By JOHN FLOWERS
MIDDLEBURY - Middlebury College junior Suvi Neukam showed up on campus a couple of weeks early this semester to see if she could help some young students in need.
She got a lot more than she bargained for.
Instead of showing incoming freshmen how to find their way around Middlebury's sun-soaked, bucolic campus, Neukam on Saturday found herself winging her way to Louisiana to help a 94-year-old woman with local connections from the aftermath of Katrina, the greatest natural disaster this nation has ever seen.
Neukam, 20, of Amherst, N.H., was humble on Tuesday as she sat face-to-face with Mae Samuel, the New Orleans native who doesn't expect to ever return to what's left of the Big Easy.
"It was at least a little extra vacation before I went to school," Neukam quipped, referring to a whirlwind airplane trip that featured a total of six connecting flights to give aid and solace to a woman she had never met.
Mae Samuel's evacuation from Louisiana was engineered by her son, Jack Goodman, a Middlebury resident who had been nervously monitoring weather reports in the days preceding Katrina's arrival on the Gulf Coast.
Samuel had been living in the Big Easy since 1972, in a brick home not far from the University of New Orleans. When New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin on Aug. 27 issued the order to evacuate the city, Samuel - who'd been living alone - didn't need a lot of prodding. Her longtime caregiver, Florence Peyton, arranged to have her driven from her home to Shreveport, La., then to Leesville, La.
"I took a small bag of clothes," Samuel recalled of her hasty departure. "I only thought I'd be gone two or three days."
She soon learned, however, that she would likely not see her home for a long time - if ever. And, at this point, Samuel said she has little interest in picking up the rest of her possessions that are probably disintegrating in what's left of her flooded home.
Levees aimed at keeping New Orleans protected from overflow from adjacent Lake Pontchartrain broke, flooding the city with wave after wave of water that swept many homes away, while partially submerging many others. Nagin has said that as many as 10,000 people may have lost their lives in the flood.
While thankful that his mother was no longer at the epicenter of the New Orleans flood, Goodman knew that she was roughing it out in tight accommodations in Leesville. Last Thursday, he began to work feverishly to get his mom on an airplane headed to Vermont.
Goodman realized his mother would need some young legs to assist her in changing airplanes and in carrying possessions. He decided to call Middlebury College Associate Dean of Students Karen Guttentag to see if there were any takers for the mission.
"I said, 'I live here in town, and I have a mom who is stranded and wandering around in Louisiana,'" Goodman recalled. "I said 'I'm really looking for some help, if you have a student who could go down and pick her up.'"
Guttentag was receptive to the idea, and asked Goodman to give her a little time to see what she could do.
"Five mnutes later, (Guttentag) called back and said, 'Suvi Neukam won the contest,'" Goodman recalled, with a chuckle.
As it turns out, that's just the way it went down. Neukam and another student both offered to make the trek. "We both, hands-down, decided to volunteer," Neukam said. "We thought it would be a great opportunity to do something to help out the situation."
It came down to a coin-flip, and Neukam won after calling "heads."
"The next thing I knew, I was on the phone with Jack, we had lunch, talked things over, and we picked up some tickets from the travel agent," Neukam said.
She took off from Burlington at 5 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 3. She switched planes in Cincinnati and Atlanta before landing at a small airport in Alexandria, a community in northern Louisiana.
Neukam wore her blue, Middlebury College cap so that Samuel and her friends could pick her out of the crowd.
It was less chaotic than I thought it would be," Neukam said.
Still, while Alexandria had escaped the harsh physical effects of Katrina, the community was feeling repercussions from the devastation that lay to the south. Neukam noticed that all the restaurants were full, and she could hear conversations between people who had either escaped Katrina, or hoped to volunteer in flood relief efforts.
It was only thanks to a cancellation that Neukam and Samuel were able to get a hotel room that night. They left very early the next morning, on one of only a handful of flights departing Alexandria that day. Two flight connections later, they were "greeted by wonderful weather in Burlington," accord-ing to Neukam.
"I was awfully lucky," said Samuel, a published poet and tennis enthusiast who looks much younger than her 94 years.
She remains keenly interested in what's going on in New Orleans, but Samuel is perfectly willing to start a new chapter in her life.
"As far as I've found out ... my house is completely flooded," Samuel said. "I'll never see it again. There's nothing to go back for."
She feels for those who can't go back to New Orleans until the flood waters recede.
"It's heartbreaking," she said. "No one can exist down there the way it is."
Samuel is unsure how she and others will be compensated for their loss of property, and whether compensation will come through the federal government or insurance.
"The government has some culpability here," Goodman said. "Whether the government will step in and do something about it ... no one has any idea."
For now, the family is counting its blessings. And they will always be grateful to a selfless Middlebury College student who left the security of the Green Mountain State for an uncertain odyssey to storm-ravaged Louisiana.
"As the weekend went on, in hearing everyone's stories and being closer to the situation - seeing it in everyone's face - the more I thought (the trip) was the least I could do," Neukam said. "It's very easy to be detached from it way up here, to see it on the news when you want to, lend a nice thought when you have the moment, but they don't have that option down there. I began to feel like, 'I'm thankful that this opportunity has been given to me, so I could feel I helped as much as I could have.'"
Mae Samuel said she'll live one day at a time. She'll probably divide that time between the Goodmans' in Middlebury and another son's home in New Hampshire.
"I just can't imagine not having a home," Samuel said. "But I have one here."