In 1965, water from Hurricane Betsy overflowed the levees in New Orleans, flooding the Lower Ninth Ward, killing 76 people, and causing more than $1 billion in damages.
In 2005, flooding from Hurricane Katrina overflowed the levees in the city once again, killing more than 1,800 people, costing upward of $100 billion, and forcing New Orleans native Juliette Jeanfreau to spend part of her senior year of high school living in Texas while her mom and brother returned home to repair a house that had suffered serious damage.
In 2009, Westhampton College Dean Juliette Landphair enlisted the leadership studies major and French and religion minor to help research Hurricane Betsy, the Lower Ninth Ward, disaster politics, and the ways in which this story has been built into the narrative of the city.
Both Landphair and Jeanfreau grew up in New Orleans and were told to never venture into the Ninth Ward. Now, both have invested their time studying the neighborhood, which has a history of race and class marginalization, high crime rates, and a strong sense of community.
"It's a weird tension between community and crime," Landphair said. "And it makes them mad...The story of Betsy is the opportunity to tell the story of people who feel like no one's listening. They call themselves 'the forgotten people of the city.' Well, not anymore."
Most of Jeanfreau's research has been through primary documents — news clippings, censuses, and reports from the Army Corps of Engineers. The neglect of the Ninth Ward came into the spotlight after Hurricane Katrina, but hardly any research has been done about Hurricane Betsy or the history of the Ninth Ward.
"It's cool to learn about where I grew up," Jeanfreau said. "There are things about New Orleans that I didn't realize until I left."
Landphair and Jeanfreau gathered oral histories of the people of the Ninth Ward. Their goal was to find about 10 people who had lived through both hurricanes.
The trip inspired Jeanfreau to continue her research during her senior year and look at the tragedy from a slightly different perspective for her senior honors thesis. She examined the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina from a Christian theological perspective and looked at the leadership implications of different understandings of the tragedy and the problem of suffering.
“Last semester I looked primarily at different conceptions of theodicy,” she said. “This semester I looked at how these ideas play out in congregations there post-Katrina. There is a practical and a theoretical aspect of the paper. The practical is the human response as well as the leadership applications.”
Jeanfreau, who is Catholic, says the way such ideas are expressed has a tangible effect on how people respond to tragedy.
“If you’re saying this happened because God is punishing people, then you’re not really going to be open to going to the city and joining in the rebuilding efforts,” she said. “There is a connection between the theological ideas expressed in the pulpit and how the rebuilding effort plays out.”
After graduation Jeanfreau is headed to Yale Divinity School, where she plans to explore these ideas further.
Eventually, though, she hopes to return to New Orleans.
"I'd eventually like to go back and help rebuild," she said. "But I haven't figured out yet how to best serve."