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New Orleans Universities Open After Hurricane Katrina

A NewsHour report on the struggles faced by many New Orleans colleges and universities, opening for the first time since Hurricane Katrina.

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  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Hurricane-damaged colleges and universities that were closed all last semester welcomed back faculty and students this week. That influx increased the population of New Orleans by 20 percent. At Tulane, losses totaled $200 million to its campuses, especially its medical school. But today, the university is in better shape than officials thought possible.

    The campus at Dillard University, one of the country's oldest black universities, is still locked and uninhabitable. This college, which began when African-Americans had little access to white schools, was entirely underwater and suffered half a billion dollars in damage. Today, it's holding classes in the Hilton Hotel on the Mississippi River.

    And at Xavier University, the country's only historically black Catholic college, the water which covered the campus is gone, but the buildings are still being repaired. Yet, the neighborhood around Xavier is devastated and for the most part deserted. Stores are closed; shopping centers near the campus are ghostly. Like several New Orleans schools, it is an island struggling to restart amid a much-changed city.

    All in all, 30 colleges on the Gulf Coast were affected; 14 were closed. Damage was estimated at $1.5 billion, forcing 100,000 students to enroll elsewhere or take the semester off. Administrators at all of the schools fought to get their scattered student bodies and faculties back, and for the most part they have succeeded, but not without change.

    To replace housing that had been destroyed, Tulane brought a big cruise ship from the Mediterranean to the Mississippi River, where 150 students are living, though many more can be accommodated if needed.

  • WOMAN:

    It feels like home because I lost my home.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    On the academic front, Tulane cut 132 faculty members, reduced its staff, and, on the recommendation of president Scott Cowen, decided to eliminate several of Tulane's engineering programs.

  • SCOTT COWEN:

    We have a very small engineering school relative to engineering schools around the country. And in order to really make that engineering school a powerhouse at all levels, not just undergraduate, would require a large investment of dollars we simply don't have.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Those cuts outraged some engineering students like Bryan Cole, who formed a group to fight them.

  • BRYAN COLE:

    Tulane's been cranking out engineers since 1898. I mean, it's one of the finest engineering schools in the Deep South. It's now more than ever we need, you know, high quality engineers.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Cowen said his decision was final. He presided over the welcoming ceremony for Tulane's incoming freshmen and their parents, where a traditional New Orleans jazz band set an upbeat tone. (Music playing) (applause) Cowen said, just after the hurricane, he was unsure whether the university could carry on.

  • SCOTT COWEN:

    It almost destroyed the city of New Orleans, and it almost destroyed Tulane University.

  • SCOTT COWEN:

    In the first three weeks after that storm, I wasn't sure we would survive, and the reason is we had 10,000 students; I had no idea where they were. We had over 6,000 people on the payroll; I had no idea where they were. And we were off in Houston, Texas, in a hotel. And we're trying to figure out how to put this thing back together again understanding there's no script for it. There is no university or company, for that matter, of our size that have ever gone through anything like this.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    The university produced this video to convince students who might not want to return to New Orleans that the city was still an interesting and a fun place.

  • SPOKESPERSON:

    Many parts of town will take a while to recover but many jewels of New Orleans culture are still shining through.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    More than 90 percent of Tulane students returned, and applications are up 19 percent for next semester. Across town at Xavier, a third of the faculty was laid off. At a staff meeting, returning professors greeted colleagues they hadn't seen since Hurricane Katrina. During the flooding, campus police worked to evacuate 350 students trapped in their dorms as bodies floated on to the campus.

  • MAN:

    You know, the water was real high right here, and a lot of the people was trying to evacuate. And if you didn't know that canal was there, you know, you stepped down into that canal, and a few of them drowned. Nobody connected with the university. They were people from the neighborhood.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Xavier's facilities suffered major damage. A quarter million dollar electron microscope was destroyed in the pharmacy school which trains more African American pharmacists than any other university. And at the gym, the $200,000 hardwood floor on the basketball court was warped; it is being replaced by a floor donated by Mississippi State University.

    Students arrived to find most of their dorms dry and, in some cases, renovated. Some students and faculty will live for now in trailers near the campus. For a school with a small endowment and a tuition of $11,000 a year, bringing the school back was, according to its longtime president Norman Francis, a miracle.

  • NORMAN FRANCIS:

    Every time we open our doors, it's a miracle. Well, I can tell you this is the biggest miracle that we're opening our doors. Nobody thought we would come back in a four-month period and restart Xavier. This may have been either a stupid decision or a bold, aggressive, visionary decision. (Laughter and applause)

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Francis, who lost his own house in the flood and heads up the Louisiana Recovery Authority, told his faculty that Xavier has not received any government help despite a $35 million loss.

  • NORMAN FRANCIS:

    We have not received one dollar from what we call the famous FEMA and government alike.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Xavier borrowed money to pay for repairs, but expects some federal help eventually. Near Dillard University, the surrounding neighborhood was essentially wiped out. College president Marvalene Hughes had just started her job when the disaster struck.

  • MARVALENE HUGHES:

    I did not believe that Dillard University was underwater. And I — when I was told that, I requested an aerial view because I still didn't believe it. How — how could you imagine your complete university underwater?

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    The complete university?

  • MARVALENE HUGHES:

    The entire university was underwater.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    She and her staff had moved out of town after the storm and pondered where to set up the school.

  • MARVALENE HUGHES:

    What became apparent to me was that if Dillard University we're going to preserve its history. It had to come home. It had to come to New Orleans. It had to be a part of the recovery of the economy in New Orleans if it were going to take its place.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    That's how they chose the hotel. Now, Hilton meeting rooms have become classrooms for the 1,100 students who returned, about half of those who enrolled pre-Katrina. Students and faculty live in regular guest rooms. 21-year-old senior Aislyn Lipford of Tennessee spent the fall semester at the University of Memphis.

  • AISLYN LIPFORD:

    Then they also made sure that we had a study area where our computer and printers and everything will go. It's been wonderful. I cannot complain; that's one thing that I can't do. They made it possible for me to come here to live and go to class, so I can't complain about this at all.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    In class– this is a course in social welfare– students discussed the problems of the city.

  • SPOKESMAN:

    If its endangering people's lives then yes sir we'll do a sit down but you have to ask permission it's a permission protocol to get it done.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Dillard and most New Orleans schools are using the city and its problems as a laboratory, studying the social situation and requiring community service as part of the curriculum.

  • SCOTT COWEN:

    Where else can you get a better education in life right now than at Tulane University? You also get to participate in the largest recovery of a city in the history of the United States. That's what education's all about.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Tulane and other damaged Gulf Coast schools have joined together to share facilities and faculty. Katrina, they say, forced them to tighten their belts and plan for their own survival.