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Relocated Katrina survivor graduates from CCRI
Student Success Story, May 27, 2011
Christine Briley, 22, lost her home to Hurricane Katrina and has had to make a new life in the Northeast – a life in which the Community College of Rhode Island has played a central role.
Though the loss of her home was tragic, Briley said the move has brought unexpected opportunities: She had expected to fail or drop out of her rough New Orleans high school, but is now a college graduate.
“The education system is much better up here,” she said. “I went to a school where the teachers got beat up by the students. [In Rhode Island], they welcomed me with open arms and I made a lot of friends.”
Briley, now a Middletown resident, graduated on May 20 with a degree in General Studies and a 3.1 GPA will return to CCRI this fall – this time to earn a degree in CCRI’s Occupational Therapy Assistant program. It is a field she has discovered only recently.
“Occupational therapy got to me because I like helping people … and, on top of that, I really want to do something in the medical field,” she said. She will also take classes in drama, one of her passions.
After she has her new degree, Briley said she may return to New Orleans because she misses the world-class Cajun food, warm weather and outgoing culture. “I miss home. I miss things being more open, more outgoing,” she said. “It’s very quiet up here … and I’m just loud and boisterous.”
This is exactly how Briley remembers New Orleans before the storm: vibrant and exciting. Hurricane Katrina changed all that. “We had been hearing warnings, just like every year, that a hurricane was coming,” Briley said. “We paid attention to it, but not very much because we were used to it. That was a mistake.”
Briley had just started her senior year of high school when the storm came, turning the city more cold and gray than she had ever seen it. She stepped outside of her mother’s house to test the storm and saw the windshield of a car blown out. “I knew that was only the beginning of worse to come,” Briley said.
The floodwaters came next. “I’m 5-foot-2 and, like a lot of people down there, I can’t swim,” Briley said. “When there’s five feet of water coming, it’s very scary.”
Briley, her mother and her mother’s boyfriend were trapped in their house in the 6th Ward. They had canned food but limited water, batteries and other supplies. After the storm, temperatures hit a humid and stifling 114 degrees and the Brileys couldn’t open their windows because of a cloud of flies outside.
One day, Briley was lying on her bed trying to stay cool. A moment after she left the room, the roof collapsed. “I was very lucky on that day,” she said.
No help was coming. When the water receded enough for people to move around, Briley and her neighbors banded together. They kicked in the door of an abandoned, six-story halfway house and lived together in a new, ad-hoc survival community.
Rescuers arrived and tried to relocate the survivors to the Superdome, but the neighbors stayed put. “We had heard the reports and the rumors about the awful things happening at the Superdome,” Briley said. “They tried to intimidate us … but we stood our ground.”
For a while, the neighbors were on their own. “It was a lot of confusion, a lot of chaos,” Briley said. “There were disagreements but we would always band back together because we knew that we needed each other to survive.”
After two weeks, Army soldiers arrived and offered evacuation from New Orleans. Briley and her family were brought to the Convention Center and volunteers provided them with food, water and a chance to bathe. On the way there, Briley saw her cherished city in ruins, with dead bodies floating in the water or under white sheets. People waded through chest-deep water carrying items they could not hope to use: televisions, stereos, appliances. Many others carried items they would use to survive, such as food and clean water that was so slow in getting to the survivors.
The soldiers told Briley and the other survivors that they would be flown out of the city. Briley requested that they go to Atlanta, where she has family, but the soldiers told her they had no idea about their destination.
It was not until they were in the air, during the first flight of Briley’s life, that one soldier asked, “How do you folks feel about going to Rhode Island?”
“My first thought was, “’What’s a Rhode Island?’” Briley said. “I heard someone say, ‘Is that near New York City?’”
When Briley’s family landed, they received another meal and a free place to live in Navy housing in Middletown. “I really appreciate all the people who did that for us,” Briley said. “They never got to hear how grateful we all are.”
Though Briley felt wildly displaced, and was especially uncomfortable in the cold and snow, she came to appreciate the change of the seasons and found things to enjoy in Middletown and Newport.
She began attending Middletown High School and enrolled at CCRI right after graduation. Briley said CCRI was a good fit for her because she did not know what she wanted to study and because it was close to home.
She added that the poor education she received in her hometown forced her to work extra hard in college. She said that people at CCRI including Linda Benvenuti, Jackie Mane and Deborah Watson helped convince her to continue with her education.
“I owe a lot to them and to the other people I didn’t mention,” Briley said. “A lot of people helped me.”