Getting back into the groove

Students returning to New Orleans colleges say the city won’t lose its unique culture
Sunday, February 19, 2006 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 10:57 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans this past fall, 31 students from Tulane and Loyola universities ended up in Columbia to finish their semester at MU.

Displaced students received free tuition, textbooks and room and board. In addition, MU officials made sure to enroll students in classes that would transfer to their home universities.

“It was, ‘We’re going to help you out and make sure the transition is as easy as pos­sible,’” MU spokesman Christian Basi said.

Tulane and Loyola opened their doors for students to return starting in January. Of the 31 students who came to MU, four stayed and one more will be returning in the fall.

Jorie Kirschbaum, a sophomore at Tulane University, said while she considered staying at MU, she does not regret her decision to return to New Orleans.

“It’s a sad time to be here,” Kirschbaum said. “But it’s also a really exciting time to be here and see the city rebuild itself and help it to grow.”

Adrienne Berra, a sophomore at Loyola, said she did not decide to return to New Orleans until New Year’s Eve, when she visited friends there before leaving to study abroad this semester.

“I like the city, the school, the people, the nightlife, the weather — almost everything — better in New Orleans,” Berra said. “Even though the city might never be completely back to normal, it is where I want to be.”

Although most students have returned — 90 percent of Tulane’s undergraduates and 91 percent of Loyola’s undergraduates — the effects of Katrina linger.

Christine Lelong, director of public affairs at Loyola, said the university had $4 million in damage and $20 million to $30 million in lost revenue. Still, she said Loyola is fortunate compared to some of the other colleges in the area.

“That’s a huge hit on the budget, but it will be some time before we can figure out what the financial implications are,” she said. “It’s a very complex issue.”

Tulane suffered a projected operating loss of $120 million for fiscal 2006, mainly because of the loss of fall-semester tuition. The school had about $250 million in property damage, Mike Strecker, director of public relations, said. The school has since instituted a renewal plan to focus resources, which includes cutting four majors in the engineering department, an exercise and sports science major, eight athletic teams and employee layoffs.

Bob Murrell, a junior at Tulane whose major is computer science in the engineering school, said the cuts made him rethink whether to stay in New Orleans.

“Personally I’m not wanted by this school,” Murrell said. “I’m transferring back to Mizzou because my experience there is that (they) want to help you; (they) want to take care of you.”

Murrell, a native of New Orleans, said he missed out on going to college out of state and is grateful for the chance to do that in Missouri now.

“I’m going to miss home,” Murrell said about transferring. “I’ll never miss it as much as I did last semester.”

Bryan Read, a freshman at Tulane, said that although the city was up and running, “everywhere you go there’s little signs here and there. It’s always a constant reminder of what happened.”

When Kirschbaum returned to Tulane, most everything looked like it was back together, she said.

“That was really just pretty artificial, I think,” she said. Little things like the mail center not working at first or the streetcars in the city not running are reminders of the long road ahead, she said.

“I think the city will be different,” Kirschbaum said. “It will hopefully still retain a lot of its unique flavor and the culture behind it.”

The uncertainty of how many residents will be coming back also adds to her concern of what lies ahead, she said.

Read said he thinks the city can bounce back as long as the tourism industry does not disappear.

“Hopefully Mardi Gras will bring a lot of people back,” Read said. The city “is suitable to handle tourism again. All the places that tourists would usually go are up and running.”

For those staying in New Orleans, there seems to be a contagious energy in the air, Strecker said.

“You know how war brings people together when you have a common enemy,” he said, “It’s sort of like that with a common enemy as Katrina.”

Both universities have volunteer programs to get students involved in rebuilding New Orleans. Kirschbaum tries to make it every weekend to the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the areas hit hardest by the hurricane, to gut houses.

“It motivates and changes you when you see it,” she said. “I want to keep volunteering all the time because you just see how devastated it is.”

Strecker said people have been affected by the hurricane and while he does not want to dismiss any emotional trauma, “it’s not like we’re walking around with a cloud over our heads.”

“There’s a lot of energy in the city; people are alive and working to rebuild,” he said.

Watching some of the coverage of Katrina’s aftermath makes some people think the entire city is walking around in a trance-like state, Strecker said.

“We’re glad to have our students back, and the campus looks great,” Strecker said. “It’s nice to look out your window and see students walking to class. They’re not going to wash us away; don’t count us out.”

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