NEW ORLEANS -- Across St. Charles Avenue from Loyola University New Orleans, the grounds of Audubon Zoo were littered with branches and other debris on Sunday, but the university's green spaces were pristine. And as students moved into their residence halls on a hot late summer afternoon, it seemed like any other such day on any other campus -- except that, for those at Loyola and many other universities in the Gulf Coast region, they were moving back into their dorms, two weeks after the real "move-in" day of the 2008-9 academic year.
Loyola's students and employees dispersed to Texas, Mississippi, Alabama and elsewhere late last month as Hurricane Gustav threatened to lash New Orleans with 100-mile per hour winds. Three years after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita did tens of billions of dollars of damage to homes, businesses and institutions in New Orleans, catching many officials off-guard, administrators at Loyola and other area colleges took no chances this time around.
Campus officials suspended operations after the close of business on Thursday, August 28, a mere three days after classes began. Students -- who had been required to submit a "personal evacuation plan" detailing how they would get to safety in the event of another weather or other emergency -- left to stay with relatives or friends in not-so-nearby cities or states. Robert A. Reed, director of residence life at Loyola, led a team of officials who took about 20 students, mostly international students without other plans, to stay at a high school in Baton Rouge.
And as university employees, too, left New Orleans under a citywide mandatory evacuation, Loyola's top administrators set up shop in Dallas, running the university's technology and administrative operations from afar.
As students returned to campus on Sunday, the mood was decidedly upbeat. They found a campus that looked none the worse for wear; early reports suggested that there was little serious damage, and the university's facilities crew had spent the previous several days cleaning up the fallen tree branches and other comparatively minor damage that did occur, said Meredith Hartley, director of public affairs and external relations.
Most students said their experiences had gone smoothly. Jethro Celéstin, a sophomore from Haiti who was among the students who left the campus as part of the university-led contingent, seemed little bothered by the unfortunate fact that the Baton Rouge high school to which he and others were evacuated lost power because Baton Rouge was, ironically, hit harder by Gustav than New Orleans was.
"I've spent my life living on islands, so I'm used to that," Celéstin said. He said he had previously known just one of the students he evacuated with, and that he "bonded" with them, making fast friends.
Like other students, he kept up with his classes via the system Loyola set up on Blackboard -- only one day of classes were lost during the week students were away -- and was in constant contact via e-mail with his professors, Celéstin said. "From that side it went perfectly."
Damir Durmo, a sophomore basketball player from Bosnia who transferred this fall to Loyola, called the time away from campus "a mini-vacation." He wound up staying with relatives in Dallas, heard regularly from the basketball coach, and said he "didn't feel any consequence from the hurricane."
Asked if the turmoil made him question the wisdom of going to college in New Orleans, Durmo said it was only "natural" that he and other students would be thinking along those lines. But without missing a beat, he said: "I couldn't wait to get back here."
Things didn't go quite as smoothly for Caitlin Garcia-Ahern, a freshman who evacuated to her home near Atlanta. Neither her books nor her campus debit card had shown up before she left, so while she was able to keep tabs on her assignments on Blackboard, she "couldn't do my homework" and worries she'll be late on assignments. "They're saying the professors will be flexible, so maybe it'll be all right," Garcia-Ahern said.
Like most of her peers interviewed, she did not seem to be having any second thoughts about going to college in New Orleans. "My mom was a little worried, but she worries about everything," Garcia-Ahern said. "It's going to be like this in any coastal city."
On balance, university officials were pleased by how the hard work they'd done post-Katrina in preparing for another emergency had played out. "There are always things you can work on, but our communication post-Katrina has improved a lot, and we seem to have created a process that makes it easy for us to start back up" without missing a beat, said Hartley, the public affairs director.
Over lunch in a steadily filling cafeteria, Hartley read e-mails of praise from parents ("The University's response to the looming hurricane was exactly what you promised when the present Juniors were entering the University in the Fall of 2006," one parent wrote to the president, the Rev. Kevin Wildes. "Your preparation and execution of the plan along with the Blackboard education program is a prime example of a wonderful Administration who knows how to act in times of crisis!") and prepared to head to her house to clean out a refrigerator she hadn't had time to empty completely before she left.
"Being a small school, we really can take care of each other, like a family," Hartley said.
Although she and other officials seemed satisfied by the university's reaction to Gustav and by the students' resoluteness, they noted potential challenges ahead. The evacuation came before the university's drop/add deadline, so it would be possible for students (or parents) who might be tiring of this sort of disruption or worrying about safety to leave Loyola without any financial penalty. "We have certainly been concerned we might lose some students," Hartley said.
Especially because, as fate would have it, yet another storm may be on the way, in the form of Hurricane Ike, which as of now is projected to head roughly this way, too, later this week.