Devastated But Not Defeated

Devastated But Not Defeated

Hurricane Katrina ravages New Orleans, decimating many southern colleges and universities, but the higher education community steps up to provide students and faculty shelter  from the storm.

By Scott Dyer

BATON ROUGE,  La.
Nineteen-year-old Hal Boutte was one of the lucky ones. Boutte fled New Orleans only a few hours before Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, unlike some 400 other students at Xavier University of Louisiana, who found themselves trapped on the campus for several days.

New Orleans officials estimated that nearly 80 percent of the city suffered flooding as a result of the hurricane that experts are calling the most devastating natural catastrophe in the history of the United States.

Boutte, who is studying chemistry and biochemistry at Xavier, says e-mails and phone calls from his fellow students indicated that some 400 were stranded in Xavier dorms when the hurricane struck the city on Aug. 29.

“A lot of the students who were stranded were from Chicago, as well as places like Texas, Washington and the Eastern seaboard,” he says.
He has kept in contact with the stranded Xavier students, who have since been taken to Grambling State University and Southern University at Baton Rouge.

According to Boutte, the stranded students said Xavier’s distinctive architecture, which includes liberal use of green tinted glass, was no match for the high winds and flying debris caused by Katrina.
He points to the anti-climactic results of last year’s Hurricane Ivan to explain why so many students chose not to leave the campus before the arrival of Katrina. Many New Orleans residents evacuated the city last year as Ivan approached, but the hurricane shifted east, hitting the Pensacola, Fla., area instead.

“We all ended up evacuating but when we came back, nothing had happened, except that we had lost a week of classes,” Boutte says.
The Xavier campus — like all of New Orleans — remained closed to civilians a week after the storm, without electricity, telephones and other services.

Xavier officials could not be reached for comment for this story. But an emergency Xavier Web page, posted several days after the storm, indicated that all students and staff that had been stranded on the Xavier campus were removed within three and half days after the hurricane.

The Web page message from Dr. Elizabeth Barron, Xavier’s vice president for academic affairs, also laid out tentative plans to continue classes in January 2006, with a new schedule that will allow Xavier students to complete two semesters prior to the fall semester of 2006.

Where Do They Go Now?
Meanwhile, colleges and universities in other parts of Louisiana and the nation are opening their doors to the 72,000 college students in the greater New Orleans area who were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.
Dr. E. Joseph Savoie, Louisiana’s commissioner of higher education, says the state’s board of regents is making arrangements to allow the students to enroll at other Louisiana schools without records that in many cases have been lost.

As an example, he points to the University of New Orleans, which keeps its backup records in a vault in a New Orleans bank that was submerged by floodwaters after the storm.

According to Savoie, the board is taking steps to make it easier for the displaced students who were attending public universities to enroll as “visiting students” to other universities in Louisiana this semester.
“But to be honest with you, I’m not sure a lot of these kids are going to be thinking about school immediately,” he says.

And he notes that the displaced students who don’t want to enroll at other Louisiana colleges will have an opportunity to finish the fall semester with distance-learning courses beginning in October.

Savoie says historically Black Dillard University and Xavier both have large numbers of out-of-state students, who had nowhere to go and no means to flee when the hurricane was bearing down on the New Orleans area.

By contrast, students at predominantly White Tulane University and Loyola University — two exclusive New Orleans private universities — likely had an easier time evacuating before the storm because they tend to come from affluent homes, he says.

Savoie says 27,000 of the New Orleans students were attending private colleges and the other 45,000 were enrolled at public post-secondary schools, including historically Black Southern University at New Orleans.

In the long run, he says, the out-of-state students may fare much better than the students from New Orleans and the surrounding area.

Savoie says about 90 percent of the students attending SUNO and other public colleges in New Orleans are from that area and will likely have a difficult time coping with the aftermath of Katrina.

“They don’t have a school and they don’t have a home,” he says of the local students.

Higher Education Community Responds
According to Savoie, the board is also trying to find faculty and staff that were displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

“If we can identify them, we can try and link them up with a local school where they are now staying. We’re going to need them, with the influx of students from New Orleans that we’re expecting at the other campuses,” he says.

Colleges and universities across the county are stepping up to help students displaced by Katrina.

Oklahoma City University announced that it is offering free tuition to any student enrolled at a college or university affected by the hurricane. The National Association of Equal Opportunity in Higher Education, working with several historically Black colleges and universities, also offered to take in displaced students from Dillard, Xavier, Southern University, New Orleans and other historically Black schools.

Dr. Wayne D. Watson, chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, announced plans to enroll any student from Illinois whose college or university may remain closed for the remainder of the semester due to Katrina, at no additional cost to the students.

At Watson’s urging, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich announced that any displaced Illinois student can finish the semester at one of Illinois’ state universities free of charge.

Other college and university leaders have answered the call as well. Dr. Clinton Bristow Jr., president of Alcorn State University in Mississippi, has opened the doors of ASU to any nursing student displaced from Dillard or Xavier.

“It would never have occurred to me not to do all that I could to assist these students and my sister institutions. I wish I could do more,” Bristow says.

Virginia State University President Eddie N. Moore Jr. has offered to take any Virginia residents, while Central State University President John W. Garland has offered to take any Ohio students; Stillman College President Ernest McNealy announced that his campus will accept any students from the affected institutions for the fall semester.

Tuskegee University in Alabama announced plans to enroll currently registered students from colleges and universities that are closed by Hurricane Katrina. 

“Although Tuskegee University’s financial resources are limited, its capacity to accept and to educate students to the highest standards possible is outstanding. We will do everything in our power to help,” says Tuskegee University President Benjamin F. Payton.

NAFEO officials announced they are working with Southwest Airlines to arrange free transportation for displaced students. The organization has also contacted FEMA and AmeriCorps to identify funding for the rebuilding efforts, and plans to seek a special congressional appropriation for needed rebuilding.

In addition, the United Negro College Fund has established a special fund to help its member schools affected by the hurricane, including Dillard and Xavier universities in New Orleans and Tougaloo College in Mississippi. Visit www.uncf.org for more information.



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