"The house of the university president is gone," says David Taylor, physical plant director at the University of Southern Mississippi. The matter-of-fact assertion is one Taylor never thought he would make.
But these are not normal times. The university's fall semester of 2005, will be one to remember.
August's languid flow of life, weighed down by the heavy, humid atmosphere that pervades the eight campuses of U.S.M. in the Gulf Coast summer came to an abrupt halt when a vicious hurricane named Katrina came knocking.
The hurricane, Taylor estimates, has left U.S.M.'s Long Beach, campus with as much as $50 million in property damage, including the president's house.
"It's kind of unbelievable to look at some of the buildings that don't have a first floor anymore," Taylor says, "Or to look and see where buildings were and aren't there anymore."
Meanwhile, several miles away, at U.S.M.'s Hattiesburg campus, Rodger Jackson, director of safety and environmental services, in September walked across university grounds for the first time following the catastrophe and found a recently remodeled fraternity house split in half by an uprooted pine tree.
The winds from the storm shot through Hattiesburg at more than 120 miles per hour, according to some reports. Still, he considers himself lucky. "Compared to the coast, we came out okay," he says. "You can't compare this place to the coast."
The U.S.M. system includes more than 15,000 students spread across eight different locations, which includes the two main campuses in Long Beach and Hattiesburg, as well as research and education centers in Ocean Springs and Biloxi. The university campuses contain a mix of old and modern buildings.
The main campuses reflect the range of exposures to which public institutions are subject when a massive storm like Hurricane Katrina pounds the coast with wind and rain.
Property exposures--both physical and intellectual--proved hardest hit, says Taylor.
On the property side, smaller campus houses are missing altogether. At least three other buildings, some dating back to 1921, were so damaged that they will have to be condemned, he says.
The institution's buildings are covered for property and storm damage by St. PaulTravelers. Personal liability, meanwhile, is covered by a state pool.
Taylor also says U.S.M. suffered from the loss of intellectual property. Hurricane Katrina's winds ripped into offices and computers, destroying data collected over the past seven or eight years on marine and aquatic experiments. "Some of it you really can't start over with," he says. "We've lost those years."
Meanwhile, Jackson and the Hattiesburg team, located just 60 miles from the coast, bore the brunt of Katrina's force. Risk and safety management officials there dealt with a different set of exposures, Jackson said.
Unlike U.S.M.'s other Gulf Coast site, thousands of students live on and around the Hattiesburg campus. Jackson's risks, therefore, involved the safety of those students, many of whom had arrived over the weekend ready to start classes for the semester, and some of whom had nowhere to go when the hurricane thundered through their Gulf Coast homes early that week.
U.S.M.'s risk exposures suddenly expanded to include the safety of those students who were forced to find shelter from the storm in campus dorms and houses. Feeding these students, Jackson says, became one of the university's priorities.
So as campus security and Hattiesburg police and firefighters wandered across a campus littered with shingles, broken windows and unearthed trees, and worked to clear the city's streets in the days after Katrina hit, 300 to 400 U.S.M. students were filing into a dimly lit makeshift banquet hall three times a day for meals. "These kids and workers never missed a meal," Jackson says.
Many hadn't eaten for several hours, even days. For six hours on Monday, August 29, for example, Jackson sat in a concrete tunnel under the bleachers of M.M. Roberts Stadium, the football stadium on the Hattiesburg campus, and waited for the storm to calm. It was too dangerous to venture out, and businesses remained closed.
Jackson estimates that he was joined by 20 or 30 others including U.S.M administrators and safety officers, as well as Hattiesburg policemen and firefighters. "We pretty much hunkered down like everyone else," Jackson says.
Hunkering down was part of the plan that Jackson and the other administrators had implemented for just such an occasion.
The university's emergency response plan called for the Emergency Response Administration--led by the president of the university and the head of university police--to establish a command post to assess any damages incurred to the campus and to maintain communication links with students, faculty and other key administrators.
The plan divides the Hattiesburg campus into six zones and assigns to each zone an emergency surveillance and repair team to assess the damage and maintain basic services like plumbing and electricity, just in that zone. In the event of any kind of catastrophe, the plan outlines the responsibilities of each member of the Emergency Response Administration.
Once a hurricane watch is declared, the plan assigns specific responsibilities to each administration office. Each team's responsibilities shift as a hurricane intensifies or calms. During a hurricane watch, for example, the Residence Life office ensures that all area coordinators and resident assistants have flashlights and checks the emergency inventory for an adequate supply of batteries, trash bags, and food that does not require cooking or refrigeration.
Once a hurricane strikes, those responsibilities shift to assessing damages and turning the gas off in campus buildings.
"One thing I can say about U.S.M. is we were ready," Jackson says. That was because they had a plan and stuck to it, or tried to. "The plan worked fairly well considering the short amount of time we had to prepare," Taylor says.
Although Taylor and Jackson agree that the university's recovery plan was effective considering Katrina's intensity, both felt that USM could have done more to better prepare for the storm.
Taylor acknowledged that the university could have to do more to protect its intellectual property and research. He cites the scope and significance of the university's lost information and research, some of which can never be recovered.
"There were a lot of people that had important data and research data on their computers--their laptop computers--that they're laying out on the lawn on campus right now," he says.
The location of campus buildings also needs to be reviewed, Taylor says. Some of the buildings destroyed by Hurricane Camille in 1969 had been rebuilt in the same place, only to be damaged or destroyed again almost 40 years later by Katrina, a brutal storm that killed more than 1,000 people. Until the last few hours before making landfall, the storm was a Category 5 monster.
"We had a maintenance shop and some classroom labs in a flood zone," he says. "I wouldn't go back there--it doesn't make sense."
Where those buildings will be rebuilt within the campus, it's still too soon to tell.
In Hattiesburg, meanwhile, Jackson says that he and other emergency response officials will review the plan as the university re-establishes a routine. He says there need to be more focus on effective communication within the Emergency Administration Team.
For now, though, U.S.M will be consumed with assessing damage, filing claims, cleaning up, rebuilding and getting on with the school year.
Classes started in Hattiesburg in mid-September. In Long Beach, university officials say they hope to be under way by October.
is a writer living in Pennsylvania.
October 15, 2005
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