Rita Disrupts, but Doesn't Devastate

September 26, 2005

Hurricane Rita forced colleges in Texas and Louisiana to prepare for the worst, but officials at many institutions were feeling relieved by late Saturday and spent much of the weekend preparing to re-open soon. While damage reports were not in, a few institutions did experience significant damage. In Texas, they include Lamar University, Lamar State College at Port Arthur, and the Lamar Institute of Technology. In Louisiana, Sowela Technical Community College, in Lake Charles, suffered extensive damage and the same may be true for McNeese State University.

With the devastation of Hurricane Katrina still on everyone's mind, some colleges in Texas and Louisiana evacuated all students, while others gave students the option of leaving. Colleges on the Gulf coast of Texas and Louisiana were all shut by Friday, and emergency plans were in place.

Colleges in Rita's Path

The area where Hurricane Rita touched land was still largely off limits to most people on Sunday, so officials of colleges located there couldn't offer precise damage estimates or schedules for re-opening.

Of the four Lamar campuses, one (a two-year campus at Orange) had only minor damage. But Charles R. Matthews, chancellor of the Texas State University System (of which the Lamar institutions are a part), said that the other three all experienced significant damage. Matthews said that roof damage was extensive, water was on multiple floors of the main Lamar University library, and that none of the campuses had power.

Students from all four Lamar campuses had all been evacuated by Wednesday, with most returning to their homes. Only the four-year campus has dormitories and a significant population of people from outside Texas -- hundreds of international students whom the university arranged to house at a summer camp.

Matthews said that system officials had been consulting with colleagues in Florida and elsewhere about the best way to rejigger a semester that is interrupted by a hurricane and repair work. While he said it was too early to talk about re-opening campuses, he stressed that he did not think it would be necessary to call off the fall semester, as New Orleans institutions were forced to do following Hurricane Katrina.

The first priority, Matthews said, would be restoring power, without which significant repair efforts would be impossible. Once that is done, the Orange campus could open quickly, and contractors have already been hired to work on roof repair elsewhere. "The main thing, of course, is that no one was hurt," he said. "We can fix everything."

On the Louisiana side of the border, the area in and around Lake Charles suffered extensive destruction from Rita. Walter G. Bumphus, president of the Louisiana Technical and Community College System, said that the system's Lake Charles campus experienced "serious damage," but that he did not yet have details.

The University of Louisiana System announced that its campuses that had been shut for Rita would re-open today or tomorrow, but McNeese State -- in Lake Charles -- will be closed until Wednesday. Details on the state of McNeese State were not available.

Rita was also a force further away from where the hurricane hit land. A Rita-spawned tornado hit Mississippi State University on Sunday afternoon, causing some damage and loss of power. Classes were called off until 1 p.m. today.

Largely Spared

Texas A&M at Galveston, which had evacuated all of its 1690 students by Tuesday, lost power but experienced relatively little damage. R. Bowen Loftin, vice president and chief executive officer, said that the college's location has long necessitated the institution having a complete hurricane plan. The college was prepared, if necessary because of extensive damage, to move most academic and administrative functions to the main Texas A&M campus, in College Station. But now the college plans to resume classes on Thursday. The University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston also reported only minimal damage.

At College Station, Texas A&M -- which has already served as a key relocation site for people feeling the impact of Hurricane Katrina -- more than 1,500 people found shelter, as did some 800 pets, some of whom received care and feeding at the university's veterinary college.

The University of Houston announced late Saturday that its campuses had suffered no significant damage. The Clear Lake and downtown campuses will re-open on Thursday and the Victoria campus will re-open on Tuesday. Officials said that the reason the campuses weren't re-opening immediately was that government officials had urged staged re-openings so all the people who left Houston could return in an orderly way.

Eric R. Gerber, a spokesman for the university, said that Houston was prepared to evacuate up to 500 students, and had buses standing by, but that only about three dozen students needed assistance finding a place to stay.

Rice University also reported no real damage, and said that students who stayed in dormitories were doing fine. Many university operations will resume Monday and classes will resume Tuesday.

Houston Community College will resume classes on Wednesday and hopes to have faculty members at work on Tuesday.

Impact on New Orleans Colleges

Rita also created problems for colleges in New Orleans. Many of them have relocated some programs and offices to Houston and had to shut those at the end of last week to prepare for the arrival of Rita.

And before Rita hit ground in Texas, it caused more flooding in New Orleans, where colleges are still trying to assess and repair damage from Katrina. The University of New Orleans had to push back registration in its online courses until Tuesday. Those courses are intended to help students stay on track after the university had to call off most programs for the fall semester.

Tulane University reported that the additional New Orleans floods were far enough away from the institution's campus that they did not cause any damage and would not delay repair efforts.

Even as colleges were measuring the damage from Rita, they continued to come up with creative ways to deal with the dislocations caused by Katrina. Louisiana State University's medical school, which is located in New Orleans, has been moving its operations to Baton Rouge, but could not find housing for the hundreds of students and faculty members who have been uprooted. On Friday, the medical school announced that a cruise ship would dock in Baton Rouge and provide housing for about 1,000 students and faculty members.

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