December 13, 2005

Hurricane Katrina survivor prepares to return to Tulane

Collins begins career in academia while visiting at MSASS

Cyleste Collins, visiting assistant professor at Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences, quietly works away in Room 209 at MSASS.

Her office is devoid of books, wall art and other things that adorn the office space of faculty members. All those things that subtly say "this is who I am" are back at Tulane University behind a locked door since Hurricane Katrina, a level-5 storm, shut down operations Monday, August 29.

Like Tulane students and faculty scattered around the country in temporary quarters, she will return to New Orleans, January 2, to begin her new career as an assistant professor.

The euphoric high of realizing a career goal to have a tenure-track faculty position was soon caught in the storm's vortex landing her in Cleveland, with the tenure clock turned off for one year, temporarily caught in a career limbo.

And just like other people, Collins is feeling somewhat displaced in Cleveland—although it has given her some unexpected time with husband, Daniel Goldmark, a new assistant professor in Case's department of music.

"Still, this really isn't my home," said Collins, noting that she hadn't had time to establish either place as "home," and that nearly all of her belongings are still in New Orleans. It has been an adjustment for her to become integrated into Goldmark's start on his new life in Cleveland as well.

According to Collins, after the two had been married for more than two years and a couple for 11 years, they had come to grips with the idea of having jobs on two different campuses—something that can happen in the tight academic job market and for individuals in different fields.

But the hurricane brought them together by bringing Collins to Cleveland. "We are going to have to go through the separation again in January, and it won't be easy," she said.

The real-life, hands-on struggles of being displaced and experiencing the trauma of the hurricane's aftermath have been "an eye-opening" lesson not every social worker receives in field work.

"It's been mind-blowing," she said.

The shared event is going to bond the Tulane community, and everyone will have their own stories, added Collins.

"Every experience is relative. I have a husband here and a place to go," she said. But her dean at Tulane's social work school did not weather the storm as well. Collins, while in Cleveland, has given her home to the dean's family for use until their home is livable. She might need to live with her father's family if her house is still needed until life returns to some semblance of normalcy.

Welcomed by the MSASS faculty, she has had time to reflect about the hurricane, give some guest lectures, sit in on classes and start writing all those journal articles that lead to academic advancement.

Collins and Goldmark spent August moving from the University of Alabama to New Orleans and Cleveland as they broke up their home in Tuscaloosa.

"On Saturday (August 27), I had unpacked my last box," she said.

In the last full week of August, Collins spent mornings settling into her apartment in an old Victorian house and afternoons at Tulane University.

She stocked her office book shelves with books on cultural models and domestic violence, her research area, and was excited to see her office nameplate that said "Dr. Cyleste Collins."

Collins was getting used to being called "Dr. Collins" after having finish her schooling just a few weeks before arriving at Tulane.

Following a new faculty orientation on Friday, she went out with her new colleagues, none of them knowing a hurricane was headed their way.

During that week before Katrina hit, Collins visited frequently with her father, who is on the faculty at Xavier University, stepmother and three-year-old half sister Isabel, who live only four blocks away in Algiers Point, a "small town" neighborhood across the river from the French Quarter and about eight miles from Tulane.

She had also gone grocery shopping for one person—an experience she had not had for quite some time—and was getting acquainted with neighbors and becoming comfortable with living alone for the first time in her life.

While her father had stayed in New Orleans for Hurricane Ivan the year before, Collins became concerned when, on Saturday, he realized that the storm was going to be bad enough that they would all need to evacuate. They decided to leave about 1 a.m. Sunday morning to avoid heavy traffic later in the day. Collins decided to head out of town with them rather than head to Alabama where she had lived the previous four years, since the storm was headed east.

"Strange things go through your head when you are getting ready to evacuate," she said.

Collins said on one conscious level you do things to prepare for the worst, and then on another level you think things will be okay.

She put some items she planned to return to Target on the table to prevent them from getting wet in case it flooded.

But then she stuffed a duffle bag with clothes for a few days and didn't follow her father's advice to fill her car's gas tank and get money out of the ATM machine.

They ended up driving to Alexandria, La., where her stepmother has family. There they relaxed, swam in a pool to stay cool and waited for the hurricane to strike.

That enjoyment turned to alarm as they watched media reports of the hurricane hitting and later the chaos at the SuperDome.

With cell phone communications down and email offline at Tulane, Collins had little way of finding out what conditions existed for her home or job. Fortunately a coworker remembered her private email account and was able to connect her to the school's dean.

She learned her neighborhood had been spared flooding and destruction but was without electricity, but had water and gas. Her neighborhood was among the first to have power restored and to welcome residents back.

Since her neighborhood was in relatively good shape, she stayed with friends in nearby Alabama until the area was opened up for residents.

She and her father returned to the city during the week of September 15 to assess the damage and collect essential items, and Collins admits she was unprepared for what greeted her.

"It's totally unimaginable that a city could shut down," explained Collins, noting that one of the most unsettling experiences was driving down empty streets and highways that were formerly busy and bustling.

She also said, "One of the worst things was the smell of rotting food in the refrigerators."

After retrieving her things, she headed to Cleveland in mid-September and has been here ever since.

Now traveling down Cleveland streets, seeing a blue tarp and boarded windows in abandoned buildings sometimes brings back the images of the destruction in New Orleans again and again.

"These are extraordinary circumstances," she noted, "And, what a way to begin a new career!"

For more information: Susan Griffith 216-368-1004.

Posted by: Heidi Cool, December 13, 2005 02:17 PM | News Topics: Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences

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