Recovery From Disaster

Colleges do rebound from calamities of nature -- and those that have done so offer lessons and hope for those in New Orleans.
September 13, 2005

For most of us, it's impossible to understand what it is like today to be from New Orleans or to be an academic completely cut off from your campus, colleagues and students.

A small group of college leaders, however, does have a sense of how it feels. These are academics who have led colleges through natural disasters. Members of this group, which no one wants to join, stress that their colleagues in New Orleans have it worse than they did. But they also want their counterparts on the Gulf Coast to know that a college can experience seemingly total catastrophe and come back strong.

At Gustavus Adolphus College, March 29, 1998 is the day everything turned upside down. A huge tornado (probably multiple tornadoes) blew through campus and the surrounding communities. Every single roof at the college needed to be replaced, such that not a single classroom building was available for use. Eighty-five percent of windows on the campus needed to be replaced. Thankfully, most students were on spring break at the time and there were no injuries of those few who were still on the campus.

"In Minnesota at that time of year, you worry about blizzards, not tornadoes, so it's hard to ever get over the shock of it," said Ken Westphal, vice president of finance. He said that it was "a spiritual experience" to see such damage, and then to see recovery.

The college extended spring break by three weeks, so that enough of the campus could be repaired that students could return without the semester being called off. Trailers were brought in for classrooms. Half of the athletic center was converted to a dining hall. Then all summer programs were called off so that a broader repair job could take place.

The total cost: $50 million. But Westphal said that the campus was not financially devastated because it had great insurance policies through a consortium of religious colleges. The only major expense that was not covered by the insurance was a loss of about 2,000 trees on the campus, and the college raised about $2 million to plant new trees.

The immediate period after the tornado was particularly hard, Westphal said, for the same reason New Orleans educators will be struggling for some time. Not only have their colleges been damaged or temporarily closed, but employees have lost their homes. Westphal and his family lived in their basement for three months after the tornado, the first six weeks without electricity -- and there was snow just a few days after the disaster. "It's at work and at home. You don't get any respite," he said.

The college never suffered a dip in enrollment or lost faculty members, he said. And while no one who was there in 1998 has forgotten the tornado, it does not hold back the college at all.

A Hurricane in Florida

Recovery is more recent at the University of West Florida, which was hit by Hurricane Ivan a year ago. John Cavanaugh, the president there, said that more than 95 percent of its buildings were damaged and 10 percent of employees experienced catastrophic losses on the level of losing their homes.

As with Hurricane Katrina, Ivan struck at the beginning of a semester. West Florida shut down for three weeks and started the repair job that exceeded $12 million. Cavanaugh said that if the university hadn't been able to open after three weeks, he thinks the semester might have been lost. As it was, the academic calendar was revised. About 3 percent of students left, but enrollment is back up this year.

"It takes time, but you can come back," said Cavanaugh. And he should know -- not only does he have experience at West Florida, but he was provost at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington when Hurricane Floyd struck there in 1999.

Also supporting that view is David Irvin, associate vice chancellor and associate vice president for facilities at the University of Houston, where the main campus suffered $100 million in damage from Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001. The university was a victim of bad luck (the storm came right at it) and unintended consequences (an underground tunnel system that connected all the buildings on the campus spread the water and the damage everywhere).

Irvin said that timing helped his university as enrollment is down in the summer, creating more flexibility, and some buildings were functional within a week. But with significant damage in 95 percent of buildings, many took years to repair.

So what do you do to recover from a natural disaster? These colleges offer a range of ideas:

  • Show students that they can still afford college. Cavanaugh of West Florida said that his university required anyone wanting a tuition refund to attend a mandatory counseling session at which aid experts explained how much money they were eligible for, especially with special funds for hurricane victims. Many students who thought they couldn't stay found that they could.
  • Help employees rebuild their homes. West Florida offered six-month, no-interest loans so that employees could deal with the crisis and start to rebuild. "You have to keep your focus on people, and remember that they are going through a catastrophe," said Cavanaugh. At Gustavus Adolphus, Westphal said that funds were offered to employees to help rebuild their homes, but he had a tough sell. "In this part of the country, people have so much pride that even when people were identified as losing their entire home, you practically had to twist people's arms to take assistance, and they were saying 'so and so is in worse shape than I am so give him the money,'" Westphal said.
  • Think big. Westphal said that when the tornado hit, the college was in the early stages of planning to double the size of the student center. It was tempting to focus just on recovery, but Westphal said that the college decided to move ahead quickly with the plan to double the center's size, even without the gifts on hand that would normally have been required. "We felt it was very important to show that we were rebuilding a greater Gustavus. We wanted to show we were going to be a better institution," he said.
  • Learn from mistakes. Houston has a series of new policies in place to prevent future disasters. Those underground tunnels, for instance, now all have submarine doors that can be shut, and sensors to warn about water in any facility. Pumps in buildings are tested weekly during hurricane season. And key equipment that was stored in basements and wiped out by Allison is now above ground.

While officials who have been through a natural disaster all say that they never want to do so again, they also speak with pride about how their institutions responded, and predict that Xavier and Delgado and New Orleans will do likewise in the future.

"The experience here didn't just change the way the buildings are set up, but the hierarchy and the way things run," Irvin said. For example, he said that the associate vice presidents now all meet regularly to talk about their goals and to find ways to work together -- something that they didn't do before. Those common bonds, he said, are part of why he thinks Houston has had more success academically and financially since Allison. "There's nothing like a flood to show you that you are all in the same boat," he said.


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