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Cover Story

November 21, 2005
Volume 83, Number 47
pp. 14-15

When The Levee Broke

ACS Councilor Jack Stocker is uprooted after his New Orleans home is flooded

Linda Raber

Photo © 2005 Justine Szymala

Incalculable Nothing is left undamaged in Stocker's home.

Jack H. Stocker went back to what is left of his New Orleans home on Nov. 11. He had been staying with various relatives since Aug. 31 when he left the ACS national meeting in Washington, D.C. His home was in the lower 9th ward, the last area in New Orleans to allow residents back in. “The house wasn’t damaged much during the hurricane,” he says, “but it was destroyed when the levee broke.”

Stocker, emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of New Orleans, is a 62-year ACS member who has served on the ACS Council since 1972. If you don’t know him by name, you might recognize him. He’s the genial man from New Orleans who always wears a beret.

At the Washington meeting, Stocker had to tear himself away from the news of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures to attend the council meeting. By the time the meeting was called to order at 8 AM, Wednesday, Aug. 31, he knew he wouldn’t be going home that day. But he thought, at the most, it would be a week before he could get back. He had packed only a small bag with clothes for three or four days. These few items would turn out to be almost all the property he could retain.

ACS President William F. Carroll, who chaired the council meeting, talked to Stocker before council was called to order. “Jack was Jack,” Carroll recalls, “only subdued. I asked him how he was doing, and I believe he said, ‘Not well. My house was in the 9th ward, you see.’ And I believe he said his house had about 8 feet of water. I asked him about insurance, and he just said, ‘Sadly, no.’

“A few minutes later, I gaveled the council meeting,” Carroll says. “It occurred to me as I stood in front of the council, which has meetings that can sometimes be contentious, that this should be a morning relieved of trivia. That’s when it occurred to me to remind us on this day of all days not to sweat the small stuff.

“Flint Lewis, ACS secretary, and I had worked on the resolution of support to hurricane victims, and as I read it, I thought about Jack, my wife Mary’s family, and the two years I spent as a grad student in that city. I got through reading the resolution, but not by much,” Carroll says.

While Stocker was with relatives, he received some photographs of his home. Some friends had gotten into Stocker’s neighborhood and taken pictures of the home where he had lived for 40 years. So when he arrived in New Orleans this month, he knew he would encounter devastation. Still, he was staggered. “It is a true catastrophe. I didn’t expect it to be nearly as bad,” he says.

“I had been through hurricanes in the past, and recall looking out in the street and seeing water up to 2 feet deep at the end of the block. Our kids went out with Ball jars and caught small fish in what was simply a lake from door to door as far as the eye could see.” He didn’t expect this event to be so devastatingly different.

Stocker made an audio recording of his impressions for this profile in C&EN. “I am now talking in front of the house on Nov. 11,” he says. “You look at it, and it’s only the remnants of a house. The front big window is gone, with markings below it indicating that they searched inside and didn’t find any bodies.

“You look inside the house, and you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Something on the order of 20,000 books in my house are on the floor. All of them, of course, are ruined from the water. In some places, the rooms are at least 4 feet deep in books. And you can’t get through the house or even into the house to see anything else. I am trying to retrieve what I can from some of the few things that survived.

Photo © 2005 Justine Szymala

Total Loss Stocker's books could not be saved.

“Anything that could be tipped over was tipped over. A lot of it most capriciously. I had a heavy bookcase full of books that was tipped over on the floor. Right next to it was a bookcase with VHS tapes and DVDs all looking perfectly innocent, as if they hadn’t experienced anything.

“Even though I knew that there had been 5 to 7 feet of water in there, I didn’t realize that the actual thing that I was dealing with was not just all sorts of damaged paper that could be sifted through. This was basically layer by layer of debris, mostly paper that had gotten cemented together by the sediment in the mud.”

Later, he says, “I don’t mind the loss of the books so much as I mind loss of photograph albums and letters from our parents that simply are not replaceable at any price.

“What do you save, and what can you save?” he asks. “What do I do with a collection of 450 old-fashioned 78-rpm records? My wind-up Victrola to play them on has been underwater; it’s gone, and I don’t know if that kind of record can endure. Do I just leave 450 of them behind?

“Obviously, the piano, which was tipped over and broken down, can’t be saved, for instance. A lot of things that you, in your initial rush, want to save, you realize are not practical. Each one you decide to let go of, you have to say a personal good-bye to. These are things you’ve treasured all your life. It’s not easy, I can assure you,” he says.

“Speaking of records,” Stocker says, “my son just handed me one that he retrieved. ‘Ah, Sweet Mystery of Life.’ And all of us are having a well-needed sort of laugh about that. ‘Sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found thee.’ ”

When asked how he’s coping, he says: “I learned long ago that when you have a catastrophe, you just shut it down and let it seep out a little bit at a time. It works fairly well, and you don’t go to pieces. I’m still working on that.”



Jack Stocker, University of New Orleans
Ulrike Diebold and Larry Byers, Tulane University
Jerry Merchant, PPG
Eric Broussard, Xavier University
Cheryl Stevens, Xavier University, and Ed Stevens, University of New Orleans
Saundra Y. McGuire, Isiah M. Warner, and Luigi G. Marzilli, Louisiana State University
William L. Strayham, DuPont
N. Dale Ledford, University of Southern Mississippi
Gerald R. Ehrman, DuPont
Bruce C. Gibb, University of New Orleans
Nitsa and Zeev Rosenzweig’s group, University of New Orleans

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2010 American Chemical Society