Remembering Katrina: Losses inspire change in alum’s life path

Emily Carmichael, Print News Editor

In August 2005, Faye Tydlaska spent her time in Tulane’s libraries doing research and studying rare books for her dissertation. By the end of the month, her year and a half of research was loaded into the back of a Hyundai.

“I had several files folders full of research,” Tydlaska said. “And that was probably about ten pounds worth of research. So that took up the majority of my space, and the rest was just very few changes in clothing.”

Tydlaska had recently moved her grandmother out of the family home in Lakeview, which they had owned since the early 19th century, and into a hospice care facility. Her sister and her sister’s husband were renovating the house. They planned to move in the following week.

Today Tydlaska is the Director of Undergraduate Admission at Tulane and the Vice President for Enrollment, but she started at Tulane in 2000 as a graduate student in the literature program. 

10 years ago, before her doctorate, before her work in admission, Tydlaska was evacuating her hometown New Orleans in anticipation of Hurricane Katrina. 

Tydlaska decided to take an open seat in her sister’s hatchback, crammed in with her sister’s large stuffed animal deemed essential for the more than 20 hour trip.

Tydlaska and her family decided to make the trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee and stay in the Smoky Mountains. They thought the calm mountain atmosphere might help dull the stressful reality of their situation. 

In Tydlaska’s Metarie home, where her husband stayed to ride out the storm, there was flooding due to the large amount of rain and the canals overflowing. Her house took in two inches of water before the eye of storm passed. 

She called her husband to check in.

“He was talking, and I was worried because he sounded a little worried and usually he’s not,” Tydlaska said. “He’s like, ‘I need to go, the walls are moving.'”

The next day, Tydlaska watched the levees burst on TV. The images of her fellow New Orleanians congregating outside of the convention center, their homes now unlivable, haunted her throughout the night.

“But we have, right outside of our hotel, since it was it was in the mountains, a balcony that overlooked this mountain,” Tydlaska said. “And there was a beautiful stream the sort of rode in front of it so I was just kind of sitting out there. It’s like 3 a.m..”

Tydlaska repeatedly dialed her husband, trying to calm her anxiety. 

“I couldn’t close my eyes, so I just kept dialing his number for hours. And finally it worked. At some point he picked up the phone and I was like ‘Oh my god!’ And so I am trying to talk to him, and he’s like ‘Yeah, I’m sleeping.'”

Through his grogginess, her husband told Tydlaska that an oak tree had smashed her car, and that he was evacuating to Houston, where Tydlaska eventually met up with him. 

The couple didn’t stay away long. Tydlaska’s husband owned a Wing Zone restaurant on the West Bank at the time. The couple received special permission to return early, something given to business deemed essential to recovery, like restaurants. 

“We had chicken and that’s all,” Tydlaska said. “We had chicken wings. That you can have chicken and one sauce and people were so thrilled that.”

The Tydlaskas returned to find their restaurant looted. It took them two weeks to get up and running. 

“I remember seeing a whole bunch of flour, and the flour was just thrown,” Tydlaska said. “I mean it looks like snow all throughout the lobby. There were graffiti marks all along inside of the walls. Lot of things inside were smashed and turned over.”

Tydlaska’s family home, the same one her sister had almost finished renovating, was destroyed as well. 

“That house looked like somebody had picked it up, just shook it and threw it back down because everything was just not where — I mean it was it was insane the way that house looked.” Tydlaska said. 

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, Tydlaska’s grandmother passed away. Going back to the house where she spent most of her time was an act of mourning for Tydlaska and her family. 

The day of the funeral, which also happened to be Tydlaska’s birthday, was the last day Tydlaska set foot in her family house.

“I remember we took the flowers from from her grave and we threw it on top of everything,” Tydlaska said. “That was sort of the last image I have of the house. I didn’t go back after that.”

Tydlaska’s father sold the house exactly as it was. Today it has been converted into a duplex that the owner rents out as condos. 

The change of the house is emblematic of a greater shift, not only within New Orleans, but the people, like Tydlaska, who live there.  

“The idea of permanence isn’t really real to me any longer because I’ve seen things,” Tydlaska said. “When you grow up seeing things the same way every day you don’t really expect that to change.”

Tydlaska credits the experience with her change in career path, choosing a job in Tulane’s admission office over a life working in literature. She joined the admissions team nine months after Hurricane Katrina.

“It just gave me the time to think about this career and maybe if it was isolating for me,” Tydlaska said. “I wanted to get involved in something that got me in front of people, that seemed to be doing something good for the city and that’s kind of how admission came about.”

Tydlaska shares the pitch she gave to students during her critical work to revive the student population. It reads as more than flashy statement, but a mandate of perseverance has characterized the university to this day.

“Tulane is fine, and, in fact, we’re going to thrive, and we need you,” Tydlaska said. “We need really passionate involved students to come and help us. And we got that. And we continue to get that to this day.”

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