The Crescent City is taking a giant step toward renewal this month as thousands of college students flock back into town, determined to pick up where hurricane Katrina forced them to leave off at the start of last semester.
In neighborhoods that were spared the brunt of the devastation, happy squeals of reuniting friends are heard amid the soundscape of hammers and power saws. And for professors, staff, and local businesses that have been preparing for their arrival, it's not a moment too soon.
Universities are the largest private source of employment in the city right now, and the students are adding at least 20 percent to the population. So their opening days are being celebrated far beyond campus boundaries.
"This place was dead for all those months. It's so good to see all this life again," says Prof. Denis Jans as he greets a student on the first day of classes at Loyola University. Like many of the faculty, he lost his home to flooding and has been moving every few weeks. "I'm still a refugee," he says.
All along the oak-lined path outside the student center, it's a virtual hug-fest as people catch up after having scattered to hundreds of other colleges as Katrina evacuees.
For New Orleans natives like Cee Cee Toso, it's especially comforting to get back to the routines of college life. Though her home suffered only wind damage, she says it's depressing to see so many places from her childhood destroyed. "Being at school again is like being in a bubble - in a good way.... It's a good energy. I hear a lot of people say that with the students coming back, they really feel New Orleans is back."
Despite having to "re-recruit" the first-year class, Loyola persuaded 87 percent of its undergrads to return, says Tom Smith, interim vice president for student affairs. He fielded a barrage of questions from concerned parents about safety and services in the campus's Uptown neighborhood. Most were satisfied with what they heard.
As for the "bubble," it won't last long. The colleges are providing tours of the flood- ravaged parts of the city. "It's important for [students] to understand, if there are some inconveniences at local stores or restaurants, that there's been a lot of suffering," says Bob Thomas, a professor conducting tours for Loyola students and parents.
Joe McMenemon, a sophomore at Tulane University, right next door to Loyola, says the fact that restaurants are still closing early doesn't dampen students' excitement about being back and volunteering in the recovery. "I went to the Ninth Ward yesterday, and it's unbelievable," he says of one of the neighborhoods where houses were flattened and a barge still sits atop a yellow school bus. "As students at Tulane, we really have a unique opportunity," he says.
That's the point that Tulane President Scott Cowen drove home last semester as he spoke at a number of colleges that took in New Orleans students. Not only did he assure students early on that Tulane would be ready to welcome them back, but he also made the case that the entire city needs their talent and energy. About 40 service-learning courses are available at Tulane this semester. Starting with this year's freshmen, participation in such courses will be a graduation requirement.
"People really respected that [Dr. Cowen] stayed connected with the students," says student Sarah Norton, who heard him speak last semester when she was attending the University of Texas. But even she was amazed to hear that 92 percent of her fellow undergraduates are returning as well.
Damage to Tulane's Uptown and Downtown campuses totaled about $200 million. But restoration crews managed to have the main Uptown campus looking close to normal for the first-year students' "Orientation Déjà Vu."
A reorganization plan to keep the school on solid financial footing included laying off many part-time employees and more than 200 faculty. Cowen sparked protests by cutting a number of engineering majors.
"We had to reinvent ourselves post-Katrina," Cowen says. "We had to be more focused, a little leaner, to secure our future.... We're hoping that acts as sort of a model for the rest of the city - to have ... strength to make some tough decisions."
When Cowen shows up at the Monroe dormitory on move-in day, many students and parents greet him with thanks for his leadership. "You've done a wonderful job - now just take care of my daughter!" quips Missy Gordon of Columbus, Ohio.
Even though most New Orleans colleges have resumed operations to some degree this semester, "there's this whole long phase of rebuilding economically," says Cyndy Littlefield, director of federal relations for the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. (Loyola is a Jesuit school.)
Congress approved $200 million in relief funds for Gulf Coast colleges in December - $300 million less than requested. They're grateful for the aid, as well as donations from private sources, Ms. Littlefield says, because it allows them to meet some critical needs such as continuing to pay faculty and staff. But more is needed, she and other advocates say.
"There seems to be mythic misunderstandings about the role of endowments," Littlefield says. Not all colleges have substantial endowments, and even those that do "can't readily tap into that source ... to cover the losses."
Dillard University, one of two historically black colleges in the city, was so damaged by flood and fire that it can't use its campus this semester. But it found a new home downtown, at the Hilton hotel. More than 1,000 students returned, about half of its pre-Katrina enrollment, and most are living at the hotel, two to a room. They're also taking 70 percent of their classes there. On the second day of the new semester, junior Esther Matthews sizes up the unconventional situation: "It's weird going to our rooms, going to class, and eating our meals all in the same building. But it's the Hilton - it's better than the dorm!" Their rooms are cleaned twice a week, and housing costs have not increased.
Dillard students are now within walking distance of the French Quarter, but partying is not top of mind. "We were so drained last semester, we were happy to come back and have a seat," says Ms. Matthews's roommate, Cheyla Milo. And they haven't gotten over the emotional strain. "It's all around us. The city looks awful," Matthews says.
Biology professor José Ramirez-Domenech thought the temporary classrooms looked awful, when he saw the setup in a large convention space in the hotel. Portable walls divide about a dozen teaching spaces, but with no ceilings, voices carry.
"At first I thought it was going to be impossible, but it's just different," Professor Ramirez-Domenech says. "As long as the students concentrate, it's like nothing else is around." He's also grateful to still have a job.
Outside the hotel, a Domino's deliveryman waits for a student to pick up two pizzas. Business has been "overwhelming" since the students returned, he says. Likewise for The Boot, a restaurant and pub near Tulane and Loyola. General manager Chad Maiuri and his skeleton crew have been pulling double shifts since they reopened in mid-October. Typically 85 percent of his employees are students. Their presence "has a major effect on the neighborhood; a lot of the small businesses haven't been able to open yet," he says, because they've been short-staffed.
While the mood on the campuses seems as sunny as the weather, mental health counselors say they are expecting an increased demand for their services as people continue to grapple with the emotional aftermath of the hurricane.
At a candlelight service on Loyola's main lawn, students listen to excerpts from survivors' accounts and offer prayers of support. As it ends, junior Rebecca Ohler explains her mix of emotions. "I didn't want to come [to the service] because I was getting sick of hearing about the hurricane.... You just want life to be normal again, but it's clear it's not," she says. "It occurred to me that I don't know if I've really grieved about all this," she says, wiping away tears.
But then she takes a deep breath and says she's glad for a parting message that focused on everyone sharing their light as they face the challenges ahead for New Orleans. "It's an opportunity to be the kind of person we all want to be."