Sunday, March 16, 2008

Katrina's Impact on Physics in New Orleans

Through the charming haze of jazz and brass bands, beads and voodoo shops, fantastic food and a generally celebratory feeling, New Orleans is also home to all the things that make a city strong; including a number of Universities, and thousands of students and faculty. So when Katrina hit New Orleans, it not only shook the traditions that New Orleans is most known for, but every aspect of life in a city. At the same time that I was earning my bachelors degree and complaining about the cold New England winters, there were thousands of students in New Orleans trying to gain theirs in conditions I can’t imagine. A session at the APS March Meeting focused on something I’d overlooked in the all the devastation: how Katrina had impacted physics universities in New Orleans. (Pictured: University Hospital in downtown New Orleans, Tuesday after Katrina)

The session was titled “Lessons Learned from Katrina: How to Prepare a Department for Catastrophic Events,” and was represented at a press conference on Thursday, March 13. Speakers included the heads of physics departments at Tulane, Xavier, the University of New Orleans, and the University of Louisiana Lafayette. The former three universities suffered severe physical damage from the storm, and in some cases power outages and email systems loss for up to six months. Campus buildings and labs were damaged, and some scientists lost data and experiments stored on campus.

Yet what the speakers made clear was the triumphant come-back that the universities made. They were all excited to discuss how quickly so many of their faculty and students returned to campuses after the disaster: the University of New Orleans did an on-line semester in the fall of 2005, in which 7,000 students participated, and 75% of pre-Katrina students returned to Xavier University by January 2006. There was no mention of anger at the political system, or what the state or national governments could have done better to prepare the schools. While I’m certain the leaders of these schools have opinions on those topics, they were spared for the press conference. The responsibility to prepare for such a disaster in the future came down to the schools. Speakers discussed not only the fantastic recovery rate, but plans to prepare the school for another potential disaster.

One member of the press brought up the devastating lay-offs that also accompanied the post-hurricane renewal period. Despite needing money to fix damaged campuses, some of the schools saw severe budget cuts due to their now lower student populations. The speakers said that while the remaining faculty was sad about the cuts, morale seemed to be high. I believe that the speakers were genuine in their positive reports and sunny outlooks; but it was clear that conveying such an image of the schools was their predetermined goal.

University of Louisiana Lafayette was not physically impacted by the storm, but their physics department head Natalia Sidorovskaia discussed the immense effort extended by the school to support universities that were. The school opened its doors to storm refugees and volunteers, as well as offering tuition-free classes to displaced students.

University of Massachusetts Amherst polymer science professor David Hoagland spoke about his experience hosting University of New Orleans physicists evacuated by the storm. He found workspace in his own department for a research team of six people, who also brought their families to Amherst for about six months. Nearby Amherst College also assisted by giving jobs and housing to the physicists and their families, as well as a tuition-free semester to one of the evacuee’s sons. Hoagland did discuss the one disappointing side of the experience: that the state bureaucracy prevented funds from going directly to the families from the University. As a matter of fact, all funding and supplies came from Amherst College, private companies or individuals, or private donations by departments, rather than the university. Hoagland said he hated to speak poorly of the school, and that everyone who worked there was eager to help. But red tape simply prevented the university from offering any real financial assistance, a situation Hoagland hopes can be changed. With little action currently being taken to do so, he questioned what UMass Amherst would do in the event that a similar emergency affected them. How would they respond to doors being closed to their students and faculty?

1 comment:

  1. Don't forget Tulane's post-K behavior. They eliminated their Engineering department and got rid of the Engineering professors. With a city in need of lots of Engineers, you have to wonder the reason. Why?

    Was it because US army Corps of Engineers' engineers usually received their very costly continuing education credits from Tulane and their professors might have had some pertinent information for levee failure investigators?

    Who knows, but it sure is strange that Tulane is now advertising for engineering professors.