Nicholls State University is located in Thibodaux, La., about 20 miles from where the center of Hurricane Gustav hit land Monday morning. And Nicholls State may illustrate both the progress made by Gulf colleges and universities since Katrina three years ago, and the uncertainty with any natural disaster.
The progress: Nicholls State was evacuated smoothly, well in advance of Gustav's arrival. Students were dispersed. Senior administrators decamped to the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Buildings were reinforced. Power was brought down to avoid surges. Only a very small security and facilities force stayed on campus. Similarly, many colleges in Louisiana reported that they were able to shut down campuses, communicate with students and employees, and speed relocations in a much more organized and efficient way than three years ago. People knew where to go and what to do.
The uncertainty: However much planning colleges do, a major hurricane is a major hurricane. At Nicholls State, at least three buildings have suffered serious roof damage, and officials suspect more buildings were also hit hard. But it's not yet safe to assess the damage.
"There are roof tiles and debris blowing through the campus," Stephen Hulbert, president, said in an interview from his temporary headquarters in Monroe. "We're not going to be able to assess the damage until after the storm passes," he said, noting that tornadoes and flooding remain possible.
Hulbert said he had been able to verify that all students who relied on the university for help finding housing during the storm were safe at Louisiana Tech University, where Nicholls State had sent them. But much else remains in question. The university had originally hoped to open again on Friday, but Hulbert said he doubted that would happen until Monday at the earliest.
Similar delays are being announced elsewhere. Tulane University had hoped to re-open this week, but has pushed back the resumption of classes until Monday, with dormitories re-opening on Sunday. Most of the 7,000 Nicholls State students are from Louisiana and so could rely on family members for help with evacuations. The university only had to move about 120 students, many of them international students. At Tulane, however, most students aren't local and many are scattered widely now, with about 260 going together through a university program to relocate at Jackson State University.
Dillard University, which is among the New Orleans colleges that suffered the greatest damage from Katrina, sent about 100 students to Centenary College, in Shreveport, in the northwest part of Louisiana, which has suspended regular campus operations until Thursday.
Aleta Barnes, assistant to the vice president for facilities management at Dillard, volunteered to be one of the university employees to accompany the students to Centenary, and she said Monday that the college had both dormitory space and activities for students. Students have been treated to movies and bowling, plus more serious activities -- study time and filling sandbags. "We want to keep them busy," Barnes said.
She stressed that Dillard was encouraging students to keep up with their classes via electronic communication with professors. Those Dillard students at Centenary without laptops have access to computers so that they can keep up, she said.
With New Orleans under mandatory evacuation, every college there is closed, as are many community colleges in the state. The closures extend far beyond New Orleans and the immediate coastal area, and include institutions such as Grambling State University, Louisiana College, Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, and Southern University at Baton Rouge. Some of the campuses further from the coast, however, are hoping to open this week. Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and the University of Southern Mississippi will also be closed today.
Even at campuses without full evacuations, officials are taking extra care to ensure student safety. The University of Louisiana at Lafayette normally houses about 3,000 students, but was down to a little more than 200 for the arrival of Gustav. Many of them are international students or others who don't have family in the vicinity.
E. Joseph Savoie, president of the university and an alumnus, said he has "lived with hurricanes my entire life," and is treating this one seriously. Reached in the student union, where he was monitoring the situation with safety officers and facilities experts, Savoie said that good plans were in place. The students in the dormitories had been told not to go outside, and food was being delivered to them -- with lunch and dinner both arriving Monday mid-day on the chance the cafeteria workers couldn't reach the dorm in the evening.
"The mood is pretty positive," he said in an interview with Gustav not quite yet at the campus. "People feel good about the preparation and hopeful that this will be primarily a rain event for us."
He added: "You can't control everything, but you can get well prepared, so that there's not a whole lot of guesswork. We've got a script lined up."