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Annette Hacker, director,
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Dan Kuester, News Service, (515) 294-0704

Hurricane evacuees settle in to Iowa State

AMES, Iowa -- In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Iowa State University opened its doors to students displaced by the storm. Although there are many miles, and many choices between the Gulf Coast and central Iowa, three students from the ravaged area found their way to Ames.

Now, after a few weeks of life on ISU's campus, the students reflect on how they came here. Although they tell disparate and sometimes desperate stories, they all are adjusting.

Dan Weimer standing in front of Phi
Theta fraternity

Dan Weimer

Daniel Weimer, University of New Orleans

When ISU's most famous University of New Orleans transplant, Tim Floyd, moved north to coach basketball, he got a multimillion dollar deal and loads of perks. When Dan Weimer arrived on campus, he had two shirts, two pairs of pants and little idea of what was in store.

"My first question was 'What's going on here?'" said Weimer. "There was a huge party going on next to our [Phi Kappa Theta] house."

At the time, Dan couldn't have known it, but he'd arrived at a time when Ames might most resemble his hometown of New Orleans during Mardi Gras -- it was Friday before the Iowa football game.

While Dan's first experience at ISU was purely social, it is his education that made the accounting major come this far north. After he was displaced by Hurricane Katrina, Dan was looking for a way to get back to school as soon as he could.

"I first went to LSU (Louisiana State University) and registered there, but I didn't like it. I was living in my car in Baton Rouge, and I had to get out of there," said Dan of his three-day stay at the school.

While talking with a national fraternity representative about his situation, Dan found out about the possibility of coming to Ames.

"I was in the LSU union talking on my cell phone to the national chapter representative. Then I called here and talked to (ISU student) Andrew Gore from the fraternity. Then I called a girl I used to go out with who goes to veterinarian school here. I just decided to come. I resigned from LSU, walked out of the union, got in my car and drove north out of Baton Rouge.

"When I got here, I got a grant to help pay for things, I had a place to live, the people were great. It was much better," he said.

Dan has been able to accumulate some more clothes than the few things he brought with him in his Mustang, but he has little from his old life.

"Right before I evacuated, I tried to print out on my parents' computer all the college courses I'd completed, but the web site wasn't working," he said. "I regret that."

"I got clothes that people gave me, clothes that I bought. Other than that, I got nothing. The only thing I regret leaving behind is my dog, Laya. She was only 20 weeks old. I really miss her." Laya is staying with Weimer's parents while Dan is in Iowa.

Dog and owner will be reunited when Dan returns south, which he plans to do when UNO opens its doors, either at semester or at the end of the academic year.

For now, Dan finds life in Ames pretty comfortable.

"This place is a gold mine. Lots of people don't know about this place, but the resources here are great and the people have been very nice," he said.

Jared Austin in front of Parks Library

Jared Austin

Jared Austin, Southern University at New Orleans

Why come to Iowa?

"Why not?" asked Jared Austin, the easy-going transplant from New Orleans who now finds himself adjusting to life in the Midwest after spending his first 20 years in the Big Easy.

While Jared's choice to come to Iowa State was made without much stress, the second semester sophomore majoring in chemistry is still trying to figure out this group of people called 'Iowans.'

"Last night I sat there while two guys argued about the perfect way to eat a pierogi," Jared observed before adding, "You people don't have enough to do."

Whether Iowa is a perfect fit for the erstwhile student from Southern University in New Orleans, one of the hardest hit campuses in the Gulf, still isn't clear. But his days in New Orleans may be over for good.

"I was going to leave anyway because there is nothing there for me," said Jared, who plans to enter graduate school after completing his undergraduate studies, but he doesn't' know where yet.

"Now, my family is in Texas, Atlanta and Jacksonville, Fla. - where my immediate family is. My father is already settling in down there. They've got their own apartment."

"We were all getting tired of New Orleans," he said.

On the Monday Hurricane Katrina hit, Jared and his family decided to stay in their house as they had during other storms.

"We had the means to leave," he said. "I wanted to stay. My parents wanted to leave. But my grandmother wanted to stay. So we stayed."

"We're crazy like that." Why not stay? After all, this wasn't his first hurricane.

A decade earlier, Jared was on a camping trip when a hurricane hit.

"We were camping in Mississippi when the hurricane was going on. We were watching stuff fly by and the rain was stinging my face," the former Eagle Scout recalled.

When Katrina struck, Austin and his family had more to deal with than stinging rain. The entire family moved to the attic of their home to stay dry. Then, as water continued to rise, they moved next door with relatives whose house was higher than theirs.

When rumors began circulating that the area would be flooded even more, the family finally had to move.

They packed up what they had and started off for the Superdome. During the migration the family spent two nights on an interstate bridge.

"It wasn't as bad as the media said," he insisted. "We gave food to people who needed it. People gave us some food and water. People were giving clothes out to other people. Really the people were just being nice to each other."

After hearing horrible stories about the Superdome, they instead went to the Convention Center, arriving Thursday, after one night in a flooding house and two more nights on the road, literally.

From there, they got on a bus they thought was headed to Texas. They arrived, surprised, in Arkansas. It was then that Austin decided to come to Iowa. It wasn't his first trip to the state.

"I had [once] been at the University of Iowa for a symposium so I figured what the heck," he said.

Austin contacted the University of Iowa but discovered he couldn't get the classes he needed there, so UI directed him to Ames.

It was then that he called Iowa State and arranged to fly into Des Moines, arriving Sept. 11.

Austin hopes to transfer his credits back to Southern University, but won't go back to the Crescent City to stay.

"I'll go back just to get my stuff," he said. But if rebuilding goes quickly, Jared is still undecided about whether he would stay here to finish his degree or go back to finish in New Orleans.

From New Orleans to Arkansas to Ames, it has been a long trip for Jared, who, for the next few months at least, must learn to live among his new, pierogi-eating neighbors. Who knows, maybe he'll even like it.

"You know, I notice that my habits are changing since I've been here," he said. "I may get used to this place."

Lindsay Labanca

Lindsay Labanca

Lindsay Labanca, University of New Orleans

Even now, when Lindsay Labanca sees sights and sounds of her hometown of New Orleans, she gets misty eyed. A few days ago while watching "Gone With the Wind," she started to cry at the honeymoon scene in New Orleans.

"I never realized how much strength you get from having a home," explained the recent transfer from the University of New Orleans.

Lindsay, who holds a bachelor's degree in anthropology from Louisiana State University, was starting a new bachelor's program in environmental science at UNO this fall and planning for her wedding.

But the rudest wedding guest arrived months early and certainly was not about to forever hold her peace.

When Hurricane Katrina meandered across the Gulf of Mexico, Lindsay thought she and her boyfriend, Jack, should ride out the storm. After all, their neighborhood was one of the higher in the city. In past crises, the Esplanade Apartments where they lived were such a haven that people from the surrounding neighborhoods would often take refuge there when the water would rise.

But Lindsay started to get more antsy as the category three storm approached.

"Saturday night I was having really horrible nightmares where the window just broke and water was rising and we were terrified," she recalled. "So I went to the computer and found out the storm was now a category five and I started to get really scared. I started pacing the floor."

After Jack woke up and tried to reassure her they would be fine, Lindsay went to the computer and pulled up photos of previous hurricanes Betsy and Camille to emphasize how destructive these storms can be. Jack -- a Pella, Iowa, native -- was convinced.

The decision made, the next step was leaving town. Going north on the interstate seemed like a good idea. So good, that about a million other evacuees did the same thing.

The first four hours in the car, the couple was able to move about 40 miles. "Pretty good," figured Lindsay, considering the circumstances.

At their first chance, they jumped onto U.S. 61 going north. They made better time and, after a second look at the map realized the highway could take them all the way to Burlington, Iowa. From there, it isn't far to Pella and Jack's parents' house.

After a little more discussion, the trip started to seem more permanent.

"I said that if we're going all the way to Pella, and if this storm is as bad as everyone is saying it is, let's move there," said Lindsay. "I've got about half of my possessions with me, and I'm not making this drive again.

From Pella, it was on to Iowa State.

"I had already been thinking of transferring from UNO because it is not that strong in science," she said.

Lindsay likes the classroom experience at Iowa State. "The teaching here is better than anything I've ever experienced," she said. "The teachers know my name. It's very different."

"My fiance had wanted to go back to ISU." Jack had gone to school here five years ago before joining the Navy. He never finished, but may have the chance now.

Completing her second degree may take another three years, but she has found her new home very hospitable.

"Everyone has been extremely nice to me," she said. "It's stunning, how nice people here are. We've been the recipients of the most amazing kindness."

And she is starting to make memories in her new home. The wedding will now likely happen in Pella. Plans change, places change, but for now Lindsay Labanca looks forward with an eye on the past.

"I'll miss having that sense of where I belong," she said.