Thursday, September 01, 2005

Visiting Teachers Trapped In The Big Easy

Five high school teachers from Parkersburg, West Virginia, attending a seminar in New Orleans, were unable to escape before the city was hit by Katrina's fury. They remain trapped near the French Quarter and have become unwilling eyewitnesses to New Orleans' agony:

Group members found themselves riding out Hurricane Katrina in the ballroom of a hotel only blocks from the center of town.

Ralph Board, principal of Parkersburg High, said he spoke with one of the teachers before and after the hurricane struck Sunday night.

"The important thing is they are safe," Board said. "They are just stuck for the moment."

English teacher Dan Daniel, chemistry teacher Jim Dennis, math teacher Sue Steinbeck, and Spanish teachers David and Theresa Marlow left Friday after school to attend an Advanced Placement conference in New Orleans. At that time, Board said, Hurricane Katrina was predicted to head farther west of the city and was not considered a threat to Louisiana. The five had expected to return Monday afternoon.

"They thought there would be some rain, but nothing to worry about," he said. "Then they got there and Katrina made the swing north. Unfortunately, they were unable to get flight changes in time and then they closed the airport."

Board said the five, along with more than 200 other people, spent Sunday night in the fifth-floor ballroom of the Sheridan Hotel on Canal Street, about three blocks away from Bourbon Street and the heart of New Orleans.

"They spent Sunday night and into Monday in that ballroom," Board said.

Rebecca Daniel, Dan Daniel's wife and an English teacher at Parkersburg South High School, said she spoke to her husband Tuesday afternoon, and all five teachers were frustrated but doing well.

The temperature in New Orleans reached about 92 degrees Tuesday with high humidity.

Without power the building quickly heated up, and rising waters and massive looting outside the hotel kept everyone inside.

"They said there were looters all around, carrying out anything they could," Rebecca Daniel said. "They set one store on fire. The knew for their own safety they had to stay in the hotel."

Dan Daniel could not be reached for comment Tuesday because the storm knocked out all cell phone service and power to most of the city. The hotel had only one outside phone line and four computers with Internet access available for patrons to use, with about 1,000 people staying inside the building.

Most water service was also gone, Rebecca Daniel said, and the guests were using water from bathtubs to flush toilets, but could not bathe. However, the hotel was still feeding its guests and Tuesday had even begun taking in those displaced by the storm and flooding, she said. Diesel fuel from nearby cruise ships was being used to power the building's emergency generators, and more food was being brought into the facility as well, she said.

Hurricane Katrina left her mark on the city and on the people there. Outside the hotel glass and debris littered the partially flooded roads and several vehicles crushed by falling debris sat abandoned. Rebecca Daniel said her husband described the sounds of the storm raging outside the building as he and more than 200 people and three dogs huddled inside the ballroom.

"He called during the storm on his cell phone and said he could hear the wind, the terrible wind and the glass breaking outside," she said. "It was pretty scary."

Now the danger comes from the rising waters which surround the hotel. Should more levees around the city fail, the basin the city sits within could fill with more water, making it even more difficult for people to get out and help to get in. As of Tuesday, most roads were covered with several feet of water, making them impassable. The city's airport also remained closed.

"(Dan) sounded very discouraged," Rebecca Daniel said. "The water is rising. Even if they could get out there is no where to go. He said the conditions there are deteriorating."

Rebecca Daniel said officials told the group next Monday likely would be the earliest they could leave the city.

"There is no transportation. They are still rescuing people," she said. "I was getting much calmer when I thought they made it through the storm. Now I am worried for them. I certainly wish they were right back here at home."

Still, Rebecca Daniel said the group was staying in good spirits and was intent on returning to Parkersburg as soon as possible. The teachers had already contacted the school Monday, giving co-workers lesson plans and instructions for their classrooms.

"If we have to wait a few days to get them back home ... that is a price we are willing to pay," she said. "They just want to be here teaching."

Let's remember the victims of Hurricane Katrina in our thoughts and prayers.

Update: (9/2) The five teachers, who were staying in the Sheraton Hotel, were evacuated to Dallas via bus late Wednesday. They should be home Friday.
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