Missing Historians: The Ordeal of Not Knowing

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Mr. Shenkman is the editor of HNN.

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A full week and a half after Katrina hit the Gulf many people remain missing, including both historians and history students.

The story unfolds chronologically in all its horror on the blog HNN set up last week to track the missing. Tulane's history department as of last evening had failed to locate eighteen people, from Pamela Smith, the department secretary, to Douglas Brinkley. But the grimness of the task of waiting to hear of the whereabouts of the missing was relieved on occasion by reports of sightings. Within three hours of the posting of Tulane's list of the missing an anonymous blogger posted a note indicating that Brinkley was ok: "The New York Daily News reported that Douglas Brinkley was with Sean Penn rescuing Katrina victims." Another poster had good news about another historian on the list. And this morning Kenneth W. Harl, Professor of Classical and Byzantine History, wrote in to say he had escaped to Long Island to stay with his parents. But the relief with which that news was greeted was offset by his disclosure that one of his incoming graduate students has not been heard from.

HNN set up the blog on Friday September 2, the day National Guard troops finally began arriving in New Orleans in substantial numbers. The first entry didn't mention any names of the missing. Like many of the entries to follow it bore an offer of help: "Need a place to stay?" Soon there were other offers: "If there are grad students or faculty in need of temporary housing due to the hurricane we can house up to four people. We're in Virginia, so a bit of a distance, but want to help if we can." From a historian at Transylvania University came another offer of assistance: "My wife and I in Lexington, Kentucky have a guest room in our suburban house available for a displaced professor or graduate student who needs a place to stay while getting his/her bearings."

More positive news followed as posters indicated that students would be allowed to enroll in other schools. "Texas A&M will admit Tulane/Loyola/New Orleans students" went one entry's headline. The entry included the news that "Texas A&M will welcome up to 1,000 students for as long as one year from all four-year colleges and universities unable to offer classes this fall because of the hurricane, including schools such as Tulane, Dillard, Southern, Xavier, Loyola and the University of New Orleans. These students will be charged the minimum tuition allowed by state law." From Purdue came this announcement: "On behalf of the Department of History at Purdue University, I want the graduate students in the Department of History at Tulane University to know that they can enroll temporarily at Purdue so that they will not lose time toward their degree."

Mixed in with the positive entries were the early glum reports like this one from Tulane's history chairman: "Of Ken Harl and Trudy Yeager ... I have no word, not even a hint of hearsay. And the same goes for Donna Denneen and Pam Smith. And while I've heard from or about a large number of graduate students, others remain unaccounted for." (Harl, as indicated above, would be heard from several days later as were Yeager and Denneen. Pam Smith remains missing.) Other entries included simple pleas for information: "Americanists at Columbia University would love to know Professor Frey and Powell are safe." Professor Sylvia Frey was safe, another poster indicated: "Sylvia is with relatives elsewhere in La." But Powell? Yes, he too, it turned out, was safe: "He evac'd to Houston initially and now is in Lexington, KY, staying with his son. Word is he will eventually be in SC to stay with in-laws."

While the first entries indicated general confusion, by Saturday students were already making arrangements to enroll in other schools. Tim LeBeau, a new graduate student at Tulane, wrote that while "I never had the chance to meet much of the history department, [I wanted] to let you know that I have found a place at Syracuse University for the fall semester. I am doing well and will be moving there this Monday."

But for every reassuring entry there was another one like this about the whereabouts of Mark Petersen : "Mark, are you ok? If you need a place, we'll bring you here. Love, Bruce and Concha." That was Saturday. Thus far on the blog nobody has indicated they have any information about him.

One the most recent entries contained good news about one professor's pets. "PETS RESCUED!!!!" went the headline. "Prof. Susan Schroeder has just told me that her pets have been rescued."

After a week of awful awful news there was something reassuring in this simple message. If we can still be concerned with pets the world isn't coming to an end.

Related Links

  • HNN's Katrina Coverage

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    More Comments:

    Trevor Russell Getz - 9/11/2005

    I'm not surprised that so much attentin is showered on the Tulane faculty and students, and so little on the University of New Orleans faculty and students. Nevertheless, they have set up a very strong cyber-community of recovery, and all of the full-time faculty and staff have found each other. I know they would welcome information from students and other members of their community at UNOHistory@yahoogroups.com

    Sergio Ramirez - 9/9/2005

    Anyone remember that Monty Python skit?