Updated: August 29, 2017 2:32 p.m.
The University of Houston is remaining closed through Wednesday following flooding from Tropical Storm Harvey. At other area campuses, some students have been evacuated but leaders are still taking a full assessment of the damage done. A letter to the University of Texas community from President Greg Fenves, for instance, acknowledges the institution's Marine Science Institute in Port Aransas "was severely damaged by the wind and rains," but most campuses are reporting limited damage to facilities so far.
The storm, which has lingered over the Gulf Coast since Thursday, seems to have spared colleges and universities in ways Hurricane Katrina did not spare New Orleans-area institutions when it hit land August 29, 2005, but individuals are still feeling the impact. FEMA is estimating more than 30,000 people will seek emergency shelter, and for the projected 450,000 expected to seek federal aid, assistance will be needed for years to come. More than 30 inches of rain has fallen on the region — and experts say it isn't over yet.
“This is obviously a tragic event for everyone affected in Texas, our hearts go out to them, and depending on the extent of the damage, this is not something that could be easily fixed; it could take years and years … and it's really something that's going to take a lot of understanding on behalf of everyone involved with the university. It's not quick,” said Tulane University President Emeritus Scott Cowen. “It has an impact, there’s no question about it, and it's a long-term impact. So everyone has to be open and patient, and communication is going to be key.”
Cowen, who served as Tulane’s president during Hurricane Katrina, said, “I think people underestimate how long it takes to recover” from something as damaging as a hurricane, Cowen said, noting, “it took us almost a decade to recover.”
Southern University at New Orleans, which was hit harder than most other school is "still in recovery mode," according to Chancellor Lisa Mims-Devezin.
“First of all, a lot of students didn't return after Katrina, so we were under enrolled, which had an impact on our rankings, our financial rating,” Cowen said.
Dillard University President Walter Kimbrough was not at the university when Katrina hit, but recovery efforts were still underway when he took the reins in 2011. He echoed Cowen’s sentiments on enrollment.
“Enrollment will be a challenge for schools more reliant upon students from impacted areas,” said Kimbrough. "These families will be displaced, some even leaving. That impacts the pipeline from K-12.”
“You also aren't in a position to heavily recruit out of state, because there is no housing infrastructure to handle” prospective students, Kimbrough said, noting residence hall renovations at Dillard weren’t complete until January 2014 — nearly nine years later. But even if the housing infrastructure is there, Kimbrough said “there will be the mental image of Harvey that will dissuade out of state students.”
Fully assessing the impact of the damage
“You've got to remember at a time like this, the universities are — even if they [do] reopen [quickly], they’ve got to be concerned that probably the homes and the neighborhoods and the schools where the faculty and staff live may still be damaged,” said Cowen, who added that the safety and conditions facing faculty, staff and students who lived off campus was a top-of-mind consideration in the aftermath of Katrina.
At SUNO, administrators were told if they couldn't get 1,500 students back, the school would not reopen. Over 2,200 returned, with faculty agreeing to teach classes in libraries and other publics spaces, and online. In fact, if there was any good which came from Hurricane Katrina for SUNO, it was the spurring of construction of both resident halls and online classes, neither of which were present at the commuter institution before the storm took out many of the facilities, as well as the homes of many of the students and faculty members there.
At Tulane, “There was hundreds of billions of dollars in physical damage to the university that had to be remediated before we could re-open,” which eventually happened the following semester, Cowen said. “Many of our research facilities were closed down and damaged and had to be rebuilt. Our medical school did relocate to Texas, actually, to Houston. Our faculty, besides being displaced for an entire semester, they didn't have easy access to their facilities.”
And Kimbrough explained in New Orleans that many rushed in to help, but left poor workmanship.
“In a rush to get everything back up and running, work quality was poor. So for example, we find ourselves needing to replace many roofs on campus after being done less than 12 years ago,” he said.
SUNO is still awaiting the construction of four academic buildings on campus, despite what Chief Administrative Officer Gloria Moultrie called an "unprecedented" amount of "unsolicted" donations from corporations, individuals and other organizations.
At all three institutions, insurance and private donations covered some of the gaps, and “there was money ultimately from FEMA, even though it took and is still taking — Hurricane Katrina was 12 years ago, and we’re still in dispute from some of the items from 12 years ago,” Cowen said. He estimates that when he left the president’s office in 2014, there was “maybe $100 million of debt overhang where there wasn't insurance or FEMA or something else to repay that debt.”
“We had to take out some loans with some banks to be able to cover a lot of our expenses in the fall of ‘05 when we really didn't have much money coming in, especially from tuition, obviously, because we were closed,” he said.
And other institutions lent a hand, too. Tulane, like many other New Orleans-area institutions, made arrangements with universities in cities like Houston and Atlanta to enable students to attend classes at the other institution while still paying their tuition to the school in which they originally enrolled, necessitating the impacted schools be “fairly flexible about giving transfer credits” to students.
The timing of both storms — during the opening weeks of classes — means “ensuring [students and faculty] come back and they have access to all the facilities they need will be a challenge,” Cowen said.
But he said establishing “a rhythm of communications about how the university is faring, if it’s closed, when it can be expected to reopen, the kinds of services the university can provide” to the campus community and the community at-large is critical.
“During a time like this, people are very anxious, and they crave more information. And anything the university can do to give them straight-forward assessments of where the university stands, what they can expect when they come back, when they should come back are all going to be very critical,” Cowen said.
Mims-Devezin, who strongly agreed with the need for "open communication" between the university and its family, said it is also important for leaders to approach the situation with empathy and consideration of the personal loss affecting some on campus.
As a faculty member at SUNO when Katrina hit, she remembers vividly that students and faculty both, sometimes even homeless and with mismatched clothes, "showed the utmost resiliency. In spite of everything that we lost, we wanted to make sure the institution remained viable. During that time with no homes, mix and match clothing, we made sure we wrote grants for the institution, we went through the process of program accreditation, all with the goal of making sure SUNO remained a viable" institution which could continue serving students and the community, she said.
'I am my brother's keeper'
"The people who are going through this natural disaster in Texas, we wholeheartedly understand and feel their pain, and that’s why it’s so imperative that we at SUNO, in conjunction with the Southern University System do our part ... to be sure that we extend the same helping hand that was extended to us in our time of need," she said, adding, "Many of our students who did evacuate, many of them evacuated to Texas, and so now here 12 years later, they are undergoing the same catastrophic devastation that they underwent during Hurricane Katrina."
"It’s unfortunate that many people after Katrina, you know you would get the comments ‘I’m so tired of hearing about Katrina, it’s this many years later and we’re still talking about Katrina,’ but people do not realize the devastating effect of a natural disaster like this. As we speak, you know the pumping situation here is questionable ... there’s still a level of uncertainty with the city of New Orleans. When you’re still talking about 12 years to the date that you’re still rebuilding, that in itself should state to the world that these natural disasters cannot be something that can just be eliminated to the world. There is no time period that can be placed on the loss of lives ... and these devastating natural disasters have caused that."
Mims-Devezin said leaders of institutions in neighboring cities should lend support to the campus, both in terms of capacity-building, like with assisting with grant-writing and other administrative support while key staff members may remain out, and opening their doors to house students and faculty members who may have been displaced by the storm.
"We, right now, are doing an assessment, and we know that there may be students who will need, perhaps a place to stay and want to continue their education, and just as those institutions extended that open door policy to our students, we are extending the same to their students," she said.
"We stand united with our institutions. When we were in need, many of those institutions opened their doors to" New Orleans, and to "help them to understand the appreciation for what they have done, but more so the solidarity that we feel," Mims-Devezin said her campus stands ready to lend a hand.