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Cover Story

November 21, 2005
Volume 83, Number 47
p. 23

One Day At A Time

Dale Ledford works to restore his home and the University of Southern Mississippi, Gulf Coast

Bethany Halford

Having lived along the Gulf Coast for nearly 30 years, N. Dale Ledford is no stranger to hurricanes. So on Saturday, Aug. 27—as Hurricane Katrina gathered strength in the Gulf of Mexico, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour declared a state of emergency—he was already securing his office for the coming storm.

“I did the normal things that people would do to prepare for a normal hurricane,” recalls Ledford, a chemistry professor and director of the College of Science & Technology at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast campus. He covered his office cabinets with plastic bags. He placed important, lightweight items on top of the 7-foot bookshelves in his office. He secured the windows and doors.

Photo By Nicole LaCour Young

Remains Ledford surveys the damage in his office in mid-November.

Now, with hindsight, Ledford sees those preparations as so much folly. Situated in Long Beach, Miss., with a picturesque view of the Gulf of Mexico, USM’s Gulf Coast campus was at the heart of the hurricane’s path. Many of the campus’ buildings were reduced to scrap. Those that were left standing had been gutted by the storm—doors, windows, and walls were all washed away.

When Ledford returned to his office a week after Katrina made landfall, he found little more than rubble. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine a wall of water destroying the whole first floor of the building,” Ledford says before offering a joke to mollify his dismay. “I should have put my office on the second floor."

The damage to an adjacent building’s second floor, where the chemistry labs were located, revealed just how capricious Katrina had been. “When I walked in the chemistry lab, I didn’t believe it,” Ledford says. “There were no broken windows. Nothing was disturbed.” Water had forced its way through the windows and soaked some of the manuals, he notes, but the lab was basically untouched. The building, however, was structurally unstable. It was too dangerous to hold classes there or anywhere else on the Gulf Coast campus.

Even so, USM decided to forge ahead with its fall semester. The school set up shop five miles away in Gulfport in a vacant hospital owned by the USM Foundation Research Co.

With the help of USM’s physical plant crew, Ledford oversaw the transfer of the entire chemistry lab into the facility. They packed everything—pH meters, analytical balances, gas chromatographs, infrared spectrometers, and fume hoods—onto flatbed trailers and sent them east.

On Oct. 10, classes reopened in Gulfport. The university calculated that by offering an intensive semester, similar to its summer session, it could provide students and faculty with the requisite amount of class time. Pat Joachim, the school’s associate provost, recently announced that the coastal campus had retained 65% of its fall enrollment.

“We’re pretty much in full swing,” Ledford tells C&EN, adding that he is grateful for the support that he’s received from the chemistry department at USM’s Hattiesburg campus.

Like most people at USM Gulf Coast, Ledford has been trying to rebuild the school while coping with the destruction Katrina wrought upon his personal life.

When Ledford and his wife returned to their Pascagoula home just days after the hurricane had cleared, they were thrilled to see their house still standing. Any optimism they had quickly soured when Ledford kicked in the waterlogged door.

“Everything in my house was upside down, turned around, and in different rooms,” he remembers. Ledford estimates that 4 feet of water flooded his home, leaving behind an inch of mud. Walls are missing. The hardwood floors are warped beyond repair. Despite repeated mopping and a thorough cleaning with bleach, the faint smell of sewage lingers.

Even so, Ledford considers himself lucky. “We did a lot better than a lot of people,” he says. His house is still standing. Its brick structure is sound. Since early September, he and his wife have been living on the second floor along with Ledford’s sister-in-law, niece, and nephew, who were left homeless.

Amid the inevitable frustrations of such a massive cleanup, Ledford says things are slowly getting better. After four weeks without power, Ledford’s home finally got electricity. Their house’s plumbing relied on an electric pump, so this was a huge step forward. They no longer had to go to the church down the street for running water.

They also have a brand-new 32-foot trailer, courtesy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA hasn’t connected the trailer’s water supply yet, so they can’t move in, but at least it’s there. With any luck, it’ll be habitable when reconstruction of his house begins.

Of course, Ledford has no idea when that will be. He admits that negotiating with insurance companies and trying to find a contractor can be trying at times. “In a storm-ravaged area of the magnitude we see now, contractors, electricians, and roofers all have more work than they can handle,” he says. “I take one day at a time, and I try to meet the challenges of that day and hopefully plan for tomorrow.

“Eventually things will return to normal, if there is such a thing. Our home will be rebuilt,” Ledford continues. “I think maybe we’ll be wiser and better prepared if something like this were to come again, but I hope it doesn’t.”



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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