Ronald Cruz, a third-year biological sciences major at UC Irvine, has had a pretty dramatic experience. As I approached him for an interview, he was thumbing through this very newspaper with what seemed to be an amused smile on his lips.
Cruz likes it here at UCI.
‘In my [old] school … it was more of a community college,’ Cruz said. ‘Basically, people come in and out. There’s not really a college atmosphere. Here, there’s always something to do. Either a school or an organization is planning something.’
Cruz used to attend the University of New Orleans. He won’t be going back, though; deserted houses and fallen debris are all that remain of his old neighborhood.
He left New Orleans with his family at 6 a.m. on the day that Hurricane Katrina hit. The decision to leave was a hard one to make, and his sister, Daisy, whom he described as ‘just one of those stubborn people,’ opted to stay.
‘To tell the truth, I was going to stay. My mom and dad were also going to stay. Only my other two brothers were going to leave,’ Cruz said. ‘But in the last minute … I told my dad, ‘Hey, this is really serious, we need to leave.”
Cruz’s family traveled to Dallas where, biding their time in a hotel, they saw images of the devastation on television.
‘I guess we were just all in awe,’ Cruz said. ‘We knew it was going to be bad, but I don’t think anyone actually pictured it.’
Running short on funds, the family moved out of the hotel and waited in a Red Cross shelter at Hirsch Coliseum in Slidell, La. for news of Cruz’s sister.
‘[The shelter] wasn’t bad [at first], but by the time we left, it was,’ Cruz said. ‘When we got there it had just opened, [and] it was basically us and a couple of families. … By the time we left, there were maybe more than a thousand families living there, you know, squished together like sardines.’
The shelter provided its residents with food, water, bedding and books.
‘The actual environment was good, but, I mean, as far as people’s hopes … a lot of people were … distraught at what happened,’ Cruz said.
Evacuees would make calls in packed lines or wait for news from the Red Cross to find out if their relatives were alive or dead.
With so many families crowding the Coliseum, this task of communicating became a brutally difficult one.
‘I had a brother here in California, and then I have a sister who was in Missouri, and basically they were doing our calling for us,’ Cruz said.
Using Red Cross registries, the Cruz family discovered that Daisy survived. Having determined this, the family had to figure out what to do next.
They got together at Shreveport, La. The Cruz family opted to move to California because they had relatives and friends here, and because of the good school system.
‘[School has always been] one of the big things for my mom and dad,’ Cruz said. ‘They didn’t want me to miss a semester or quarter of school.’
Cruz arrived at UCI just before the start of fall quarter.
UCI’s Office of Admissions and Relations with Schools accepted Cruz as a visiting student.
‘I told admissions about my story and they’re like, ‘Yeah, we can take you for this amount of time only,” Cruz said. ‘So we just did the paperwork and … I got registered and everything. It was a quick process, actually.’
Although Cruz is settled in school for now, his status as a visiting student at UCI only lasts for a quarter.
‘You can toss a coin on where I’ll be after December,’ he stated. ‘There’s a high chance I may not be accepted back into Irvine and my school in New Orleans cannot handle many students.’
Cruz also talked about the difficulty his family had to endure through the process of rebuilding. His family was living paycheck to paycheck before the hurricane hit. Ronald’s father is 65 years old.
‘We didn’t have everything but we were living happily,’ Cruz said. ‘In all of a couple of hours or however long the hurricane took, all that was gone. [We’ve] got to start over from scratch.’
Reflecting on government response to Katrina, Cruz described it as ‘pretty bad.’
‘You didn’t see any support, you didn’t hear anything [from the government],’ Cruz said.
Now living in Irvine, Cruz can’t help but reminisce about his home city.
‘I’ll have something that’s … a New Orleans-related dish and … I’ll taste it and I can tell the difference, of course,’ Cruz said. ‘It’s not the same, but the fact that they make it, even something similar to the food in Louisiana, just, makes me happy. [It’s] something I’m familiar with.’