‘My heart goes out to them’—Trustee Remembers Katrina, Reflects on Harvey

Vicki Hildner
A Colorado Academy trustee and parent of two CA alumni, Dickson Griswold has watched the ripple effect of Hurricane Harvey—evacuees living in shelters with nothing but the clothes on their backs, homes flooded beyond recognition, deaths of people fleeing the rising waters—with a perspective forged by painful personal experience.
“My heart goes out to them,” Griswold says. “It brings back bad memories, because I know what they are going through.”
And yet, Griswold firmly believes that terrible events can produce new opportunities, and that conviction is firmly rooted in his experiences at Colorado Academy.
On a sunny morning during the last week of August 2005, Griswold, his wife Gentry, and their two sons, 6-year-old Harris and 10-year-old Jack, decided to dodge an incoming storm by leaving New Orleans for a few days. They packed for what they thought would be a three-day stay in Alabama, bringing with them a weekend bag, family albums, a few special heirlooms, some insurance documentation, and their dog.
They never returned to live in their New Orleans home again.
Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans with a ferocity no one seemed to have expected. In an era before smartphones and social media, the Griswolds heard about the fate of their house, which was very near the campus of Tulane University, from family. It had major damage to the roof. There was no power, no air conditioning, no heating system, and the basement was flooded, mucky, and moldy.
Griswold summed it up simply. “It was a mess,” he says. “Beyond that, it was terrible to know that your hometown has been destroyed.”
For Harris and Jack, who were not quite old enough to see the entire scope of the disaster, their biggest concern was for their friends and stuffed animals left behind.
The family began a cross-country odyssey, driving first to Memphis, then to Tulsa. Along the way, their Louisiana license plates gave them away as Katrina refugees and drew random acts of kindness. For the Griswolds, needing help from others was unfamiliar territory. “After contributing to the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, you never think that you are going to be the guy who needs to be bailed out,” Griswold says. “I couldn’t even use my bank card because there was no bank. It was truly humbling.”
With a family connection in Denver, the family headed west. In the middle of Kansas, they drove through a ferocious hailstorm. Griswold remembered thinking, “Okay, first I had a flooding insurance claim, then a homeowner’s insurance claim, and now I will have a car claim.”
At that point, the family thought it was possible their house had been burned or looted in the days following the hurricane.
The hailstorm passed, and after a long pause, Gentry Griswold quietly said, “Well, you know, I never really liked our wedding china anyway.”
“Right then, I knew we were going to be okay,” Griswold says. “What’s important was in that car. The boys were fine, the dog was fine, the family was fine.”
Through their family, the Griswolds found Colorado Academy. Griswold remembers visiting the CA Admission Office in a raggedy T-shirt and shorts, “so embarrassed.” Then came the questions. Did he have the children’s medical records? No, they were underwater in a New Orleans hospital. How about the children’s academic records? Gentry had a quick answer for that question. “I don’t even have my own hairbrush,” she said.
CA accepted Harris and Jack, and the CA community welcomed them with open arms and with an outpouring of clothing, food, and gifts. But the greatest gift for the two boys was normalcy.
“Mom and Dad didn’t know which way was up,” Griswold says. “But at CA we could drop our kids off, know they were safe and welcome, learning on this idyllic and beautiful campus, and immediately making new friends.”
To this day, Griswold says, some of the boys’ best friends are the first people they met at CA. And Dickson Griswold will tell you that the family decided to make Colorado their new permanent home in large part due to the educational opportunities and community kindness they experienced at CA. Both boys have now graduated from CA, but Griswold remains involved in the school as a trustee.
Twelve years after he drove out of New Orleans, Griswold willingly shares his perspective on life’s challenges. “We live a privileged life in Colorado and at CA,” Griswold says. “For the people of Houston, this disaster will test their resolve. But from that test they will find new resilience, empathy and self-reliance. The rain will stop, the waters will recede, and attitude will get you where you need to go.”
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