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Cover Story

November 21, 2005
Volume 83, Number 47
pp. 20-21

Louisiana State Stretched Thin

Overcrowding, instability, and anxiety tax students and faculty at Baton Rouge campus

Bette Hileman and Rachel Petkewich

Students arrived at Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, on Aug. 18, and Hurricane Katrina made landfall after classes had been in session for only five days. In contrast to New Orleans just 70 miles away, Baton Rouge missed direct hits from Katrina and Rita. Downed tree limbs and power outages were the only blemishes to the campus, ranked as one of the 10 most beautiful in the country. But the population of Baton Rouge, normally about 300,000, suddenly doubled with evacuees from New Orleans and surrounding Gulf Coast areas. And LSU has had to deal with cascading effects, including stressed students and faculty and potential cuts to university funding.

At first, many displaced families moved into campus residence halls with their sons or daughters. Even now, the population of Baton Rouge is up 50% from the pre-Katrina level, reports Saundra Y. McGuire, dean of the University College, adjunct professor of chemistry, and director of the university’s Center for Academic Success.

The center, which in 2004 received the Frank L. Christ Outstanding Learning Center Award of the National College Learning Center Association, helps students learn study skills and tutors them in challenging subjects, such as chemistry. Since Katrina hit, it has been overwhelmed.

The center tends to see 5,000 to 6,000 students per semester, but this fall that number is up about 30% because of Katrina, McGuire says. Time management and stress management skills have been in high demand among students who have been displaced or affected in some other way by Katrina. After the hurricane struck, LSU’s students were living in unsettled circumstances, to say the least. Many did not know where family members were. Some who had had a quiet room where they could study at home found themselves living with eight or 10 relatives.

“I was talking to a student last week who was having some difficulty in one of her analytical chemistry courses because she had to give up her study at home where she normally did most of her work,” McGuire says. “The student had been very organized. Suddenly, everything was very chaotic at home.”

Center for Academic Success, Louisiana State University

It's Academic McGuire working with one of her students, Michael Sims.

Overall, McGuire has found her work more challenging than usual this semester because “it’s much more difficult for the students to remain focused.” Faculty members also are having trouble concentrating on their work. “I went to a workshop for faculty, and everybody was saying it was really hard, not just to get the students back on track, but they found they were not able to focus,” McGuire says.

Faculty members Isiah M. Warner and Luigi G. Marzilli have known hurricanes since youth. Warner, a Louisiana native, is a professor of analytical and environmental chemistry. In the house next door to him lives Marzilli, an inorganic medicinal chemist who grew up in Rhode Island and chairs LSU’s chemistry department.

The day Marzilli and his wife moved to Louisiana four years ago, Hurricane “Lilly started out as a Category 4, and it really had very little effect by the time it hit Baton Rouge,” he recalls. Many other storms faded out that way, too. With Katrina, Warner says, “I think the basic problem was no one expected anything of this magnitude, even though there were predictions.”

When Katrina’s wrath unfurled on New Orleans, both professors were attending the American Chemical Society meeting in Washington, D.C., with their wives. (Della Blount-Warner is a substitute teacher, and Patricia Marzilli is a Ph.D. chemist at LSU.) As they headed to D.C., the storm was predicted to pummel Florida. Although their homes lost power for five days, neither suffered major structural damage. Their grown children all live outside hurricane zones.

More than 100,000 evacuees from New Orleans have indicated they are staying in Baton Rouge, Warner says, suggesting the congestion triggered by Baton Rouge’s swollen population may not get better.

“I’ve heard of companies coming in from New Orleans and buying whole subdivisions for their employees,” Warner says. He himself offered use of his guesthouse to the parents of an LSU chemistry grad student from New Orleans. “They lost their cars, their home, all of their goods,” he says.

“Very few people in the department didn’t have at least some people that they housed temporarily who had escaped New Orleans,” Marzilli says. The chemistry department is hosting faculty members from Tulane Medical School and the University of New Orleans. Linda Lewis, a computer scientist from Xavier University of Louisiana, will do a sabbatical on education methods with Warner. In addition, seminar speakers from out of town stayed with faculty because hotels had to cancel confirmed reservations.

Others had more complex travails. Matthew Tarr, one of Warner’s former undergraduates, is a faculty member at the University of New Orleans. To avoid Katrina, he and his family headed to Jackson, Miss., but were rerouted to Birmingham, Ala. His wife, 13-year-old son, and nine-year-old daughter ended up staying with family in Orlando. After the storm, his wife’s office temporarily relocated to Houston. So he set up as a visiting professor at Rice University there. Then Rita headed straight for Houston. The family retreated to the Warners’ house for a couple of days until the storm passed. The kids were stressed and wondering why the hurricanes were following them, Warner says.

McGuire’s LSU students are now experiencing another kind of disruption. Some students’ families are living in Baton Rouge but driving more than an hour to New Orleans on weekends. “The students go back on weekends to clean up homes that have been devastated,” McGuire explains.

“The folks at LSU’s counseling services are really inundated,” she says. “As the holidays approach, it is not going to get any better because many students who would normally go home now have no place to go home to.”

Katrina’s landfall also put McGuire’s own family under stress. McGuire has a number of relatives who were all living in New Orleans. “Some of them evacuated to our house on that Sunday before the hurricane struck, but there were others who didn’t leave immediately. For about five days, we didn’t know where two of them were,” she says. “In the immediate aftermath of the storm, there was no power, phone service was very sporadic, and it was literally impossible to get through.

Courtesy Of Luigi Marzilli

Neighbors Marzilli (left) and Warner weathered the storm at the ACS national meeting in Washington, D.C.

“Eventually, one of the missing relatives turned up in Alabama, and the other one showed up in Texas,” McGuire says. But before one of them could get out of New Orleans, he spent a couple of days at the New Orleans airport, which was “pretty horrific,” she says.

The families of some students had dramatic, life-threatening experiences as they tried to escape from New Orleans. For example, the grandfather of Christopher Harris, a sophomore who is studying computer engineering and works at the learning center, was missing for more than two weeks.

As Katrina approached, Harris’ family evacuated from New Orleans, leaving the 70-year-old grandfather behind to secure the house in St. Bernard parish. When the levees broke and water started rising in the house, he moved to the attic. As water reached the attic, it became obvious he couldn’t stay in the house. He floated out of the house on a desk, reaching a friend’s place across the street.

There, the grandfather and the friend got into a boat and eventually reached the St. Bernard project, where they waited on a third-floor balcony. They were rescued by helicopter and taken to the New Orleans airport. Fearing that he would be forced to take a bus to a distant state, the grandfather did not register at the airport. He camped outside for more than two weeks.

In the meantime, Harris was frantic. Eventually, the grandfather managed to make a phone call and was rescued by family members.

LSU’s problems are dwarfed by those of New Orleans and western Louisiana, Marzilli notes, but because LSU is a state university, there are some funding concerns. “Because both Rita and Katrina caused considerable damage in the state and hurt the tax base,” he explains, “the state budget is severely impacted, which of course is going to have a big impact on us.” In addition, evacuee students already paid tuition at their home institutions, and it’s not clear if LSU will get any funds for these displaced students. With increased student load and decreased income, hiring is reduced, and the chemistry department suffered a small budget cut already.

McGuire is grateful for the help that the learning center and the students received after the storm. “The people at Louisiana State and I, in particular, were very gratified by the quick response of many of our friends and relatives and professional colleagues around the nation who sent aid packages down in the form of donations, supplies, and goods. Our center actually got a donation from some of the other learning associations around the country.”

To bring things back to a more normal situation in southern Louisiana, priority should be given to restoring the levees and to cleaning up the neighborhoods in New Orleans, McGuire says. “The longer residents can’t get back, the more likely they are to stay away for good.”



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
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