Leaving New Orleans for the First Time

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The topography of New Orleans is central to its current woes. Collette Creppell is an architect at Tulane University and a former New Orleans city planner from an old New Orleanian family. Creppell and most of her relatives evacuated the city Saturday before Katrina hit — the first time she's ever been forced out by a hurricane. She said it was a tough decision to make.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The topography of New Orleans and its development patterns are central to its current woes. Collette Creppell is an architect for Tulane University and a former city planner for the city. She also comes from a longtime New Orleanian family. Creppell and most of her relatives evacuated the city Saturday before Katrina hit. It's the first time that she has ever been forced out by a hurricane, and she says it was a tough decision to make.

Ms. COLLETTE CREPPELL (Architect, Tulane University): It has been difficult, and my twin brother and my father are still in New Orleans. And I last talked to my father on Monday morning and he said, well, you know, his cell phone was still working at that point, but he knew it was probably going to be going out. He's a retired Air Force fighter pilot, so he's spent his life training for survival in harsh circumstances and had a game plan that essentially would keep him safe, he felt, for the next 30 days.

SIEGEL: What is your sense of--following the news from New Orleans now, what do you feel as you hear or see accounts of what's happened to the city so far?

Ms. CREPPELL: Well, I've spent three years as the city planning director, so that was three years in which it was part of my professional duties, you know, to pay attention to the future of the city and to know about its infrastructure and that sort of thing. You know, in some ways, the planning mind goes directly into a sort of bullet-point version of this, which is the river's high right now; if they can either patch the holes in the levee or wait for the river level to go down, you know, then we get to a point where we can pump out the water, restore electricity, remove debris. And there's a whole set of considerations that are really difficult for New Orleanians because we've always thought in terms of keeping everything. Now we don't know if we've lost everything or we actually have a chance to think about our city in a completely new way.

SIEGEL: As a city planner and architect by trade, when you think about the challenge facing the city of New Orleans, does some other example come to mind that you think of, either something prior in the history of the city or something that another city might have experienced, that would be a model for how this city might go about rebuilding?

Ms. CREPPELL: This is actually exactly 250 years since the Acadians were expelled from Nova Scotia. Of course, that was a catastrophic event in the life of the Acadians that we now know as the Cajuns. And what happened to a lot of those families just being completely disconnected from, you know, other family members, from a way of life, from their churches, you know, it sort of comes back to us, as we have three children, school-age children, and sort of, you know, thinking, OK, they're not going back to their school. Their soccer teams, you know, are totally dispersed. All of these small things, you know, that you realize compose your life are now gone. And we have to sort out how to replace those temporarily.

SIEGEL: Well, thank you very much for talking with us. Collette Creppell, who is the university architect at Tulane University, now taking refuge in Oxford, Mississippi, with friends. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

Ms. CREPPELL: Thank you so much.

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