Student and faculty relief efforts continue one year after Hurricane Katrina

A stranger passing through the University Center last week might have seen students clutching beaded necklaces and wondered if Carnegie Mellon was celebrating Mardi Gras early. It was no early holiday, though — it was the commemoration of the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

Last week, the Carnegie Mellon Staff Council raised money for Beads for Tulane, one of many campus responses to Hurricane Katrina, including fundraisers, housing for displaced students, and trips to affected regions since the natural disaster last August.

“We knew that we wanted to get [victims] the money directly, so it didn’t have to be filtered through the Red Cross or United Way. We wanted to be able to get the names of individuals who had a need,” said Staff Council Events & Outreach Task Force chair Lindie Droulia.

Staff Council members tabled at various locations on campus, selling Mardi Gras beads for cash that they then used to buy $25 gift cards to stores such as Wal-Mart and Target. They held their first event, which lasted six weeks, last spring.

“Deciding who would receive them was probably our hardest project. We knew that the devastation was just so large that we had to make a decision on whom these gift cards would benefit,” Droulia said. Ultimately, they partnered with Tulane University’s staff council to create an online application for Tulane staff and faculty who needed aid.

There were over 500 applications by the end of the first week last spring.

“We knew we just could not meet that need,” said Droulia. “And that’s why we revisited the fundraiser during the anniversary.”

Staff Council’s second fundraiser, which ran from August 29 to September 1, brought in roughly $1700 — enough to buy gift cards for 60 to 70 people, in addition to the 80 applicants who received gift cards from the first fundraiser.

Staff Council wasn’t the only University organization to work with Tulane University. In the fall, 25 students from Tulane attended Carnegie Mellon as visiting students.

“We started getting phone calls from Tulane and other institutions from students who were finding that they were not going to be able to be in the school for the fall, and they were shopping for places that would take them,” said Holly Hippensteel, coordinator for the Office of the Dean. “Many were getting responses from institutions saying that they would like to help but didn’t know how. So we quickly decided that we would try to host visiting students.”

Unlike most other institutions, Carnegie Mellon worked with the displaced students to help them find housing while they stayed at the University. Students in apartments and campus housing were asked via e-mail to host Tulane students for a semester.

The response was enthusiastic enough that all of the displaced students were able to find and afford housing.

“They were more than friendly,” said Justin Feig, a junior in mechanical engineering. “They set me up with a dorm room, even though I didn’t need one ... [and] a $50 meal plan to get started.... They were
really friendly.

Feig, who also considered going to the University of Miami in Florida, is one of a handful of former Tulane students that have decided to permanently transfer to Carnegie Mellon.

“I called after the first day of school at Tulane to check on my application, and it had been delayed in the mail because it was a holiday,” Feig said. “So I flew up that evening. I just threw everything that I had into a suitcase — and I stayed here for the spring semester as well.”

In addition to tabling and providing housing for displaced students, Carnegie Mellon staff and students also worked together to arrange several trips to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to help with relief efforts.

Carnegie Mellon’s Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) campus chapter worked with Student Development to send a group of students to Louisiana during their spring break to help construct houses for Katrina victims. Yvonne Kiat, current president of Carnegie Mellon’s Habitat for Humanity chapter and a junior in business management, went to a separate HFHI event during the summer as part of a scholarship from General Mills.

Another organization that sent students to help in Katria-affected areas was Alternative Break, a student-run organization that focuses on building relationships between small groups of Carnegie Mellon students and their hosts while assisting local organizations. The organization’s first trip was to the Gulf Coast region near Bay St. Louis, Miss.

According to M. Shernell Smith, coordinator of Student Development, one of the major problems with organizing campus aid was staying focused on realistic goals and expectations.

“I think that at Carnegie Mellon we definitely have high expectations for everything that we want to do,” Smith said. “I think that we want to do more, but you also have to be realistic, because it costs a lot.”

One of the most unique fundraising efforts was made entirely by a pair of Carnegie Mellon students. Steven Kaplan, a senior in information systems, and Keith Torluemke, a senior double major in information systems and business administration, worked together to create, a website that sold blocks of pixels as advertising space in return for donations.

“It was a big fad around this time last year,” Kaplan said. “All these people were taking the money [from selling pixels] and putting into their pockets. We thought: What if we used the money for a donation?”

The pair advertised their website through various blog sites and has raised $3000 so far, which will be donated to the Red Cross to help with Katrina aid efforts.