Nicole Morales, Michelle York, and Thomas Fields-Meyer
August 14, 2006 12:00 PM

Nicole Morales was eagerly anticipating her senior year at all-girls Mount Carmel Academy when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on Aug. 29, 2005. First taking refuge in Memphis with her mother, Christine, 51 (who is divorced from Nicole’s father, David, 60), Nicole accepted an offer from the family of Lauren Levine, 18, a friend she had made four years earlier at summer camp, to come stay with them in Manlius, N.Y., outside Syracuse, until things returned to normal.

SEPT. 6, 2005

Leaving Memphis

I am a refugee. I never thought I would be experiencing anything like what I’ve been through in these weeks. It is not just a loss of a city, but a loss of an identity for me. Now I am packing up all of my belongings, trying to fit the last 17 years of my life into suitcases and boxes and preparing to move.

At the gate at the Memphis airport, the reality of the good-bye set in. My mom realized she was losing her daughter a year early. Between bouts of tears she made an attempt to impart any wisdom she may have failed to teach me in the last 17 years. She kept saying, “Remember to keep good posture, be respectful, do not ever let anything get in the way of your dreams.”

SEPT. 7, 2005

First Day

Wow. I don’t think I have ever felt so out of my element. I walk down the halls and do not know a single person. It’s this feeling of vulnerability. All the rules I had come to live by at my all-girls Catholic school do not exist at Fayetteville-Manlius High School. You can eat in the halls and in class or color your hair or wear crazy jewelry. I woke up an hour early this morning to do my hair and makeup. I realize the importance of making a good impression.

SEPT. 12, 2005

My Own Space

My living situation here is more than I could ever ask for. I occupy the bedroom down in the renovated basement. I have pictures of my friends all over the place. We have dinner as a family every night, something I’ve never been a part of before. (Pamela Levine is a freelance writer. Ed owns a chain of radio stations.) I keep having to remind myself how grateful I am to even be alive and have clean food and water and power—more than I can say for many people I know.

SEPT. 13, 2005

Fitting In

I tried to step out of any sort of shell I might be in and introduce myself to everyone. So many questions flooded my mind. Could they detect my southern accent? Could they ever accept me as a friend? Lauren and I went to buy school supplies, and I completely broke down. It was all too much. Just a few weeks before I had been buying supplies with my friends back home. I called my mom, who is back in New Orleans selling time shares. (My father is a police officer.) When I finally got through, I’m not even sure she could hear what I was saying through my tears.

SEPT. 21, 2005

Looking to the Future

Today Mrs. Levine drove me to my first Arabic lesson. I cannot let this hurricane get in the way of my ambitions and dreams to be an ambassador in the Middle East. I have a college interview next week and need to start working on applications. I keep playing certain New Orleans songs that remind me of home. I am definitely in food withdrawal from my normal Cajun and Creole delicacies.

OCT. 4, 2005

My First Rosh Hashanah

Today I went with the Levines to the home of a family friend for a traditional Jewish meal for Rosh Hashanah. I have never eaten a Jewish meal. It was an incredibly new experience to be the one southern Catholic girl at a table with all northern Jews to share a meal.

OCT. 10, 2005

College Applications

I am filling out applications, and I have to say which state I am from. Louisiana? New York? Due to the hurricane I have no record of my classes or grades the past three years. I attempted to form a self-reported transcript, hoping colleges will allow this. I’m writing essays about my “biggest character-builders.” I wish I could just attach a picture of my city inundated with water and underneath it write “biggest challenge.” I’ve a lot of appreciation for Mrs. Levine, who helped me through this whole process.

OCT. 18, 2005

A Chill in the Air

It’s already freezing to me. This weather is called fall, but at home we call it winter. When I say I have only seen snow twice, everyone sort of smirks, sort of like a warning that I have no idea what I am in for.

NOV. 17, 2005

First Snow

Looking out the door and seeing snow was this incredible feeling. It’s this connection with every single Christmas movie I’ve ever watched. I was really unaware of how much layering up and wearing good shoes and gloves can make or break you. I also thought these white flurries from the sky would be soft and welcoming, but after one or two falls in the snow you come to realize the cold icy feeling isn’t always pleasant in the morning. I have a newfound appreciation for whoever invented gloves.

NOV. 26, 2005

A Visit with Mom on St. Thomas

This is the first time I have seen my mom in three months, but it feels like three years. Knowing how much I miss my friends, she suggests I move home. While I would love to be able to go back to my life, it is far from reality. My mom is now living in the French Quarter and talks about moving to the Virgin Islands. The city I love has changed, and the people have changed.

It’s hard to watch how much my mom misses me and wants me to be happy. The trip has become a much-needed therapy session for both of us.

DEC. 1, 2005

My Split Personality

Part of me does every possible thing to keep in touch with my friends from home. I talk to my mother every day, listen to New Orleans rap music and count down the days until Mardi Gras. Then there’s another part that must adapt. I’ve gotten very close to a group of three friends. One of them, Brigid, was the first person to come say hello on my first day in math class. It really meant a lot to me. We’ve nicknamed ourselves The Quad.

DEC. 11, 2005

Normal Life

Most days I am not defined by the hurricane or New Orleans. Every morning Lauren and I drive to school together, laughing about the day or the latest conflict. During school I cram for the next math test just like everyone else. But seeing snow fall or saying something in a southern dialect are quick reminders of my situation.

DEC. 21, 2005

Christmas in New Orleans

After leaving the plane I was greeted by a group of my very best friends. They warned me how everything had changed. On the drive from the airport we formed a line of cars and blared music as we drove to the French Quarter. The once heavily populated Bourbon Street was now filled with military personnel and police officers. I was very worried that I would feel uncomfortable with my friends after not being with them for so long. But I felt like I had never left.

The first night back was hard, filled with this happiness to be home and this sadness of what home had become. My mom had decorated a Christmas tree, but not with your normal ornaments and garland. It was a Katrina tree, decorated with caution tape as a garland and different hurricane-related objects such as water bottles and FEMA pamphlets as ornaments.

Driving into the neighborhood of my school brought tears to my eyes. Across the street, where cafes and businesses usually were filled with people and students, there were now destroyed buildings.

This visit was like trying to fit an entire senior year into 10 days. I spent every possible moment hanging out with my friends. One night we all hung out in my friend Lindsey’s FEMA trailer. We couldn’t help but laugh. Never did any of us think we would be hanging out in a trailer on Lindsey’s front lawn.

FEB. 1, 2006

New Friends

I am very grateful to Lauren and her friends for making me feel supported in my first few weeks here. As time went on, we both realized we didn’t have to spend every minute together like conjoined twins. With some of my other friends, I go to parties, go out to eat or watch bands play. Sometimes when they discuss snow days or the best places to ski, I have to step back and ask for a translation. It’s almost like being a foreign exchange student in the same country.

MARCH 18, 2006

Mardi Gras

Being able to go home for Mardi Gras was important. It’s a time when everyone temporarily leaves all stress behind. I was able to spend a day back at my school for our annual spirit day. I walked into our school gym, with all the students around me, and sat down among my old classmates. There were moments where it felt like everything was fine, and I began to question why I wasn’t there. After looking around though, I realized how much devastation was still present. There was no working cafeteria; and as I talked to teachers and students, I realized how much stress everyone was under.

APRIL 9, 2006

Big College News

I was relieved when I received the letter from George Washington University welcoming me to the Class of 2010 at the Elliot School of International Affairs. I knew that my year in Syracuse was worth it. To be able to attend my top choice in spite of a natural disaster and relocation across the country makes me very appreciative to everyone who helped me reach this goal.

MAY 2, 2006

The Prom in New Orleans

Last week I went to my senior prom at home. I was able to take a really good friend as my date. This was important to be able to share with my mom. She’s been robbed of many of these moments parents look forward to in their teenagers’ lives. The prom felt very normal. One of the other all-girls schools received donated designer dresses for each student, and one of my mother’s clients found a way to provide a senior class in one of the devastated areas with prom attire as well.

JUNE 3, 2006

A Senior Ball

Surprise in N.Y. We began the night getting our hair and nails done, just as any group of teenagers would. I would keep calling my mom to describe how I got my hair done or what my jewelry looked like. It was killing her not to be able to be here.

As I sat across from the people I had gotten to know so well, I realized leaving them wouldn’t quite be so easy.

The biggest surprise for me was the announcement of the ball king and queen. I actually began to move towards the back as they called the names, but stopped out of curiosity to see who it would be. In complete shock to me, I was called as the queen, giving the night such an ironic high school movie ending.

JUNE 23, 2006

Graduation

My mom and my aunt arrived for graduation. As soon as Mrs. Levine and my mother saw each other, they started crying. This was like the end of an era for them. They knew their daughters were moving on. My mom was realizing all she had missed this year. She kept saying how happy and proud she was for me. But to her it almost wasn’t a celebration; she cried at every point. Every time that I introduced her to someone, she gave them a big southern hug, told them she loved them and thanked them for being kind to me.

I started this year with an attitude similar to those in a survival situation. I thought I would just adapt and get through it. I definitely did not foresee the friendships I would make in such a short time. I know I couldn’t have always been easy to be around—when I was homesick or stressed—but Lauren and her parents treated me with the utmost respect and compassion.

At graduation I was so happy and proud. As I walked across the stage and looked out, I realized everyone in the audience helped me in some way. I saw all my teachers on the stage, and I gave everyone a huge hug. It felt good. My mom said I had a huge smile, and she knew I was happy and it was all worth it.

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