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[an error occurred while processing this directive] When the Physicists Come Marching In
The 2008 APS March Meeting with a Katrina Update

By Katherine Zaunbrecher, University of Louisiana at Lafayette

Also see: APS March Meeting Report by Ann Deml | 2008 APS March Meeting by Lee Massey

More than 7,000 scientists descended on New Orleans, LA for the 2008 APS March Meeting.  

Students Raise Their Voices to Commemorate Hurricane Katrina
Hands Across Houston Concert, May 2, 2008

HOUSTON--The Prairie View A&M University Concert Chorale will join the Houston Choral Society as it celebrates its 20th anniversary with a powerful and historic musical gift to the city of Houston in the “Hands Across Houston” musical concert May 2 at 7:30p.m. at the Wortham Theater Center.

PVAMU Chorale singers, under the direction of A. Jan Taylor, will raise their voices in a commissioned composition by Dr. Adolphus Hailstork of Old Dominion University. The work, Set Me On A Rock is the first classical piece written to commemorate the Hurricane Katrina disaster and to honor Houston and Harris County for opening its doors to provide sanctuary to the thousands left homeless by the disaster.

The Hands Across Houston concert will benefit Neighborhood Centers Inc., which provides services to families in need in the Houston area. The concert spotlight will be on children, with performances of Mass of the Children by John Rutter and For the Sake of the Children by Jeffrey Ames.

Concert tickets are $20 for adults, $15 for children, students and senior adults. A small number of reserved seats are available for $45. For tickets, call (713) 627-3609 or visit the Houston Choral Society Web site.

WHO: Prairie View A&M University
WHAT: “Hands Across Houston”- Musical Concert
WHEN: May 2, 7:30p.m.
WHERE: Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas, Houston, Texas 77002
Tickets: Adults $20 (per ticket)
Children/Students/Seniors $15 (per ticket)
Reserved seating $45

What would lure thousands of physicists to the streets of the Big Easy? An average visitor might be enticed by a drink named after the hurricane from the House of Blues or the smooth tunes of a local jazz band. But talk of condensed matter, quantum, and computational physics was cause enough for over 7,000 scientists to come to my home state of Louisiana for the APS March Meeting in New Orleans. Being in Lafayette, Louisiana, only 130 miles away from New Orleans, I decided that the meeting was a great excuse to miss a few days of class and drive to New Orleans to see what would be going on. I strayed from my usual path around the French Quarter this time to listen to research topics ranging from balancing careers and family to nanotechnology. I also had the long-awaited chance to speak with physics students who were affected by Hurricane Katrina and to witness the ongoing recovery of one of my favorite cities.

Hurricane Katrina ripped through Southeastern Louisiana and Mississippi in August 2005. It flooded coastal cities and breeched the levees of New Orleans while leaving thousands of homeless in its wake. University students had nowhere to return to after the storm and scientific laboratories were shut down because of flood damage. While some institutions of higher learning reopened their doors one year after the torrent of wind and rain, the curriculum and the facilities were nowhere near normal standards. Many students and faculty had transferred in order to continue their classes and research. It would be a long time until things started looking up.

SPS members play Physics Jeopardy.  

Being in Louisiana during and after the storm gave me the opportunity to talk to various people about their Katrina experience. But Lafayette had not felt the strong winds and heavy rains that New Orleans and the cities of the Gulf Coast had. Those of us in Lafayette had only heard the tales of being rescued by airboats and losing everything. Even two years after that extraordinary summer we knew that some parts of the city were still abandoned. While at the APS meeting I was able to talk to Garret, Don, and Jim, three graduate students who were attending the University of New Orleans when the hurricane came ashore. I wanted to know how the physics departments around New Orleans were recovering and whether or not the departments were back on their feet.

Garret Wassermann, Don Swart, and Jim Field are all first-year graduate students at UNO. All three were undergraduates ready to begin their senior research when the storm hit. Garret relocated to Arkansas with his family, who were from New Orleans, when the city was being evacuated. He heard about LSU opening registration to hurricane evacuees and convinced his father to drive back to Louisiana with him. With only twenty-four hours left until registration closed, they drove six hours to Baton Rouge and stood in line for four more to schedule classes. Don returned home to Washington state and was able to enroll in classes at a community college. Jim was also from the area and had stayed at home with his family. He took online courses to keep up with his course work. After UNO reopened Garret and Jim returned to complete their degree. Don stayed in Washington and was not planning to go back until he received encouragement from people back in New Orleans to return there.

SPS poster presenters are recognized and awarded at the SPS session.  

They all finished their senior year but only Garret was able to complete the once-required senior research. The scientists that were going to advise Don and Jim had left after the storm. But their story had a happy ending. They had graduated and were getting started on their masters at UNO. When I spoke to them, Jim was in the same situation as I was--we were both waiting to hear from various PhD programs for fall acceptances. Until then we were taking full advantage of the year's largest meeting of physicists and were willing to put our work aside for a few days since we knew that it would be waiting for us when we returned to our respective universities. I was happy to spend extra time during the weekend to catch up on work. I did so with a new excitement that always builds up after spending a few days surrounded by physicists who have traveled from afar to share their enthusiasm.

UNO, along with other universities in New Orleans like Xavier, Tulane, and Dillard, are making a remarkable recovery. Our newly-elected governor has placed a state-wide hiring freeze so finding new faculty members is very difficult. But progress is slowly being made in the physics department of UNO and elsewhere. Garret recently told me, "We've got a number of huge new grants to start interesting new research programs. Research groups on campus are getting new grants and equipment to start new projects. It's really an exciting time to be here." The American Physical Society proved that it was an exciting time--giving thousands of physicists the chance to explore Bourbon Street and discuss the hottest topics in physics all in one day.

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