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September 14th, 2005 Leah Sottile | News Stories
 

Treading Water

Katrina blows New Orleans college student back to her Portland home.

     
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Portlander Celeste Calvin doesn't want to go back to school in New Orleans.
After recounting her battle with Hurricane Katrina for the umpteenth time, 21-year-old Celeste Calvin catches her breath and sighs.

"It's just good to be back in Portland."

The 2002 graduate from Benson High School in Portland and junior pre-med major at Xavier University in New Orleans unfurls her Katrina tale: Hurricanes are as common as colds, and no one knew it would be this bad, did they?

But with her job, bank, school and, most likely, her apartment underwater, Calvin still was luckier than most of the evacuees who have trickled into Portland. Calvin caught a plane back after making her way from New Orleans to Houston, and she is now attending Concordia University for a semester, with free on-campus housing.

"Everything has been like a blur, "Calvin says. "I couldn't remember what classes I had taken and what classes I hadn't taken.

She says the differences between the urban Xavier campus and Northeast Portland's Concordia are obvious. Calvin, who is African-American, chose Xavier because she wanted to leave mostly white Portland for a city with a larger black population (Portland's population is 6.6 percent African-American, New Orleans' more than 10 times that at 67.3 percent).

"Culturally and sizewise there is a big difference," Calvin says. "At Xavier, you might have a class of 30 students, 25 of which are African-American."

Her new dorm room has filled in the past few days with donations of school supplies, food, bedding and clothes. Now she's hoping for a computer.

"I would have liked to have my car, my clothes and my furniture,'' she says. "But of course, those are material things that can be replaced."

With early aspirations for medicine, Calvin also chose historically black Xavier because of its high placement rate for African-Americans in the medical field.

Even before her first class at Xavier in 2002, Calvin had embraced hurricane dodging as a part of New Orleans culture, along with Mardi Gras and jambalaya. In fact, she had evacuated the city for three hurricanes in less than three years, each time hearing warnings that this would be the Big One to blow the Big Easy away.

"The first three I evacuated for, they told you to pack everything because 'this was the big one' and it was going to hit hard," she says. "This time...I just took, like, two outfits. All week, they said you have nothing to worry about."

The night before Katrina sloshed through New Orleans, she returned home from work as a night auditor at the Riverside Hilton and tidied her suburban third-floor apartment for what she thought would be a brief trip. She picked up her sister, and then shelled out extra for premium gas on her way out of town (regular was sold out in the rush).

After driving halfway across Louisiana toward Opelousas, where her boyfriend lives, it became increasingly clear to Calvin that Hurricane Katrina really was the big one; she wished she had grabbed more than two changes of clothes.

Her trip carried her into Texas, where she slowly got in touch with her friends-now strewn from Kansas to Georgia. So far she's gotten hold of all of them but one.

She parked her car in Houston, contacted her grandparents and aunt in Portland and hopped a plane home. Calvin plans to finish at Concordia and remain in her hometown: "I'd rather be here than plagued with disease or dealing with alligators."

Web extra:

Two Wheels To Safety

Cyclist who pedals out of New Orleans after Katrina finds his way back to Portland.

By Toby Van Fleet

As Katrina approached his New Orleans home, ex-Portlander Eric Sluyter lay awake on the floor in the windowless hall of a four-plex.

Sluyter's thoughts: "how to meet my death and how to make it as painless as possible."

Sluyter, 52, did end up surviving and making it back to Portland, where he lived for a few years working as a bike courier before leaving in spring 2004 to ride cross-country to his brother's home in New Jersey. (He eventually moved to New Orleans last November to resurrect his music career as a bass player.)

Before lying down alone two weeks ago in his Garden District building, Sluyter had bicycled on his Schwinn Mesa mountain bike around New Orleans the night before the hurricane hit, trying-and failing-to find refuge.

The Amtrak station was deserted. When he showed up at the Superdome a few blocks down on his bicycle towing a trailer, the National Guardsman looked at him and said, "I don't think so." Sluyter looked for a place to lock his bike, but after a confrontation with another Guardsman, he decided not to stay.

As he rode away, he thought, "I may have just signed my own death warrant."

By 8 am Monday, Aug. 29, Katrina's 135-mph wind was slamming against the windows of the century-old, newly remodeled building where he lived. Sluyter remained inside, amazed by the power of the storm, singing the lyrics to a Scorpions song: "Here I am/ Rock me like a hurricane." Outside, horizontal sheets of rain were the soggy backdrop for airborne branches and pieces of rooftops.

The next day, Sluyter tried to reach midtown on his mountain bike. He saw people wading near the low-income housing projects and found a dead man who looked to have jumped, lying in a pool of blood.

Sluyter says his apartment building was on higher ground and "stood up like a champ." Although he lacked electricity, he did have hot water. Across the street, looters were living it up at the Office Depot. "There was no good reason to hang around," Sluyter says.

That afternoon, Sluyter loaded up his trailer with his camping gear, his PowerBook laptop, and his fretless bass and rode past an exodus of people hoofing it out of town. A few days later, after a layover at a shelter in the small town of Gramercy, La., and a couple of rides, he reached his destination: the Baton Rouge airport, about 80 miles northwest of New Orleans. "It was like an oasis there," says Sluyter. Blankets were provided to people waiting for flights. He bought a ticket to Portland and arrived last Tuesday.

By Friday, Sluyter was packing up his belongings and vacating his friends' house, preparing for some "guerrilla urban camping." The Red Cross provided him two weeks' stay at the Viking Motel on North Interstate after staying at their Southeast Portland evacuee shelter over the weekend.

There's no telling how long he'll be around; he may ride south to "decompress in the redwoods." He doesn't know when or how he will get the rest of his stuff-two amps and a Burley flatbed bike trailer-out of New Orleans, or where he will end up, but he's calm. "I'm happy,'' he says. "I'm blessed. I'm grateful."

 
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