Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans Universities

By O'Neil, Robert M.; Cook, Norma C. et al. | Academe, May/June 2007 | Go to article overview

Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans Universities


O'Neil, Robert M., Cook, Norma C., Finkin, Matthew W., Henry, Myron S., et al., Academe


I. INTRODUCTION

The devastation that Hurricane Katrina inflicted on the universities of New Orleans in late August 2005 is undoubtedly the most serious disruption of American higher education in the nation's history.1 This was hardly the first time that collegiate facilities had been destroyed and academic programs halted; one need only recall the savage tornadoes that leveled buildings at Central State University (Ohio) and Gustavus Adolphus College (Minnesota), or the earthquake that destroyed much of California State University, Northridge, or the effect of the September 11, 2001, attacks on lower Manhattan campuses such as Pace University and Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Yet Hurricane Katrina was different in far more than sheer magnitude of damage, although that measure alone would distinguish it from any previous calamities. No earlier disaster destroyed virtually an entire community, not only depriving affected institutions of usable facilities, but also depleting severely the student population, leaving faculty and staff without homes, teaching hospitals without patients, and so on through an unprecedented litany of woes. One could not in good conscience undertake such an inquiry as this one without acknowledging the uniqueness of the experience from which New Orleans's universities are only now beginning to recover.

Part of what made Katrina so disruptive to higher education was the impossibility of anticipating its force and effect. Since intense storms are all too familiar along the Gulf Coast, the community was theoretically prepared even for a Category Five hurricane, including water that might breach the levees-but not for the complete destruction of critical sections of those levees. Although most New Orleans universities had adopted and disseminated plans for closure by the eve of the storm's landfall, and some had even begun to evacuate students to higher ground, the worst that seemed likely was a brief period of disruption. Tulane University, for example, announced the weekend before the hurricane that it would be closed through the following Thursday, apparently planning a return to normal operations within the week. Even the day after the storm had hit and severe initial damage was manifest, Tulane continued to express publicly the hope that classes could resume by September 7.

What actually befell New Orleans higher education on August 29 far exceeded even the worst fears. While facilities at the two "uptown" private institutions (Tulane University and Loyola University New Orleans) suffered less physical damage than did the inundated buildings at Southern University at New Orleans, the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center, the University of New Orleans, Xavier University, and Dillard University, electricity and communications were down throughout the city. Although most of the universities had made some provision for remote backup of electronic data systems, gaining access to those records and files proved a daunting task well after the water had subsided.

Gradually it became clear that the affected campuses would have great difficulty reopening in the near future. By the end of the first week of September, both Tulane and Loyola (the two most nearly intact campuses) announced that they would not reopen for any part of the fall semester. Students were encouraged to enroll elsewhere, if possible; dozens of campuses in adjacent states and much farther afield did find places for New Orleans students-though usually on the understanding that when their home institutions reopened they would return. Roughly a month after Katrina, the Gulf Coast prepared for another disaster as Hurricane Rita neared shore, but this time the New Orleans area was mercifully spared; major damage was confined to the coastal region of western Louisiana and east Texas, notably the several campuses of Lamar University.

The impact and cost of Katrina can be quantified, although numbers fail to capture the many other dimensions of devastation. …

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