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By Duane Shafer

In the days following Hurricane Katrina’s visit on August 28-29, the administration and staff of Southeastern Louisiana University were busily assessing damage, cleaning up debris, and embarking on the monumental task of locating displaced students, faculty and staff, and trying to determine the university’s short-term future in the wake of an extraordinary natural disaster.

Students in UC Arena

My first “hurricane meeting” was on Saturday, July 8. As Hurricane Dennis threatened to head toward south Louisiana, I had been on the job as director of the University Center -- the main evacuation point for students and faculty/staff -- for only seven days. Although forecasts indicated that Dennis would not threaten us (it ultimately turned toward the panhandle of Florida), President Randy Moffett nevertheless rallied his “storm team” just in case the storm’s path did veer to our campus and surrounding community.

Little did we know that in just a few short weeks, this group would gather again with a much stronger sense of urgency, as we prepared for the strike of this huge hurricane. The emergency preparedness we discussed in July would now be put to the test as forecasters grew more certain by the hour that southeast Louisiana was the ultimate target of Katrina.

Our first challenge was to ready the UC for several hundred students, faculty and staff who began seeking shelter in the UC on Sunday evening. All were urged to bring bedding and food and drink for several days. More than 400 people filed into the building, staking out spots on the arena floor or in staff offices. Aramark, Southeastern’s food service provider, hurriedly prepared sandwiches and snacks for all of our evacuees’ dinner that night, a task they would repeat twice the next day.

The first night was calm, a “good night.” The storm had not yet arrived; we had lights and air conditioning. Students mingled, listened to music, studied and generally settled down contentedly in their last-minute digs. This was the “good night.”

ABC Chan. 26 (New Orleans) finds refuge
at UC to broadcast

Katrina began to show her force early the next morning. Rain and wind pelted Hammond, zapping power at around 9 a.m. The UC’s back-up generator kicked in, powering just a few emergency lights and electrical receptacles. Dr. Moffett, his wife and two of our

vice presidents were staying here, and we paced the UC’s plaza level, watching through its large windows as the horizontal wind slammed two huge trees through the roof in a home across the street. It wasn’t until around 1:30 p.m. that the more powerful wind gusts began to subside, weakening considerably by early evening.

In the arena, cooped up students were hot, tired, and restless, but we knew that we could not turn them loose into an area devoid of power and littered with fallen trees and downed power lines. For their safety, they would have to stay another night while the damage was assessed – a message that they were not happy to hear when we divided them into smaller groups to explain our decision. Many did not understand until they were able to venture out to see the eerie, total darkness of our campus. They resigned themselves to the necessity of staying safe in the University Center.

Police vehicles outside UC

As we prepared to settle down for another long, airless night, head football coach Dennis Roland, who had stayed with most of his staff and about two dozen players, came up with a way to help the students pass the time. Using the football team’s laptops and projectors, a small generator provided by Campus Police and portable DVD players and movies contributed by students, we set up two makeshift “movie theaters.” Gathering in the humid air circulated by two huge football sideline fans, the students watched movies and made the best of the situation.

The next morning they were “released.” After some initial cleaning, we closed the center around noon, not knowing when we’d return to normal operating hours.

Power was restored to campus quickly. On Wednesday evening campus buildings, as well as residences on the perimeter of campus began to light up -- just two days after Katrina had knocked all utilities out.

Dr. Moffett and his emergency team continued to meet throughout the week. Although many of our sister campuses throughout the state such as Louisiana State University, the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and the University of Louisiana- Monroe hosted shelters for New Orleans evacuees, Southeastern’s post-storm contribution to relief efforts shaped up to be that of a centralized support site, as agencies such as Entergy, FEMA, the American Red Cross, National Guard units and the Louisiana State Police contacted us asking about facilities. The UC’s role was to house police support personnel.

On Sunday, September 4,we greeted our first group -- 150 officers from the Illinois Law

Police Cots in UC Arena

Police Cots on UC Plaza Level

 Enforcement Emergency Alarm System. These specially trained officers from city, county and state police forces would make up the first wave of the many law enforcement volunteers who came to Louisiana to assist the Louisiana State Police in the city of New Orleans.

The Illinois officers were joined by 50 Kentucky state troopers and the first of some 300 Customs/Border Patrol officers. By week’s end, the UC was “home away from home” to almost 500 officers who would stay more than three weeks.

To accommodate them, we set up cots in every open spot in our building -- arena floor, stairway landings, plaza level hallway, and in all but one of our meeting rooms. All six of our locker rooms, including those of our volleyball and basketball teams, were made available to our guests. The UC HVAC systems ran 24/7, and miraculously, we never ran out of hot water for showers, which were VERY welcome for these officers after working eight to 12 hour shifts in the water and mud of post-Katrina New Orleans.

Obviously, all regular University Center activities were suspended for the month of September. When Southeastern resumed classes on September 8 – a monumental accomplishment by the Southeastern family – the Southeastern sports teams housed in the UC faced a number of challenges. The volleyball team had to move their practices to an old un-air-conditioned gym and flip their September home matches to opponents’ sites. Two games -- Northwestern State and ULM -- had to be postponed yet again as Hurricane Rita hit southwest Louisiana on Katrina’s heels.

After two weeks, the second waves of Illinois Task Force arrived, and with some careful planning with the first wave’s command center, were packed into our meeting rooms, freeing up the arena floor. On Monday, September 19, we pulled our floor tarp, which had been down for three weeks, and cleaned our arena – much to the delight of volleyball and basketball coaches. At least their practice sessions could resume, and they always had a few curious spectators -- police officers who had worked night shifts.

All of our police guests left on September 29 or 30. More than 1,700 support personnel had been housed on Southeastern’s campus.

Though the Hammond area did not receive the devastating blow that our neighbors to the south and east of us suffered, we still had our share of fear, loss, and discomfort. We opened our arms to the men and women who were here -- away from their homes and families -- to help us in a great time of need.

Duane Shafer is with the University Center at Southeastern Louisiana University in Hammond.


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