small the room was; I finally had a place to stay.”
Once bunked in, McDonald’s grades went from average to excellent. “The hurricane was a test of our strength, both emotionally and psychologically,” McDonald expounds from the 7th deck study area. “You see the faculty and you know that their offices and labs are gone. We have all shared in the same suffering. If you would have asked me a year ago if I could have been able to go this far I would say definitely not. But when you are put in that position you do what you have to do.”
* * *
If you weren’t there or if you didn’t go back, you just don’t get it. Professor of Anatomy Bill Swartz is on the phone, trying to explain to a colleague at the Mayo Clinic why he had not responded to a September 3rd e-mail regarding revisions to an article he had submitted for publication.
With sarcasm thinly disguised, a frustrated Swartz goes through a list of explanations for his malingering. There has been a flood of Biblical proportions. The entire Health Sciences Center has been re-located ninety miles northwest. Gross anatomy is being taught in a vet school without cadavers. He is living under a bridge on a boat on the Mississippi River. The Health Science Center is close to a financial flat line. He doesn’t have time to read the newspaper.
When Swartz explains that he has not received one piece of business mail since August 24th the fog clears. “The moment he put himself in the position of not getting any mail for three and a half months then it hit him,” Swartz says with a grin. “He couldn’t relate to the actual devastation but not getting mail caught his attention.”
Swartz and his wife evacuated to Atlanta prior to the storm. When called back by his chairman, Swartz (with 31 years of LSU service) could have hung up the phone. He was well past retirement eligibility. “It looked awful on television,” Swartz says. “I thought if anything they would postpone the semester. I was 600 miles away from the action and I could just not get motivated. What eventually changed my mind was that I felt I owed the students something. After all, I had started the semester with them.”
Swartz came to Baton Rouge, completed a payroll deduction for the Finnjet and started hunting around for cadavers. He re-designed tests and prepared curriculum that would catch up for the month lost. In lectures and demonstrations, he asked questions, challenged the students, repeated procedures and reviewed everything under the sun. “I never worked so hard in my life,” Swartz admits. “My concern was that I did not want the kids to feel they were being cheated out of an education or getting a watered down exposure to gross anatomy.”
Something clicked. According to Swartz the numbers of honors in his course increased two and a half times the “pre-Katrina” norm. One particular student scored a 51 on her first exam then got a grip like a bulldog once she got on the boat. “I would come down for coffee every night around 9 o’clock,” Swartz recalls, “and she would be busting her tail studying.” The same student marked a 75 on the next exam and an 88 on the final. “I was shocked,” Swartz explains. “Somebody that gets a 51 on their first exam, you don’t expect them to even pass.”
* * *
According to Melanie Chelette, the variety and quality of the food on the boat is excellent but she misses the traditional New Orleans Monday meal of red beans and rice---Cajun style. “I love to cook and just be in the kitchen,” Chelette says, pausing from her study of estrogen replacement therapy. “I miss my husband. I miss my gym membership and working out. I just miss the normal routines.”
Chelette lived in a condo in Metaire and evacuated to Monroe, Louisiana where her mother got sick and was hospitalized. Chelette stayed next to her mother while texts messaging on her cell phone with fellow classmates from the School of Dentistry while watching the levees break on CNN. Her cabin on the Finnjet is windowless. “It feels pretty weird,” Chelette says. “You take a nap and you can’t tell the difference between three o’clock in the morning or three o’clock in the afternoon.”
Aboard the Finnjet now for over four months, there are slips of the tongue when the third year student refers to the boat as her “home.” Not surprising. Except for time attending class, Chelette is on the boat twenty-four/seven. The Navigator’s Pub (bar closed) on the 6th deck has become her living room.
Fearless when it comes to fashion, Chelette isn’t timid about showing up in her pajamas and slippers. “I’ve learned that I am very low maintenance,” she says with a sudden laugh, “and that I can deal with discomfort. A high maintenance girl can’t make it on this boat. A lot of things are more important right now than having the right shade of make-up.”
* * *
The weather is here. Wish you were beautiful. No one has ever received a post card from Port Allen, Louisiana where the Finnjet is moored to a Port of Baton Rouge wharf. Dockside Port Allen is a jumble of: grain elevators, sulfur dust, rusted refrigerators, weeds, port-o-lets, coils of copper cable, gas cylinders, piles of mulch, discarded septic tanks, conveyor belts, barges of soy beans, stacks of telephone poles coated with creosote, oil tankers, railroad yards, water towers, cement trucks, warehouses, drainage ditches, a man sitting outside PiK-A-Pak Fried Chicken spitting chewing tobacco into an empty cling-peach can while reading a pamphlet on chain saw safety, chemical storage tanks, pawn shops, sand and gravel pits.
* * *
Sitting next to a plastic lemon tree in Robert’s Coffee Shop, Associate Professor of Cardiopulmonary Science Andy Pellett is pushing the envelope. He is smiling, engaging people in nose-to-nose conversation. For the 41 year old Pellett (a career introvert) this behavior marks a radical departure from his usual reserved nature. “I have a tendency to stay by myself,” Pellett says, making eye contact with everybody that walks by. “Work had turned me into a dull boy. I’m much more conversational at this point. If I have something to say I just spit it out.”
Blame the boat. “I can’t stand being in the room by myself,” Pellett explains. “Getting out from behind those walls and talking and helping students has turned into my nightly entertainment. I guess you can call it unlimited office hours.”
With four cats and two kittens at home, evacuation in the face of Hurricane Katrina was a challenge. Unable to find a hotel that would take pets, Pellett and his wife left New Orleans late Sunday in the bumper-to-bumper exodus and headed north. With two teenagers and six cats crammed into carriers, the caravan required both Toyotas. After a minor fender bender to the lead vehicle, hours of blasting horns and ambulance sirens, Pellett’s wife Christine was on the verge of Stage 3 meltdown.
When the nervous goldfish in the front seat began to lose its scales the discussion was over. Pellett’s wife pulled off at the first Baton Rouge exit and offered $20 to a motel clerk so they could sleep in the parking lot. It was a stroke of luck when a conventioneer from Minnesota checked out of his room. The Pellett family moved in. “We were there long enough to get the cats de-clawed,” Pellet says. “They were tearing up the furniture.”
The achievement of Tricia McDonald stands out in Pellett’s memory. “When she came on the boat she was still traumatized,” he recalls. “She was struggling, getting low to average grades. The change was gradual but she eventually got to the point where she is now getting A’s and B’s.”
* * *
With 23 years at sea, handling the barge and freighter traffic on the Mississippi is a piece of cake to ship’s master Juha Rautavirta. Having worked his way up through the ranks, Rautavirta can ratchet mooring cable, lower any of the 3.5 metric ton lifeboats, take a turbine apart and navigate and maneuver the ship through a rocky fjord on the coast of Sweden as narrow as a needle. “There are some inlets where we have ten meter clearance on each side of the ship,” Rautavirta says, “and we are going at full speed.”
With the Finnjet docked, Rautavirta’s job gave way to paperwork, administration and management. The morale of the crew was an early challenge. “In the beginning they were not even allowed to walk in the harbor,” Rautavirta says. “Some of the crew got a bit restless. Now we have two cars and the local Seamen’s Church comes around once in awhile to take us into town.” To keep attitudes in perspective, the 40-year-old master has encouraged his cadre of captains and engineers to travel to New Orleans for “sensitivity training.”
On his favorite watch (midnight to 4:00 a.m.) Rautavirta likes to enjoy a cigarette and look out on the water from the Finnjet’s wheelhouse. With the Baton Rouge night skyline strung out like a flat string of white pearls, he remembers the moment the ship entered the mouth of the Mississippi River. “Mark Twain was quite popular reading for us as children,” Rautavirta says, his eyes sparkling. “When we met the river pilot, I called home, telling everyone that we were following the journey of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.”
Upon arrival in the Port of Baton Rouge it was apparent that a “new normal” would have to evolve for the Finnjet’s crew. Incidents like toasted televisions and smoking hair dryers caused by the 220 voltage were minor. Rautavirta’s focus was on his new cargo---the displaced youth. “The circumstances here are quite different than what we are used to,” Rautavirta says, studying a national weather service report called Advanced Hydrologic Prediction. “European tourists are one thing. They are paying for the trip. Our berths now are filled with students that are in need of a temporary home. It is an important consideration that we keep them safe.”
* * *
It is an hour before sunrise on a Thursday morning and the breakfast buffet is displayed under a motif of fish nets, starfish and plastic seagulls hanging from strings. A miniature Eiffel Tower is centerpiece to platters of sliced watermelon and pineapple. The serving line is an international smorgasbord: yogurt, mandarin figs, apricot halves, pepper liver pate, cream cheese, Rice Krispies, oatmeal, peanut butter, herb omelets, bacon, sausage links, biscuits and white gravy, croissants, blueberry pancakes, bowls of mixed fruit, baskets of green and red apples, assorted Danish, muffins, orange juice and coffee. The music of Nora Jones is piped in over the intercom. A laminated sign by the spiral pyramid of napkins warns: “Do Not Take Food or Silverware Outside of the Dining Area.”
* * *
After the flooding of the campus in New Orleans, there were a thousand reasons not to come to work. Pick an excuse, any excuse. Many individuals took full court advantage of the opportunity. Then there were people like Kathleen McDonough. The Associate Dean of Graduate Studies had no clue what she was going to do but four days after the destruction of an American city, McDonough walked into the LSU Systems Office on the Baton Rouge campus with her sleeves rolled up. “Mass confusion was the first thing that hit you,” she remembers. “There were six tables in the room and a bunch of computers. The phones were ringing off the hook. People were asking all sorts of questions.”
You can take McDonough out of her research but you can’t take the scientist out of McDonough. She noted that each of the seven phones was ringing at the average rate of 40 times per hour. A command phone was set up to filter and coordinate the calls. The operation took on the frenzy of a battlefield MASH unit. Calm and stability were in short demand.
Once in stride, McDonough focused on the re-construction of the graduate school and assisting employees with the online emergency contact registration process. All hands on deck. Her two daughters came in to the Systems Office (volunteers without pay) to assist in answering the phones.
The moored Baltic ferry became a sanctuary for McDonough that helped her find her calm again---almost. “I’ve noticed that I lose my temper more quickly,” McDonough offers about her behavior. “The gap of time where I normally lose my composure is getting smaller and smaller.”
* * *
Keith Washington can rub off on you and that’s a good thing. When it comes to setting an upbeat tone for the day, the 40-year-old Washington is the straw that stirs the drink. Clock work yellow. Starting at 4:00 a.m. and ending at 12 midnight, buses arrive and depart the Finnjet every ten minutes. Chances are it is going to be Washington behind the wheel.
Born at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, Washington could not sit still until he found a way to serve the evacuees that escaped to Baton Rouge. “I was glued to the television when the storm flooded the city,” Washington recalls. “Tears came to my eyes. That’s my roots. Those were my people and I knew I had to find a way to help.”
Washington was awarded the bus contract to shuttle students, faculty and staff to and from the parking lot to the Finnjet as well as hourly trips to the LSU Main Campus, Pennington Bio-Medical Research Center, Citi Place movie theater and the Dental School South Campus.
At Christmas, Washington purchased a souvenir T-shirt for each rider and called them by name. He has given the students his cell and home phone number in the event they get stranded in the city. “I fell in love with these kids,” Washington says, with a smile that could light up a Kentucky cave. “It’s going to be sad when they go back. I’ve been around the block a few times and I’ve never seen such strength. You stop and consider what they have been through and on top of all of that they are staying focused on their school work. They got my admiration.”
* * *
Every refuge has its price. For the single car family of Patrick Gorman, the issue of who would get the 2000 Chevy Prizm came down to a vote between him, his wife Melissa and two teenage daughters. The Director of Student Financial Aid lost in a landslide. Bags packed and resigned to bite the bullet, Gorman came on the boat. “I listen to other people and the commute is tense and draining,” Gorman says, pausing to examine his bowl of lentil soup at the dining table. “The traffic can be horrendous. Living on the ship makes it a relatively short bus ride to the office.”
Gorman and his staff (reduced from seven down to four after resignations and furloughs) work out of a double-wide trailer parked adjacent to the Pennington Bio-Medical Research Center. The trailer has no running water or toilets and is shared with Financial Aid, Bursar and Office of the Registrar. Each day at lunchtime, Gorman walks four miles on a walking trail to ease the stress of the cramped conditions. He is a regular on the boat-to-campus bus shuttle where he spends the 20 minute ride reading the Bible and listening to New Orleans jazz, rhythm and blues.
“This experience is like an educational commune,” Gorman says, sliding his salad plate and fork into position. “Faculty and staff dining together and living in close quarters. You see students coming to breakfast with their hair still wet. When we get back to New Orleans and land on our feet we can put on our resumes--‘Katrina hardened’.”
Gorman thrives on the boat. He brought his family in from Mandeville, Louisiana to have Thanksgiving Dinner on the Finnjet. “The pumpkin pie tasted a little strange but the staff was warm and gracious and it gave us all a sense of normalcy.”
* * *
Hurricane Katrina’s gift to Flora McCoy was a diagnosis of shingles. By the time McCoy got on the boat the accumulated stress had taken its toll. Connect the dots. McCoy (Rambo style) had driven 800 miles from Tampa, Florida to sneak through armed roadblocks to return to New Orleans before the evacuation order was lifted. She dealt with a damaged home that included fighting off a squirrel that had taken up occupancy in her attic. As Assistant Director of Human Resources, McCoy fought to keep her department intact by working wireless from the lid of a garbage can at a coffee shop. When that arrangement terminated, she positioned her laptop in the windowsill of her kitchen to hook into the neighbor’s signal.
“It was just like our parents told us about the Depression,” McCoy says about her early return. “The only way you could tell if a store was open was if there were long lines outside. Food shelves were mostly empty. Making a grocery list was a joke. You just went in and bought whatever they had.”
McCoy, who insists she cannot imagine living anywhere but New Orleans, now stays on the boat four nights a week. “At first I thought I could commute to Baton Rouge,” she says. “It didn’t take long to get over that idea.”
When McCoy first arrived on the boat, the television in her room offered one channel. There was no sound so she made up her own dialogue. A radio knob on the headrest of the bed leaked music that you could not completely turn off. “With that quality of an entertainment system, it wasn’t hard to go to sleep around 8:30,” McCoy says.
Despite the cloistered ambiance of her room, McCoy is an advocate for the boat. “It speaks volumes to what we can do if we set our minds to it,” she says. “How many other institutions could have reacted in such a quick and positive way?”
After dinner, McCoy decompresses from work by reading a novel. A bookmark protrudes from Chapter 19 of The DaVinci Code. She pulls it out. The bookmark is from the Campus Assistance Program and lists seven bullets on identifying symptoms of depression. “Somebody gave this to me today,” McCoys says holding the strip up as evidence. “Do you think they were trying to tell me something? I read the list and I got all eight of them.”
* * *
“I don’t have time for the hurricane,” Xiao-Cheng Wu explains about the morning of August 27th. “At that time, I have a class to teach. I must prepare and not think about the storm,” Wu says, unblinking. “My friends call and plead for me to go but I hang up the phone.” With her husband in Boston, attending parents’ orientation at M.I.T., Wu busied herself around the house, vacuuming and doing the laundry.
A second call from another friend made her uneasy. “Now I have some trouble concentrating so I pray,” Wu remembers. “I ask God to tell me what to do. I tell God I don’t want to go away from home. I walk around and pray to help me make the decision but God does not answer.”
The message may not have come in the form of a divine lightening bolt but Wu’s friends pulled up in the driveway and insisted she evacuate with them. Wu packed one blouse and a pair of slacks. “I keep on the same pair of shoes and take my lap-top to prepare for the class,” she says of the hasty departure.
Left behind, both of the Wu cars were totaled in the storm. With a daughter enrolled at M.I.T to the tune of $45,000 in tuition and living expenses, the Wu’s were pressed to become a single car family and move onto the boat. Sometimes it’s the little things that people miss. “For a married couple, the one car is very stressful,” Wu says, dipping her tea bag into a glass of hot scalding water. “Of course we want to have some time alone but we cannot.”
An assistant professor in the School of Public Health, Wu reports to work at the Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center every morning. Her husband (also a LSUHSC faculty member) has a temporary assignment at the Health Care Services Division Headquarters across the interstate from his wife.
“We don’t know how long the boat will be here,” Wu says, “but we are very grateful to have home even if temporary. Not to have to cook or wash dishes is more time to work.”
* * *
As a first year student in Allied Health, Kim Phuc Nguyen is determined to improve her grades---even if it means not sleeping. Wearing hospital scrubs and sitting at her favorite booth in the Ocean Club Casino Lounge, Nguyen appears to be in meditation. Tonight (Feb 12) is her birthday and messages are popping up on the chat room screen that is minimized on her computer screen. Under normal conditions, Nguyen would be out celebrating with friends but tomorrow’s exam is on Molecular Diagnostics and the 22-year-old Nguyen expects to stay up all night to prepare.
“Everyday, everybody is trying to make it on this boat,” Nguyen says, lowering the volume on her pink IPOD. “It make me feel like I have to get in and study with them. It gives me courage.”
Focused on Clinical Lab Sciences, Nguyen relates having a new respect for her instructors, “You see them night and day and you know something has happened that connects you to them. There have been a lot of changes in our lives. You learn that it is not all about you.”
When Nguyen could not find an apartment within 50 mile radius of Baton Rouge she came to the Finnjet. Nguyen was told by the information desk that she could not look at the room first and then decide. “I was warned that the room was small but when I opened the door I was shocked. It was hard to walk in. I asked myself if I really wanted to do this.”
Disruption of family routine may be contributing to Nguyen’s academic struggle. “I miss eating dinner each night with my family,” Nguyen says. “It is very traditional thing with us.”
* * *
The colder the winter, the sweeter the plum. For Associate Dean for Student Affairs Joe Delcarpio, the low point of post-Katrina events was the Chancellor’s decision to furlough his fellow faculty. “The impact was like getting hit in the face,” Delcarpio says. “It happened right before Thanksgiving break. It was a pretty sobering event to see your friends being taken off the payroll just before the holidays.”
“We already knew the city had been changed forever but when we had to furlough tenured faculty it was a galvanizing moment. You knew the institution was in emergency status. We all understood that decisions had to be made. It was not a time for forming a bunch of committees.”
As a Professor of Cell Biology and Anatomy, Delcarpio has taught Nursing, Dental, Allied Health and Medical students over the years. Since living on the boat, the blinders have come off as far as his total range of vision. “The boat takes away the barriers,” Delcarpio says. “You discover there is so much resilience in these kids. We started with 186 freshman medical students. So far we have lost one to illness, one an older student that lost his home and his wife lost her job. A third student came in and resigned. Under the worst conditions on the face of the earth we have only lost three students in the freshman medical class. Unbelievable.”
* * *
When Elizabeth Fontham registered for occupancy on the Finnjet many of her peers in administration were surprised. They didn’t have a clue.
Scattered like a leaf blown in the wind, the Dean of the School of Public Health had sought shelter in three different locations in the weeks following Hurricane Katrina. Carrying her belongings around like a migrant worker, Fontham was in and out of the Faculty Club on the LSU Baton Rouge campus. She lived with her daughter in Lafayette, Louisiana and alternate weekends with her sister and ailing mother in Crowley. Fontham’s transient existence reached the breaking point when she could not recall any of the zip codes. “I welcomed the boat with open arms,” Fontham says. “It was a Godsend. Working 12 hours a day and then sitting in traffic for three hours was killing me. There were times when my car was running on fumes.”
Because of her rank, Fontham drew a riverside cabin on the 9th deck. Savoring a cup of coffee (two creams) Fontham is the happiest of campers. “Life on the river is reduced to bare essentials,” Fontham says. “As strange as it sounds, I like my room. It’s nice to return to a place that is mine even if it is temporary. I put the window shades up and watch the barges in the evening and the sunrise in the morning.”
* * *
Catch me if you can. Christened in Katajanoka, Finland on April 28, 1977, the GTS Finnjet was billed as the fastest ferry in the world. Nine stories tall and over 700 feet in length, the ferry can reach speeds of 33 knots (about 61 km/h). The more observant passengers see irony in the fact that the boat has moved once (200 yards upstream) in the past four months. Pushed by two harbor tugs, the Finnjet changed berths to accommodate a freighter loaded with sheetrock.
There are ghosts on board. For 30 years the FinnJet has been transporting tourists (not always sober) from Helsinki to ports in Russia, Estonia and Germany. The inner sanctum of the hull can accommodate 400 cars. In 1978 the ferry hosted the Miss Europe Pageant and competition. 1982 saw the millionth passenger come on board. On July 7, 2002 a waitress disappeared from the ship sometime after midnight.
Latvia meets Las Vegas. The nightclubs, lounges and entertainment bars on the FinnJet with names like Ocean Club, Commodore Lounge, Club Stardust have been transformed to study halls where students spread out their piles of paper and colored pens on the dance floors and casino stage.
Languages can be assimilated just by using the elevator. The words engraved in stainless steel (Hissi, Hiss, Aufzug) tell passengers they are going up. A crate labeled “Helicopter Net” bolted to the stern makes a perfect card table for gin rummy on a Sunday afternoon. Each of the 11 life boats hoisted in metal racks weighs in at 3.5 metric tons. At the Information Desk you can check out hair dryers or an iron. For $5 American currency, your laundry can be washed and folded.
* * *
Pride and prejudice. Cheng Sshan Jiang feels there is a dangerous undertow to his personal and professional life in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. A Research Associate in Biochemistry for 15 years, Jiang returned to his apartment in uptown New Orleans to find everything piled out on the street. His prized master’s degree from Fudan University in Shanghai went out with the garbage. “When we come back,” Jiang explains, “already a month passed. The landlord pushes everything out. I am a very long resident there and never fail to pay the rent.”
Jiang looks for the best in human nature but doubts are creeping in. Delayed repairs, raising rents as leases expire are a common theme in New Orleans for people in Jiang’s position. He sees trouble on the horizon. “The salary for a research associate is low and I worry about the rent going high,” Jiang points out. “This is a very serious matter. Where are we going to live? My car is 1994 and will be difficult to drive long distance. We will need money to buy furniture. Maybe someone is considering what will happen to us.”
The 59-year-old, who has brought his wife with him on the boat, is proud of being called back to work. “The first thing I make contact with the university,” he emphasizes. “I know this part is essential and is my responsibility. I need my job. I am a hard worker and good at publications.”
Before dinner each evening Jiang takes 15 minutes of exercise, walking around the 7th deck. “I heard that there is a gym, a swimming pool and a sauna on the boat,” Jiang says with a furrowed brow. “I wonder why these kinds of facilities on the boat but we cannot use it. It would tremendously reduce our stress.”
* * *
Information Technology Analyst Greg Prusiewicz is the boat’s resident expert on curfews. He has missed two of them. Monday Night Football and four Abita Amber draft beers was the culprit on both occasions. When Prusiewicz looked up, the witching hour of the boat had past. “If you don’t make midnight curfew, you got two options,” Prusiewicz says, staring at the bar graphs on his laptop. “You sleep in your car or go to Waffle House.”
Prusiewicz is the only staff member that both lives and works on the boat. His job description is to keep tabs on the computer networks, monitor and manage wireless performance in different locations on the boat. Leaning up against the wall behind him is a styro-foam sign that says “LSU Computer Support.”
Providing technical assistance and trouble-shooting are his nightly chores.
The 23-year-old’s world revolves around power source converter boxes, VPN connections and e-mail viruses. His office is a circular couch, well positioned to view the ladies. “I’ll be here. I’m not going anywhere,” Prusiewicz says to a girl with a pony-tail that has raced back to her room to get her charger cord. “I’ve got the best seat in the house.”
* * *
Living in a hotel in Shreveport, Louisiana and constantly engaged with LSU payroll processing, it was early October before Valencia Stimage had the time and courage to return to her home in New Orleans East. There were three dead fish on the brittle leather seats of her pick-up truck and water in the glove compartment. “Where we lived looked like a ghost town. All you would have needed for special effects would have been some wind and tumbleweed,” Stimage remembers. “Mold was everywhere. My mother’s sermons, bills and recipes were pasted to the floor and there were flies and gnats thick around the refrigerator and freezer.”
One of the unknown soldiers of LSU Health Sciences Center’s recovery, the Assistant Director of Payroll evacuated not to save herself but to establish an off-site presence and run “vanilla” processes to insure over 5,800 employees got paid on time. Hours were brutal. Four trips a day to local bank branches, she assisted employees in getting their checks deposited into their accounts. “We had a job to do and we did it,” Stimage remarks without lagniappe. “Payroll is used to working under pressure. Sometimes our mistakes show up more than our accomplishments.”
Being stranded in Shreveport for five months was a wild ride. She worked 14 hours on Labor Day. Thanksgiving flipped over on the calendar like it was just another Thursday. She swallowed lunch (Nachos Bell Grande from Taco Bell) everyday while sitting in front of the computer and answering phone calls from employees scattered across the United States from Atlanta to San Francisco. In one stretch Stimage pulled 35 straight days before taking a Sunday afternoon off to attend church services.
Stimage came on the Finnjet during the Christmas holidays when there was a break in payroll processing. Facing deadlines, Stimage often works from the boat at night. She says that meals on the ship were fine in the beginning. “Now everything is beginning to taste the same,” she says, arranging a stack of time-sheets on the dining table. “If the main seasoning is not curry then its ginger. What happened to just plain old soul food?”
Keeping a brave face has been a challenge for Stimage, who maintains a cheap hotel room on the weekends just to get away from people asking questions about work and to slowly transition back to a shorter commute when facilities re-open in New Orleans. Returning to live at her 70127 zip code is not an option. “In a way, I’m still in denial about our home,” she says. “I keep occupied all the time so I haven’t stopped to cry. One thing for sure, we can’t go through this again. I’m not convinced the levees are fixed.”
* * *
Professor of Physiology Barry Potter has seen worse things than Hurricane Katrina. Near the end of World War II, German V-2 rockets were pounding London to rubble. For families living in the city, evacuation and dislocation became a way of life. Finding shelter and rationing was the norm. Potter’s parents were no exception. They foraged for food, picked blackberries from the outskirts of the forest. Potatoes, never in short supply, were boiled, mashed and baked in every possible way. “This is nothing,” Potter says, waving his hand as if to encompass the entire boat. “I remember my uncle going out to shoot rabbits so we could eat. There was a lot of muttering and spitting out buckshot at the dinner table.”
Potter’s childhood transitioned into the life of a gypsy, moving from town to town, living with one aunt and then another. “Relatives seemed to stay with us an awful long time and I never quite understood why,” says Potter, who played castle games on bomb sites.
Like clockwork, the 60-year-old Potter is one of the first disembark the boat each morning. His first class (Patho-Physiology to Nursing Students) is held at a United Artists movie theater in Baton Rouge. In describing the teaching conditions, Potter comes across as being happy as a flea at the Westminster Dog and Kennel Show. “The slides for lecture are projected on a screen that is 80 feet across,” he exclaims with admiration. “The acoustics are awesome. If there is a problem it is that the seats recline and the lighting is subdued. At half past seven in the morning, it can be a challenge for some of the kids to stay awake. Class is revitalized at about ten-thirty when they start popping popcorn in the lobby. You can smell the butter.”
Potter (his father’s name was Harry) views the boat in the perspective of his academic discipline. “Physiology is about how things work. How people work,” he instructs. “We start with a simple cell and work up to the whole system. The boat is a little bit like a transplanted organ. The ship is a transplant and we are not sure if it would be accepted or rejected. The faculty and students are like transplants and we are not sure if the boat will accept or reject us. The officers and staff on the boat are trying hard to adapt to our culture as we are forced to adapt to theirs. Tensions are created.”
Two students stop at Potter’s favorite night station in a corner of the Commodore Lounge. They beg for mercy in understanding a chapter on Signal Transaction Pathways. They get the unexpected. Potter distills the highlighted pages down to a simple description of the gastro-intestinal tract. “If it is moving too fast it is diarrhea,” he points out. “If it is moving too slow it is constipation.” Everyone has a chuckle before they get down to a more complex analysis.
“Teaching is an acting job,” Potter offers. “Basically anyone can present material but in order to get through in a meaningful way you have to change something. It boils down to more than just passion. You’ve got to care. That’s what the whole profession is about. All the technology in the world will not save the patient if you don’t care.
* * *
By the time Joe Moerschbaecher gets to the “Sun Deck” it is has been dark for over five hours. It’s been a long day. Awash in a tsunami of research demands, animal care issues, priorities on facility occupancy and the North American record of 700 e-mails in one day, the Vice Chancellor of Academic Affairs’ face exhibits what (in Vietnam) was called the “the thousand yard stare.” Setting his plastic cup of Scotch on top of a metal container labeled Pelastusliivit Livvastar Schwimmwesten (Finnish for “life jacket”) Moerschbaecher lights up his favorite Macanudo cigar. “Adequate provisions,” Moerschbaecher laughs. “Sailing teaches you never to leave port without adequate provisions.”
A man that has found the balance between art and science, Moerschbaecher is hosting a humorous discussion with faculty friends. Like a crab escaped from a trap---the jokes, local news, gossip, information and anecdotes jump back and forth from topic to topic. Moerschbaecher guides the banter with tales of enraged baboons, the mating habits of lobsters, his Mardi Gras membership in the Half Fast Marching Club and the Rules of Engagement as they pertain to ocean going vessels. He points out a harbor tugboat that is churning upriver. “Knowing the passing lanes and direction is important at night,” he says, inviting the group to the rail. “Red light is for port side; green for starboard.”
Realizing they are with a man that has bumped into his fair share of piers, the select group of professors presses for more navigational answers. The terms “stern” and “bow” become fixed in everyone’s vocabulary. But the difference between “flotsam” and “jetsam” gets muddled in the slur of emptied glasses of Scotch and tabled for further research.
Don’t be fooled. There is a serious side to this academic renegade.
Moerschbaecher begins a winding path of discussion about universities in Spain and Italy in the Middle Ages and how it illuminates the experience on the boat. “Nobody in the country knows this is going on,” he says, extinguishing his cigar into the required canister. “Instead of dispersing in different directions at the end of the day, we have this incredible community where you see faculty members spending two hours with a student after dinner. It speaks to what universities were all about when they were first founded. They were essentially a community of scholars. We have come back to that on the boat. What was unheard of five months ago has become routine.”
Moerschbaecher is concerned about life after the boat. He predicts going back to New Orleans will be more difficult than the sudden jolt of departure. “The bridges to our old environment have been burned,” he says. “We are going to be smaller but better. If we have been paying any attention, these new relationships and patterns of behavior on the boat will be valuable lessons.”
A version of this article was published in the Arkansas Democrat Gazette, Sunday, April 23, 2006