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Friday, October 28, 2005

John Biguenet's NOLA Journal - The New New Orleans

Oct. 26, 2005
The New New Orleans



Just across from Audubon Park on the streetcar line, Loyola University, where I teach English, presents one of the most picturesque facades on St. Charles Avenue. Unscathed by Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath, the university looks exactly as it did on the Friday afternoon before the storm hit when I locked my office door and left for what I thought might turn into an extended holiday weekend. So the university is as ready today as it was in late August to fulfill its educational mission. Chalk and erasers still on the ledge beneath each board, the desks still in neat rows, its classrooms lack only students and teachers.

But getting students and teachers back into those classrooms illustrates the myriad challenges facing every institution and business in the city. For instance, a ZIP code analysis of faculty and staff addresses indicates that the houses of roughly half of Loyola’s employees may be uninhabitable thanks to the flooding from the catastrophic failure of the levee system. Loyola has spent the last month assembling a housing database to assist faculty and staff in relocating back to New Orleans, and everyone seems to be pitching in to help homeless colleagues, either offering spare rooms or passing on information. Yesterday afternoon, I received a call on my cellphone from a member of the physics faculty, who had a lead on an apartment for me. I gratefully explained that Marsha and I had already found a place.

Housing isn’t the only problem. An estimated 200,000 cars may have been destroyed in the flood. Marsha and I, for example, are sharing her VW Beetle, having lost both my car and my son’s. So the university is compiling a transportation database as well to help faculty get to school every day, a task made more difficult by the fact that the St. Charles Avenue streetcars are not yet back in service.

Then we have to lure our students home from the universities where they have taken classes this semester. Though surveys indicate most can’t wait to return, the school is taking extraordinary steps to insure an easy transition back into life at Loyola. In addition to great flexibility when it comes to transferring credits earned elsewhere this fall, the university will offer a combination of regular and intensive semesters to meet the wide variety of student needs after the disruptions of these last few months. To make that possible, faculty will teach more courses in the spring and again in the summer than they typically do.

Despite all the challenges the university faces, there was a sense of excitement at a faculty meeting I attended on campus a few days ago. Interdisciplinary courses examining the effects of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath will engage students in a consideration of what happened, why it happened, and how the city will change in response to this unprecedented disaster. Similarly, some faculty members are already redirecting their research to the extraordinary laboratory New Orleans now offers to a range of scholarly disciplines, from the physical sciences to law to music to the social sciences to economics and the humanities.

That research, often conducted in collaboration with students in their courses, is one reason there is so much optimism on campus about Loyola’s future. We’re beginning to see that we can offer an education that schools elsewhere will not be able to match. At most universities around the country next semester, students will study the past. But at Loyola and other New Orleans institutions of higher learning, our students will also be actively involved in the creation of the future — of both a city and a region. Imagine the kind of students such an education will attract and the kind of leaders we will graduate.

It’s been only two months since the levees we believed we could trust collapsed all around us. So we’re still tallying our losses. But if Loyola University is any indication, we’re about to begin to figure out what the new New Orleans may offer in compensation for the old one that was washed away.

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