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Med student Themann escapes Katrina’s wrath

Britt Themann -
Britt Themann
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The BHS grad left New Orleans with the hurricane at her heels.

One hurricane was enough for Britt Themann.

The 1999 Bainbridge High School graduate, who has spent the past five years in New Orleans, La., attending Tulane University and now is in her second year at the Tulane School of Medicine, had already weathered Hurricane Ivan when it swept through the Gulf states last fall.

So as Hurricane Katrina threatened her adopted city last weekend, Themann would have made plans to get out of its way.

Would have, but didn’t. She was unaware even that the storm was approaching, having spent the previous three weeks in what she described as the “dark cave” of study for the year’s first round of med school exams.

“For the week before (exams), you don’t watch TV and you don’t listen to the radio,” she said. “You get up, eat, study, eat, study, go to sleep, wake up and study.”

With her tests finally behind her, Themann awoke last Saturday morning to find the streets outside her uptown apartment on Claiborne Street unusually humming with cars, as residents began to evacuate the city around her. She decided to follow.

But assuming that she would only be away for a few days at most – Ivan had largely spared the city, pounding Florida instead – Themann gathered up just a few items before heading to the airport with her boyfriend, John Gonsoulin.

“I was disoreinted and hadn’t slept that week,” she said. “I didn’t think it through, I just moved.”

She hoped to board a plane for Seattle, but flying on the family pass of her mother, a United Airlines employee, seats would be on a space-available basis.

So she picked up 15 gallons of water and some nonperishable food just in case. She saw area gas stations with vehicle queues 50 yards long.

“It was unbelievable,” she said. “Eight hours before, nobody had any idea (it was coming).”

Themann did find a flight and jetted to the safety of her parents’ Bainbridge Island home around 11:30 p.m. Saturday.

Then she experienced the storm by proxy.

She spent hours Sunday night on the phone with Gonsoulin, who had decided to stay behind and ride out Hurricane Katrina with family members in their home about 10 miles west of downtown. And the storm closed in on New Orleans.

“I just lost it,” Themann said. “As it kept going north-northwest, it was going to go right over their house. I was like, ‘Go east! Go east!’”

It finally did, although the worst was yet to come. John’s home sustained storm damage, and the family axed its way out of the neighborhood Monday morning, intending to head north.

But a half-mile away, floodwaters breached the levee that keeps the below-sea-level city dry, leading to a second, more serious wave of destruction.

John’s last option was to head west. He beat the flood and touched down with family members in Texas.

The Tulane University School of Medicine – where Britt Themann is in her second year of studies – sits near the now ironically named Canal Street, sandwiched between Tulane and Charity hospitals. The last she heard, the school was under 6 feet of water.

“As long as the people are okay, that’s what makes the school anyway,” Themann said. “All our mentors and physicians are on the front lines, and that’s phenomenal to think about.”

Themann plans to head back to the area “as soon as they’ll let us.” As part of her medical school program, she and her classmates are immersed in the environment of Tulane Hospital, an institution dealing with profound hardships tending to those caught up in New Orleans’ disintegration.

Themann’s 150-member class could also be placed temporarily at another medical school to resume their studies as New Orleans is reclaimed.

Themann wells up when she talks about the devastation that has beset one of the nation’s most picturesque cities, one that she has called home since earning a Tulane basketball scholarship after a standout career at BHS.

“It’s got a lot of ‘umph’ that a lot of other cities don’t have, including cities out West that don’t have the character a city 300 years old has,” she said.

She watches the images on television, repeatedly “losing it” at scenes of displacement and desperation on streets she walked just a week ago.

“My problems are miniscule compared to so many people,” Themann said. “I feel selfish thinking about my situation, because it’s so much worse for others.”

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Disaster relief

Financial contributions are sought for disaster relief in the storm-ravaged Gulf states. Donations may be made to the Red Cross at www.redcross.org.

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