Katrina victim documents recovery efforts

When Kelsey Robinson was a sophomore in high school, her seemingly normal life was forced in an unexpected direction. One day she was going to school, and the next, she was being evacuated to Atlanta along with the rest of her family.

One of the most destructive hurricanes in U.S. history was headed for her hometown of New Orleans. It was during her sophomore year that Hurricane Katrina, of the 2005 Atlantic hurricane season, caused approximately $125 billion worth of damages, according to Risk Management Solutions, an American firm that specializes in disaster risk assessment. The same hurricane was responsible for taking roughly 1,900 lives, as well.

This NKU student’s personal experience with Hurricane Katrina, coupled with classmate Stephanie Mathena’s knowledge and love of documentaries, made Robinson and Mathena an ideal pair for their final Honor’s Capstone project.

When Robinson was finally able to return to New Orleans after being away for a month, her family made the decision to move to Louisville where her father had acquired a new job.

“Many of my family members’ homes were affected, and some of my friends’ homes were totally destroyed,” Robinson said.

She admits that if it had not been for Hurricane Katrina, she and her family would most likely still be living in New Orleans.

When Robinson, now a junior criminal justice major, came to NKU in 2008, she met Mathena. The two shared an honors class and Robinson discovered that Mathena, now a junior electronic media & broadcasting major, had a passion for film and documentary creation. Mathena (who founded NKU’s Norse Film Society in 2008) and Robinson (who is also a member of the organization) will use their experience with film to help others.

The pair became immediate friends as they decided to focus their Capstone project on bringing volunteer service to the people of New Orleans.

Robinson and Mathena began creating their plans at the start of spring semester 2011. They have assembled a group of eight NKU students that has agreed to travel to New Orleans from June 19-25 to film a documentary and aid in various rebuilding efforts.

The group plans to distribute their final documentary to other area nonprofit groups and organizations to show the people of Northern Kentucky and surrounding areas the impact of volunteering.

“Instead of just doing a research paper for our Capstone project, we wanted to do something that made an impact — something that we could physically show everyone,” Mathena said.

Mathena previously visited New Orleans with a church group in 2006 and again in 2008, where she and her fellow church members worked with Operation Nehemiah, a nonprofit group that aims to help families affected by the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

Robinson, Mathena and their NKU volunteers will once again partner with Operation Nehemiah to tear down damaged houses and provide food to those left homeless by the hurricane.

There is still a lot of work to do in New Orleans.

“When you see the media coverage of a disaster, you don’t really understand the extent of it, and you can’t comprehend it until you see it for yourself,” Mathena said. In 2008, Mathena saw the remnants of New Orleans beginning to come back together as the city was rebuilt.

“There were still a lot of houses everywhere that needed to be cleared out,” she said. “They would mark ‘X’s on the outside of the destroyed houses to represent the number of people who had died.”

It is Robinson and Mathena’s hope that by volunteering and creating a documentary of their efforts, other students and community members will be inspired to do the same.

For Robinson, the best part of their Capstone project: “For me, it’s being able to go down to New Orleans and help rebuild the city I’ve spent most of my life in. I am so happy to have the opportunity to help my former New Orleanians make the city the way it used to be.”

Story by Jill Liebisch