NEW ORLEANS — Loyola University President Kevin Wildes learned the hard way the importance of being prepared for natural disasters when he led his student body on the path to recovery following Hurricane Katrina.
“It wasn’t just the storm, but the flooding. The challenge really came in how we reorganized after the storm,” Wildes said. He explained that his school learned very broad lessons — most importantly, that you need to have a conscious and attentive disaster plan at all times.
“Any college or university anywhere can learn from us,” Wildes said. “You hope to God that nothing ever happens, but if something does happen, you have to be ready.”
His comments came Thursday during a Presidential Panel revisiting the challenges of surviving Hurricane Katrina during the 26th annual National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in Higher Education. Other panelists included Tulane University President Dr. Scott Cowen, Xavier University President Dr. Norman Francis, former Dillard University President Dr. Marvalene Hughes, Southern University of New Orleans Chancellor Dr. Victor Ukpolo and facilitator, Howard University President Dr. Sidney Ribeau.
Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in August 2005, caused more than $81 billion in damages and claimed more than 1,800 lives. It not only had a devastating impact on the city of New Orleans but also on the institutions of higher education within the city.
Introduced by Dr. James Pappas, University of Oklahoma vice president for university outreach, the panel of presidents highlighted the monumental challenges their institutions faced in order to survive post-Katrina.
“My campus was completely and totally destroyed by fire, water, any unimaginable situation you can have. Had any of our students been left on campus, they would not have made it,” said Hughes, whose campus sustained $400 million in damages after the storm.
Cowen explained that 70 percent of Tulane University’s uptown campus and the entire health science campus were destroyed. Despite having comprehensive emergency management plans, he was not prepared for Katrina’s impact.
“We hadn’t anticipated a storm that would be of that category and come into a city in a certain way that the storm surge would be as violent as it was,” Cowen said. “Our hurricane plan worked beautifully with one exception. It worked because not a single person at Tulane was injured or hurt, but the one thing the plan never anticipated was that the entire city would be destroyed. We never thought a hurricane would destroy the entire infrastructure of the city itself.”
Xavier University’s Wildes shared the same sentiments about the devastation within the city of New Orleans.
“We were prepared in general, but you can never prepare for a catastrophe the likes of which Katrina was. It closed down the city completely and everything you knew about what the city was, was no longer. That was the greatest shock for all of us,” Wildes said.
Facing the task of rebuilding, all of the schools represented on the panel shut down for the semester following Hurricane Katrina. While their respective doors were closed, the institutions looked to support from the higher education community. The panelists noted that the reinforcement they received from other colleges and universities across the country was a relief in the midst of unimaginable circumstances.
“Higher education was stupendous nationally. It opened its doors, everywhere, to our students,” Wildes said.
While students found temporary homes at other colleges and universities, the presidents expressed similar concerns about rebuilding their institutions, specifically as it involved retention of the displaced student populations.
“We literally rebuilt an institution from scratch. We had to take every element of the institution—academic, physical, student services, and the likes—and rebuild. Our greatest fear was that the students would not return,” Francis said.
Cowan added that, although Tulane had $650 million in physical damage, the biggest concern was the size of the student body the next two years after the storm. The numbers declined and that forced an added focus on rebuilding and retention.
“We worked with our colleagues in higher education to take our students in for the Fall of 2005, but we also said, ‘Please allow them to come in ’05, but do not allow them to transfer in ’06.’ We wouldn’t have been destroyed by the storm but by the fact that the students never came back,” Cowan said.
In closing the panel, the presidents echoed similar sentiments.
Cowan summed it up by saying the institutions had to not only exist but to move forward following the storm to give people and the community hope and something to look forward to. The schools reopened in the midst of rebuilding efforts in makeshift locations—some scattered throughout the city in hotels, churches and temporary buildings—in order to do their part in getting the city of New Orleans back on its feet.