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Cover Story

November 21, 2005
Volume 83, Number 47
pp. 19–20

Chairmen's Challenge

After harrowing escape, chemists Ed and Cheryl Stevens struggle to hold their departments together

Amanda Yarnell

Chemists Ed and Cheryl Stevens and their two youngest sons were in their backyard raking leaves and picking up sticks the day after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Then water began to fill the street and creep up the front lawn toward their two-story white brick house, sending them scrambling to move as many of their possessions as possible upstairs.

It wasn’t until that evening that they found out where the water was coming from: The levees holding back the nearby London Avenue Canal had broken. They had dragged their grill up to their house’s second-story roof to make dinner and turned on their sole battery-powered radio to find out what was going on. “We heard New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin say that efforts to repair the levees had failed,” Cheryl says. Nagin warned that water levels in the city could soon rise another 15 feet and ordered everyone still left to get out. “When he said 15 feet of water, that scared me,” Cheryl says. But they still wanted to stick it out. “This is our home,” she explains.

By the time they woke the next morning, there was 2 feet of water on the first floor. Ed and his 16-year-old son Michael waded in chest-deep water to free a neighbor’s sunken fishing boat from its trailer. They bailed it and set off to reconnoiter the flood damage in their Lake Terrace neighborhood, on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. There was nearly 6 feet of water in the street, and some houses sat in roof-deep water.

At lunchtime, the family regrouped on the roof. Nagin was now reporting on the radio that it would take months to repair the levees and drain the city. “That’s when we decided to leave,” Cheryl says. “With the city shut down for that long, where would we buy groceries or propane? Where would we send our boys to school?”

Less than an hour and a half later, Ed, Cheryl, Michael, nine-year old Ricky, two dogs, and three cats left their home in the boat with two changes of clothes, snacks, water, and pet food. “Leaving the house was scary—because once we left, I knew we were no longer in control,” Cheryl says.

When the family reached the banks of the London Avenue Canal, an Army helicopter picked them up and flew them to a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) evacuation center on Interstate Highway 10. That the place was called a FEMA center “was something of a misnomer. No one from FEMA was there. It was total chaos,” Ed says. “They were bringing in people by helicopter quicker than buses could take them away. There was no food, no water, and no toilets.” The Stevens waited for nearly 24 hours in the sweltering heat at the center—which Ricky had soon nicknamed “the pit of doom”—before finding seats on a Houston-bound bus.

When they arrived in Houston, tired, hungry, and dirty, the Stevens were told that they’d have to wait their turn to check in with FEMA officials. “We had been in the system long enough,” Cheryl says. They slipped out of the bus during a smoking break, took their meager luggage from the cargo hold, grabbed a taxi, and checked into a hotel. The next day they rented a car and drove to Baton Rouge, where they reunited with their pets. (The cats and dogs had been trucked to a shelter from the evacuation center.) After spending three days unsuccessfully trying to buy a house, the family fled to Ed’s family summer home outside Charlottesville, Va.

Ed and Cheryl—who chair the chemistry departments at the University of New Orleans (UNO) and Xavier University of Louisiana, respectively—now spend their days trying to hold their departments together. Through e-mail and phone calls, both Ed and Cheryl are doing their best to entice their students back and keep up morale among their faculty and staff.

Photo by Cheryl Stevens (left), photo by Jack Looney (right)

Sea Change Ed Stevens (left photo, right) and his sons Ricky (in front) and Michael measure the depth of the water in front of their house from the boat they used to escape. Cheryl Stevens (right photo) is now on sabbatical at the University of Virginia as part of an HHMI-sponsored program to help Xavier retain its faculty in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Both UNO, on the southern banks of Lake Pontchartrain, and Xavier, in uptown New Orleans near the Superdome, suffered water damage. UNO’s main chemistry building had only a few broken windows, but its science classrooms and teaching labs “will be out of power for months,” Ed says. The first floor of Xavier’s chemistry building, including all of the department’s lecture halls, stood in 5 feet of water for weeks.

Ed and Cheryl’s concerns go beyond their departments’ physical damage: Both are worried that some displaced students will choose not to return to New Orleans. UNO’s chemistry department has increased its online course offerings and boosted enrollment at its suburban campuses to entice students to remain at UNO, Ed notes. Nevertheless, the university estimates that only two-thirds of UNO’s chemistry students will come back when the university reopens its New Orleans campus in January, he adds. The drop in enrollment is likely to cause a financial pinch on UNO, which is part of the Louisiana State University system.

Xavier’s financial picture is bleaker: The historically black, Catholic school is projecting that only about half of its 4,500 undergraduate students will return when it reopens in January. The chemistry department is trying to survey students to figure out what courses they should offer in the spring semester, but nearly half of the department’s majors haven’t responded, Cheryl says. In the face of campus reconstruction costs and the expected plunge in enrollment, Xavier has been forced to lay off approximately one-third of its faculty. Twelve of the chemistry department’s 28 faculty members have lost their jobs, she says.

Both Ed and Cheryl also worry that some of their faculty members may be tempted to take other jobs. Many faculty members have lost their homes, so even when UNO and Xavier open for the spring semester, housing remains a big concern. “Where do you live when your house isn’t livable?” Cheryl wonders. UNO plans to open a trailer park on campus to temporarily house its faculty and staff, “but this may not be sufficient,” Ed notes.

Cheryl credits the Howard Hughes Medical Institute for its efforts to help Xavier retain its faculty. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, HHMI created an emergency program to put displaced Xavier faculty members in paid sabbatical positions at HHMI labs across the country. Nearly 60 faculty members have accepted the institute’s generous offer, including Cheryl, who is working in chemist Milton L. Brown’s lab at the University of Virginia three days a week. “Coming from an environment focused on educating undergraduates, I’ve been refreshed by the intellectual exchange in Milt’s lab,” she says.

The Stevenses hope to return to New Orleans after Christmas. Their eldest son, Geoffrey, an 18-year-old UNO undergraduate, is now repairing the damage caused to their home while taking online courses at UNO. He’s living on the second floor while stripping the first floor down to its wooden skeleton. The furniture and appliances they were not able to rescue from the first floor are now headed for the dump, as are the two cars they left behind in the driveway.

Despite their traumatic escape and huge personal and financial losses, the Stevens are refusing to focus on their hardships, Cheryl says. “We simply decided that we had to approach it as an adventure.”



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
Copyright © 2010 American Chemical Society