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Cover Story

November 21, 2005
Volume 83, Number 47
pp. 15-16

Tales From Tulane

Professors Ulrike Diebold and Larry Byers are anxious to get their labs running again

Elizabeth Wilson

While evacuees streamed out of New Orleans as Hurricane Katrina approached, a small band of Tulane University chemistry professors and students stayed put to ride out the storm.

Their fortress was Percival Stern Hall, Tulane’s science building, a sturdy five-story structure with narrow windows and a generator.

There, chemistry professor James P. Donahue continued his organic synthesis; others simply wanted to avoid the 24-hour bumper-to-bumper drive to Baton Rouge. Plus, notes chemistry professor Larry D. Byers, the Dodgers were playing on TV that night.

When the storm was over, Percival Stern’s generator was still running, and the building was one of the few on campus without broken windows. “This was more intense than any storm I’ve seen in my 30 years at Tulane,” Byers says.

The worst came two days later, of course, when New Orleans’ levees were breached and the city flooded. The generator finally gave out, leaving Byers and friends without air conditioning in 90-plus-degree temperatures and 90% humidity. They decided that it was time to leave. Byers drove to Baton Rouge with three graduate students and a dog, then flew to California to stay with friends. His students found temporary homes at universities across the U.S., from the University of South Florida to Wellesley College.

Tulane physics professor Ulrike Diebold, however, played things by the book. When she read in the Times-Picayune that Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans, she immediately reserved a motel room for her family in Shreveport. After all, she and her husband, environmental engineer Gerhard Piringer, a visiting professor at Tulane, had already been through this twice already, the last time during Hurricane Ivan in 2004.

Even before New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin urged everyone to evacuate the city, Diebold and her students had moved equipment off the floor and shut down the ultra-high-vacuum machines in her surface-science lab in Percival Stern.

Then she, Piringer, and their two sons, Thomas, nine, and Niklas, five, packed some clothes, documents, and wedding pictures into their car and left for Shreveport. There wasn’t even much traffic along the way, she says.

Photo by Nick Romanenko

IN LIMBO?Tchatchoua (from left),?Batzill, Katsiev, Dulub, and Diebold?found a temporary home at Rutgers.

From an outside perspective, it seemed, the Tulane scientists’ situations weren’t so bad. Although Tulane’s medical school, a few miles away from the uptown campus, was seriously damaged, the Percival Stern building was left relatively intact.

Diebold learned that all her graduate students and postdocs were safe. And even though her lab was on the basement floor of Tulane’s science building, it did not flood completely.

Her colleagues at other universities immediately reached out, and within two weeks she was ensconced with a couple of her graduate students and postdocs at Rutgers University in New Jersey. Her husband recently made a trip to New Orleans to check on their home and was able to report that although there was a little damage, it was livable.

But the support Diebold and Byers say they were lucky to have belies the life-altering chaos of the past two months and the uncertainty they face as they contemplate the university’s reopening for the spring semester on Jan. 17. Serious problems remain, from schooling for children to whether there will be places for people to live while their houses are repaired to how to resume their research programs.

“We have a lot of sleepless nights,” Diebold says.

The psychological and logistical strains that began with the storm haven’t let up since. During their weeklong stay at the motel, Diebold and her husband first got their news from the television as they wrested control over the remote from their children, who preferred the Cartoon Network. As reports came in of the levee breaches and of flooding of Freret Street, which runs by the Tulane science building, Diebold feared that her 3,000-sq-ft laboratory might have been destroyed.

“We had some very bad moments as the water kept rising,” she says.

She was even more afraid for her students, a couple of whom she wasn’t sure had evacuated. Without telephones, and with Tulane’s computer system down, she began a frantic search for information, relying mostly on the Internet at Louisiana State University Library in Shreveport. She and her husband pieced together news trickling in from online bulletin boards, colleagues’ alternative e-mail addresses, and phone text messaging.

Eventually, it became clear they wouldn’t be able to go home, and they had to go somewhere.

“It was very stressful,” she says. “You feel like you’re homeless. It was not easy, but actually having the children did help enormously to pull ourselves together and to not dissolve in self-pity.”

Then chemistry professor and friend Eric Garfunkel invited Diebold to Rutgers, where she’d been a postdoc with chemistry and physics professor Theodore E. Madey. Another colleague at Rutgers, chemistry professor Kieron Burke, and his family, took them in for several weeks while they searched for temporary housing. Friends donated clothes and furniture. Their children are now in a “fantastic” public school in Princeton; her husband does some consulting for an environmental firm.

Diebold’s postdocs Olga Dulub and Matthias Batzill and graduate students Stephanie Tchatchoua and Bulat Katsiev are with her at Rutgers, continuing their experiments. (Her graduate student Eire Morales is at the University of Pittsburgh doing experiments with chemistry professor John T. Yates Jr.’s group.) “But we’re certainly not as productive as we would be at home,” Diebold says.

Recently, both Tulane professors returned to New Orleans. In the city, supermarkets are opening back up, Byers says, albeit at reduced hours because of a shortage of workers. “But it seems like all the bars in town are open,” he quips.

Byers, an enzymologist, is preparing for Tulane’s reopening for the spring semester. Most of the equipment in the building survived, he says. Diebold, who saw her house for the first time on Nov. 13, says her house is in “pristine” condition. “It was good to be home,” she says.

But conditions in New Orleans are far from normal. Though reconstruction is proceeding at Tulane—and is expected to cost more than $100 million—power in Percival Stern Hall only came up on Nov. 7, and running water three days later; as of Nov. 10, there were still no working phones.

“I saw the lab for the first time,” Diebold says. “It doesn’t look as rosy as it has been described to me previously.”

Some water got in and evaporated, and humidity was trapped in the basement for months. Mold clings to the chairs and on part of the walls, and signs of corrosion are visible, Diebold says. “I am very anxious about what this might have done to the insides of the power supplies and the electronics.”

courtesy of Larry Byers

PRE-STORM CALMByers (second from left) and Tulane chemistry students (from left) Tasha Smith, Liang Chen, Hong Shen, Erin Bowers, and Emily Golden are now scattered throughout the U.S.

And despite the graciousness of other institutions in taking in students and colleagues, Byers says their work has suffered a number of setbacks. “To say that Katrina has affected our research is an understatement,” he says. “It’s not likely any of these places have all of the equipment or specific compounds necessary for a smooth transition.”

All of Tulane’s full-time faculty kept their jobs, but those who return in January will face larger teaching loads, including a seven-week catch-up “lagniappe” (a Louisiana French word meaning an extra gift or benefit) semester beginning in May. The situation is even more dire at other New Orleans institutions, particularly Dillard and Xavier Universities, where flood damage was severe and numerous faculty have been let go.

It’s unclear how many of Tulane’s 13,000 displaced students will return, but the university is scrambling to help arrange housing for them, setting up dorm rooms in newly constructed modular housing and even a couple of cruise ships. Many students who lived in on-campus residence halls will be able to return to their original rooms, according to Tulane’s website. The university is also making a few trailers provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency available for faculty who have no housing options.

Alhough all New Orleans public schools are closed for the entire year, Tulane has partnered with Lusher School, a charter school, which will open earlier to children of full-time faculty, and in which Diebold’s children are enrolled. Tulane has been paying its dispersed faculty but is still waiting for federal funds to help with reconstruction. “It’s not clear how the university is going to handle this,” she says.

Byers hopes his group will be able to resume their experiments after two months without refrigeration, he says. “How rapidly we can get back on track will depend on how well most of our enzymes survived,” he says.



Jack Stocker, University of New Orleans
Ulrike Diebold and Larry Byers, Tulane University
Jerry Merchant, PPG
Eric Broussard, Xavier University
Cheryl Stevens, Xavier University, and Ed Stevens, University of New Orleans
Saundra Y. McGuire, Isiah M. Warner, and Luigi G. Marzilli, Louisiana State University
William L. Strayham, DuPont
N. Dale Ledford, University of Southern Mississippi
Gerald R. Ehrman, DuPont
Bruce C. Gibb, University of New Orleans
Nitsa and Zeev Rosenzweig’s group, University of New Orleans

Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
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