Faculty and staff at Southern Methodist University in Dallas gathered on Monday afternoon for an emergency response session that had been scheduled for months. Little did they know how quickly they would put the lessons to use.
Just one day after SMU's drill, Cynthia Cherry, vice president for Student Affairs at Tulane University, called Jim Caswell, vice president for student affairs at SMU, asking for help. Approximately 400 Tulane students had been routed from New Orleans to Jackson State University (Miss.) in advance of Hurricane Katrina. The students needed a new place to stay because power in Jackson had gone out.
SMU, located approximately 400 miles west of Jackson State, mobilized immediately Tuesday afternoon. Staff members worked into the night to clear an area of a ballroom for the Tulane students to sleep in. They cleared another area for them to relax in and a third for phone and computer use. Others waited for a call from Cherry. "We were working frantically," said Caswell.
At 3:30 a.m. on Wednesday, approximately 150 Tulane students, including 100 people from the school's football program who would be staying at a hotel in town, arrived by bus at SMU. The students encountered a scene at the Hughes-Trig Student Center that they likely savored: air-conditioned rooms, running water, and working electricity. Campus cards gave them access to to a cafeteria. A group of SMU students greeted them.
As the hours and days pass since Hurricane Katrina stormed the Gulf Coast, faculty, staff and students from colleges around the country are spending time to help with recovery. From providing shelter to setting up donation accounts to facilitating students who want to transfer, the ideas coming out of the higher ed realm are growing in number and magnitude.
Centenary College in Shreveport, La., is now a clearinghouse of sorts for donations to New Orleans' Dillard University students, since Centenary began sheltering Dillard students over the weekend. Nearly 40 Dillard students lost all of their belongings when a charter bus that they were traveling on from New Orleans to Shreveport caught fire. Once news of the fire got out, hundreds of people flocked to Centenary's Gold Dome to donate clothing, food, toiletries, bedding, and other supplies for the Dillard students.
Dillard University students sleep inside the Gold Dome at Centenary College in Shreveport, La. The students left New Orleans to take refuge from Hurricane Katrina. (AP Photo/Shreveport Times, Greg Pearson)
So many people offered goods and money that Centenary set up a special account for Dillard donations, says Centenary spokeswoman Lynn Stewart. "People filled the immediate needs very quickly," she notes, adding that Centenary is contacting families in the Shreveport area who might temporarily host Dillard students who can't go home.
While donations are coming into some colleges and higher education organizations, a growing number of IHEs are also shifting registration deadlines and working with registrars to accept transfer students from damaged campuses. Georgia State University, SMU, the University of Texas, Austin, Texas Christian University, and Centenary are among the many schools that have fielded requests from students interested in transferring.
Binghamton University, part of the State University of New York system, is putting together an offer for Tulane students to attend classes at the upstate New York campus. The school even has brand-new living space ready to use, a spokeswoman said.
Despite the good intentions, challenges exist: Officials from many schools are struggling to be in contact with other colleges in the disaster zone. Whether or not records from a student's previous institution will be located has yet to be seen.
The U.S. Department of Education, in an effort to clear red tape, did announce on Wednesday that college students in impacted areas may delay payment on loans without penalty. The department is also working with funding entities so students can apply their financial aid monies to whatever school they enroll in for the semester.
Previous disasters helped prepare the higher education community to act quickly this time around. The Society for College and University Planning (www.scup.org) started a dedicated listserv three days after Katrina stormed the Gulf states; a release about the temporary online community went out Wednesday morning.
"We had some success with a similar list four years ago following 9/11 and are providing this resource as an opportunity for the higher education community to come together around this terrible disaster," wrote Terry Calhoun, SCUP director of media relations and publications.
Calhoun said by phone that he came up with the idea at 2 a.m. and got the listserv started hours later. By mid-afternoon Thursday, more than 1000 people joined the online group, he said.
Joe Flanagan, alumni director for St. Bonaventure College (N.Y.), attempted to use another listserv for hurricane response. On Wednesday morning he sent a note out to an alumni relations discussion list proposing that colleges collect money for Katrina recovery at alumni events. Flanagan wrote to his colleagues: "Perhaps we could add $1 to alumni events making it clear the extra dollar...will go to Red Cross to help in Gulf relief. I'm considering doing this, but perhaps as a group we can all do this."
"Colleges down there are really stuck," Flanagan said by phone. "I can't imagine what it's like not only to not know when you're going to open, but whether you're going to be back. It's just an awful situation."
Caswell of SMU said that of the approximately 150 students who arrived at the university early Wednesday, all had plans to relocate by the end of the week (although 100 people with the Tulane football program will be staying on in Dallas at a hotel).
As for continuing contact with Tulane, it is tough. As of Wednesday afternoon Caswell had not heard from Cherry since early in the day, and he had no way to reach her again.
The following resources have become central points of contact for relief
efforts (donations, transfer admissions, etc.) in the higher ed community*:
ProfNet's and PIOnet's release with a list of schools that are mobilizing: http://www.collaborativepr.com/collegesmobilizedraft
SCUP's temporary listserv for Katrina relief: To join, send a note to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include the word "Subscribe" in the
subject line. Once that is done, send postings to email@example.com.
*If you are setting up an online community or other live resource for
Katrina relief, we want to know. Please send an e-mail to
firstname.lastname@example.org with pertinent information.