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University Begins Its Post-Katrina Term

More than four months after the hurricane, 6,500 students return to Tulane in New Orleans.

January 13, 2006|Elizabeth Mehren | Times Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS — Christina Brown spent less than an hour in her freshman dorm at Tulane University last summer before the campus was evacuated for Hurricane Katrina. She took enough clothes with her to last for what was expected to be a four-day absence.

Four months later, Brown and other students returned Thursday for what the school billed as a deja vu orientation: first-year move-in, the second time around.

Work crews had packed up their possessions so the residence halls could be refurbished after Katrina blew off roofs and knocked out windows -- and after 3 feet of water engulfed the jewel of this city's Uptown section. With the restoration complete and the students ready to return, they put everything back.

Brown, 18, returned from her Houston home to find things just as she had left them: bedding in cupboards, clothes in drawers; her books were still in boxes, because she never had a chance to put them on shelves.

The only reminders of Katrina were water spots on the ceiling, which Brown said gave the place a loft-like charm.

Smiling broadly, she said: "I am so happy to be back."

The same euphoria had gripped students in Tulane T-shirts who passed through Atlanta's airport earlier this week on their way back to school.

And on Tulane's fraternity/ sorority row Thursday, students turned one front lawn into an outdoor living room, sitting on couches and waving to passersby like long-lost friends. At the campus watering hole -- a dark, smoky bar known as the Boot -- a crowd that spilled out onto the sidewalk was enjoying a local brew called Abita.

"There's a whole new energy," said Yotam Yemini, 20, a junior from New York City. "Life is getting back to normal -- at least for some people."

Even as New Orleans residents and officials quarrel over how to rebuild the flood-devastated citadel of jazz and good times, Tulane -- the city's preeminent academic institution and largest employer -- teemed with the assurance that life here could go on.

The return of 6,500 Tulane undergraduates Thursday, however, was not without complications.

To cover close to $200 million in renovation costs, the university has eliminated 230 faculty positions and 250 staff jobs. Some sports were dropped, some academic programs were consolidated, and five undergraduate programs were abolished. Though it was a Tulane-educated engineer who invented a screw pump used on levee systems around the world, nearly all the engineering classes are among those to be phased out.

Pulling a bulging duffel bag toward his dormitory, sophomore Scott Seidman said he had been at Tufts University in Boston when he learned that his major at Tulane would disappear.

"They told us during finals. They totally blindsided us," said Seidman, 19, of Glenview, Ill.

Students who hastily left Tulane ahead of the Aug. 29 hurricane spent the fall semester at about 600 different U.S. campuses. Some did not come back -- just 80% of Tulane's freshmen have re-enrolled, far above the normal attrition rate.

But university President Scott S. Cowen said the re-enrollment was "way higher" than anyone had expected. "We thought, quite honestly, that if we had 60% back, we'd be doing great," he said.

Because the school's hurricane plan had required him to remain on campus, Cowen spent five nights sleeping on an air mattress in Tulane's administration building. As he navigated the 110-acre campus by rowboat, he was not sure the school could be salvaged.

Within days, however, officials came up with a plan that started with private loans totaling between $150 million and $200 million. "If we'd waited for FEMA," Cowen said, "we'd still be waiting."

Cleaning up the buildings was only part of the process. Throughout its 172-year history, Tulane was seen by the city around it as being somewhat aloof. Katrina, Cowen said, was a leveling experience -- and offered Tulane the chance to make new connections.

The school formed a consortium with Dillard and Xavier universities, which were heavily damaged by Katrina. Students from both universities will be allowed to take classes at Tulane as space permits. Cowen called the move a model for the rest of New Orleans, proof that "a majority white institution and two historically black colleges can work together."

Tulane students -- some starting as soon as this weekend -- will be required to perform at least 15 hours per year of community service within New Orleans. They will work in troubled areas such as the city's Lower 9th Ward, rebuilding homes, cleaning streets, tutoring children and teaching adults to use computers.

"Sir," Clark Dove of Phoenix told Cowen as he brought his daughter Kendred back to campus Thursday, "you've done a hell of a job."

Even as parents helped tote boxes to dorm rooms, workers were laying down sod on lawns that had yet to recover from Katrina. Plasterers raced around a few unfinished areas, and several campus eateries remained unopened. But the temporary food court was serving up ample portions of jambalaya.

Kendred's mother said she had reservations about letting the 19-year-old freshman, who had spent the fall semester at the University of Colorado at Boulder, come back to Tulane.

"We thought a lot about whether we should let her come back," Jamie Dove said. "It was very scary. Everything we heard about New Orleans was bad."

But sophomore Cheryl Johnson of Ventura said it never crossed her mind not to come back. Johnson, 19, said that although she enjoyed her fall semester at American University in Washington, D.C., she never stopped thinking about New Orleans.

"I had this big epiphany that I love New Orleans," she said. "California is home, and I love it. But this has become a part of me."

Johnson said she wept when she saw pictures of the city after Katrina. Then she realized that adversity might be opportunity in disguise.

"New Orleans has a spirit that can overcome anything," she said. "And we are a part of it now. And we have to make it even better."

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