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Restructuring, Restoring and Rebuilding

Restructuring, Restoring and Rebuilding

With rivalries washed away in the waters of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans universities are sharing expertise and resources in order to survive

By Kendra Hamilton

A city of trailers on the banks of Lake Pontchartrain. Overlooking the Mississippi River, a hotel hung with banners welcomes a new clientele — students. A campus once under 6 feet of water is again open for business and bustling with activity.

These are just a few of the signs of life discernible at three historically Black universities six months after Hurricane Katrina crashed through the Gulf Coast region, leaving a trail of broken lives and broken dreams in her wake.

“We are a wounded community, make no mistake about that. Katrina has dealt us some heavy blows,” says Dr. Marvalene Hughes, speaking from an office tower that’s become the nerve center of Dillard University-in-exile.

Reminders of the city’s suffering are all around. Hughes’ window offers a birds-eye view of the battered Superdome. High-rise buildings have plywood, not glass, staring from each window frame.

Few faculty have homes to return to. Large swaths of the city are still without power, and basic services like grocery stores, laundromats and gas stations remain difficult to come by. But Hughes says, “Finally we can say the worst of the logistical challenges are under control, and we can move ahead with meeting every new challenge.”

The logistical challenges in the aftermath of Katrina were certainly sobering, as the city’s topography conspired to magnify the storm’s devastation at historically Black campuses.

New Orleans’ HBCUs are all located near water, with Dillard less than a mile from the London Avenue Canal. Southern University at New Orleans (SUNO) is situated just south of Lake Pontchartrain and west of the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal that connects the lake and the Mississippi.

Xavier is some distance from those lakeside campuses, in an area near
the downtown business district. But the Washington Avenue Canal, normally a sleepy trickle at the bottom of a concrete sluice, is only a stone’s throw from the main administration building. And during the storm, that trickle became “a lake,” says Xavier President Norman Francis, adding that the water lingered for almost three weeks.

The levees near SUNO held, but there were five breaches along the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal. Those breaks flooded an area that ranged from the impoverished Lower Ninth Ward to posh lakeside communities in New Orleans East. SUNO didn’t escape the breaches, and was engulfed in 4 to 11 feet of water.

Hardest hit of all was the Dillard campus, located in the once-charming Gentilly neighborhood. The London Avenue Canal was breached in four places, submerging the campus in 8 feet of water. Three residence halls burned down during the height of the confusion. After the campus dried out, officials discovered that two others needed to be demolished. The estimates for capital damages and tuition losses for the university hover around $400 million, says Hughes. By comparison, SUNO is facing estimated damages of $350 million, while Xavier is looking at $95-$100 million.

It should be noted, however, that only Xavier’s numbers are “firm,” because only Xavier is back on its campus. “We know the capital costs because we’re 90 percent finished with the work,” says Francis, who is also chairman of Gov. Kathleen Blanco’s Louisiana Recovery Authority, a key figure in the statewide relief and redevelopment effort.

“So we know that those costs will be $35 to $40 million [dollars]. Then you add in loss of income from tuition and auxiliary enterprises and decisions like paying the faculty for the entire first semester. And I guess it proves no good deed goes unpunished,” he says. “We jumped ahead and did all this work, but we haven’t yet received any monies from our insurance coverages or from the government. We’re having to negotiate a bridge loan right now.”

These are dark days for all the campuses affected by the 2005 hurricane season. The 27 institutions damaged by hurricanes Katrina or Rita — there were 14 in Mississippi, 12 in Louisiana and one in Alabama — estimate their combined physical damages at $1.4 billion. But rather than providing aid, the Louisiana Legislature was forced to call for $77 million in cuts in November, leading to a wrenching gut-check on many campuses.

Signs of Recovery
Federal aid has been approved; a bill authorizing payments of $95 million each to Louisiana and Mississippi cleared both houses of Congress in December. The money can’t be used for physical reconstruction, just for student aid, faculty salaries and other uses permitted by the Higher Education Act.

There has been some grumbling that the amounts given to both states are equal, despite the significantly higher number of damaged institutions in Louisiana. But the state’s higher education community has gone through the difficult exercise of creating a formula for dividing up the $95 million (see chart). It’s a formula that each institution has signed off on.

“It was important for us to speak with one voice and present a single plan,” says Francis, but the money has yet to be distributed.
And HBCUs have much less of a cushion than many others in the city. They are under-endowed compared with traditionally White private schools such as Tulane University and Loyola University New Orleans, whose endowments are in the $700 million and $300 million range, respectively. By comparison, Xavier has a $55 million endowment, $45 million at Dillard and only $2 million at SUNO.

The HBCUs were under-insured as well. Tulane, like Loyola, suffered no flooding and had catastrophic insurance coverage, which covers business interruption. “Those of us who were under water did not,” Francis says.

But despite this array of difficulties, there is undoubtedly a vibrant spirit stirring on the HBCU campuses.

SUNO, for example, enlisted the help of the Federal Emergency Management Administration and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build “SUNO North,” a campus of trailers on high ground the university owns near the Lake Pontchartrain levee. “This is land that didn’t flood after the storm,” stresses former head of alumni affairs and newly appointed university spokeswoman Gloria Moultrie.

Moultrie was on the campus not long after the waters receded, armed with boots, gloves, a mask and shots for tetanus and hepatitis. She says the sight of the destruction paled in comparison to the smell at the scene.

“I can’t even describe the smell,” she says.

But now, the university boasts state-of-the-art computer labs and classroom buildings, complete with gleaming new furniture, computers and multimedia technology. Electricity should be restored this month and students have returned, says the school’s newly appointed chancellor, Dr. Victor Ukpolo.

“Our students were the most vulnerable. They lived in the Lower Ninth Ward,” says Ukpolo.

There were 3,600 students enrolled at SUNO in fall 2005, the vast majority above the age of 25. After the storm, 800 were accommodated at Southern’s main campus in Baton Rouge. And when “the state of Louisiana asked for projections as to how many would come back in the spring, we projected 1,500 and saw our budget slashed by $2.8 million.

“But thank God with all the strong efforts by my faculty, my students and my staff and the 24/7 project we put on of bringing back the students, we surpassed the target, and I’m proud to tell you that we have 2,051 students on the campus today,” Ukpolo says.

That number means more than 55 percent of SUNO’s students chose to return, and both Dillard and Xavier have similar stories to tell.

Dillard’s Hughes recalls returning to the city under escort and seeing streets filled with “refrigerators, mattresses, beds … Walls torn from office buildings and hotels … It was a shock to the emotions, almost surrealistic, to see the full scope of the destruction and realize that here was an entire campus that had to be restructured and restored.”

Dillard officials set a target of bringing 500 students back for the spring semester, a number that was less than a quarter of the school’s spring 2005 enrollment of 2,200. “And frankly, we thought if we could make that number it would be a miracle because, unlike all the other campuses, we can’t return to ours,” says Hughes. “How do you recruit without residential capacity?”

She resolved to do it anyway, holding summits for displaced and prospective students and families in Baton Rouge and Shreveport, La., as well as in major cities such as Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles. There were standing-room only crowds at several of the events, and Hughes found herself marveling at “the determination, the survival” on display.

The school had contracted with the New Orleans Hilton Riverside for housing and meals for the students, faculty and staff. “We had contracted for 800 spaces [for students] — almost 1,100 showed up. So we had to continue our practice of responding with ultimate flexibility to every new challenge,” Hughes says.

Xavier, meanwhile, with a severely damaged but relatively intact infrastructure, has seen the highest return rates of all. Of the 4,100 students enrolled before the hurricane, 75 percent are now back on campus.

“The seniors have gotten their caps and gowns, and I told them on that day, ‘You are the pioneers. You are starting a new history at Xavier because you are the ones that came back,’” Francis says. “The reply of the student leaders to me was, ‘We had to come back.’”

Students and faculty alike will need every bit of determination, creativity and flexibility at their disposal to persevere through what promises to be a difficult rebuilding.

“There may be no university or group of universities in history that’s ever confronted what we are confronting here in New Orleans. There are no rule books, no guidelines; we’re making it up as we go,” says Hughes.

SUNO, for example, has contracted with the Marriott hotel for student housing. But the students couldn’t afford the food at the Marriott’s restaurants and had no facilities for making their own meals. After learning of the problem, Dr. Alvin Bopp, a chemistry professor and the head of the faculty senate at SUNO, made a few phone calls. Within days, the Salvation Army was delivering lunches to the campus.

“It didn’t look very good, but it tasted just fine,” Bopp says.

Beyond the physical possessions swept away, Katrina may have washed away old rivalries and jealousies. The private institutions, for example — Dillard, Loyola, Tulane and Xavier — have formed a consortium to share expertise and resources. Dillard’s offices near the Superdome are rented from Tulane at a generously discounted rate.

At the same time, new relationships are forming. Dillard has been

“adopted” by Brown and Princeton universities, forging a partnership between three female university presidents: Hughes, Dr. Ruth Simmons of Brown, a Dillard alumna, and Dr. Shirley Tilghman of Princeton.

“There are times when the three of us are on a conference call problem-solving an issue, and I just almost want to pinch myself,” Hughes says. “It’s a great privilege to have the vast expertise of those two institutions and the support emotionally and personally of those two presidents.”

And life in general is moving at a blistering pace, especially for Francis, who is at the epicenter of rebuilding efforts not just at Xavier but for the entire state. He was a key partner in a mid-February negotiation with the Bush administration that resulted in the president’s committing to ask Congress for an additional $4.2 billion in recovery funds for the state.

“Historically Black institutions have a legacy of serving this state and this nation with leadership, and we in New Orleans refuse to let that mission and that legacy be diminished,” Francis says.

“I made the remark when we decided to reopen that historians will write that we were naïve or stupid or that this was a bold, visionary initiative,” he says. “I think it’s clear our vision for coming back is being affirmed.”

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