HBCUs Seek Normalcy After Gustav

Officials of New Orleans’ historically Black colleges are anxiously planning their returns to campuses in the wake of Hurricane Gustav, but they remain cautiously optimistic their schools have avoided catastrophic damage.

“I’m told the campus isn’t standing in water, but I’ll feel better when I see it for myself,” says Dr. Marvalene Hughes, president of Dillard University, which became submerged in six to 10 feet of floodwaters from Hurricane Katrina barely three years ago.

As Gustav churned through the Caribbean last week heading for the Gulf Coast, Hughes and her counterparts at other schools decided to evacuate students, faculty and staff and to cancel classes. Over the weekend, New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin urged residents to seek shelter inland and ordered a curfew to discourage the looting that characterized Katrina’s aftermath.

Because Gustav knocked out power to an estimated 1 million homes and businesses in Louisiana, evacuees have been asked not to return until Thursday as crews feverishly address the outages, according to published reports.

Meanwhile, faculty are trying to stay on schedule with the semester’s coursework by uploading assignments and syllabi to backup Web sites. “These evacuations aren’t gifts to students,” says Xavier University spokesman Warren Bell. “Their work still has to get done.”

Despite this week’s challenges and uncertainty, officials agree that so far, they pale in comparison to 2005 when all universities in New Orleans cancelled classes for the entire fall semester because of devastation to the campuses inflicted by Katrina. In fact, some schools are still recovering from Katrina. Only about 40 percent of classes and faculty and administrative offices had moved back to the campus of Southern University at New Orleans by mid-August, says spokesman Eddie Francis, and even then, the street-level floors of those buildings aren’t in use because of ongoing renovation and repair from water damage and debris. SUNO classes and school operations have been housed in an off-campus complex of temporary trailers since early 2006.

So when officials made plans last week to close operations and evacuate, Dr. Victor Ukpolo, SUNO chancellor, emphasized the storage of vital documents such as those for human resources and the registrar in a second-floor office, which should hopefully avoid the problems of 2005, Francis says.

Faculty and many staff and students evacuated to homes of relatives and friends after classes ended last Friday, but some students were bussed to other schools if they had no affordable options. For instance, about 130 SUNO athletes and international students are staying at Southern University at Baton Rouge, about 75 miles northwest of the coast, Francis says. And about 100 Dillard students and staff traveled 280 miles to Centenary College in Shreveport in the northwest part of the state.

One of Hughes’ many concerns is the amount of debris Gustav may have dumped onto campus. Some news reports have estimated that as much as 10 million cubic yards of debris has blanketed the coast. “We might have to double the crew when we start cleaning,” she says. “My hope is that by the time students return, they won’t have to see any mess.”

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