Cover Story

After the Deluge

The water has been pumped out and the sludge and debris are being hauled away, yet mention of Hurricane Katrina still conjures gut-wrenching images of New Orleans under water: widespread devastation and chaos, ineffectual public leadership, profound despair and desperation that in turn inspired extremes of human behavior – incredible acts of heroism and generosity juxtaposed with looting and violence. And then came Rita.

Thomas Hebert* knows nature’s wrath better than most. He fled not one, but both hurricanes. And two floods.

The chair of the psychology department at Southern University of New Orleans (SUNO), Hebert evacuated with wife Janine and their 12-year-old twins the Saturday before Katrina struck. They went north to wait out the storm at his parents’ home in New Roads, Louisiana.

Their own home was a mile and a half from Lake Pontchartrain, smack between the two levees that gave way and let loose the flood into New Orleans. The one-story house sat a foot below sea level. Water rose to just inches below the ceiling and remained for days. The result: a moldy, total loss. Two weeks after Katrina, Hebert went by boat and found four feet of water still in his home.

They moved to Erath, southwest of Baton Rouge, to stay with Janine’s parents. Just as Thomas was reassembling the pieces of his career at Southern University’s Baton Rouge campus, Hurricane Rita struck. They had to evacuate again, back to New Roads, and watched as Erath flooded. Her parents’ home, on high ground, escaped serious damage, but not the homes of other relatives.

They found a rental house that had escaped the flooding but couldn’t move in until well into October, when Erath’s electricity was restored. “I am trying to get settled,” Hebert said, “so I can get back to doing some work. Not working is getting on my nerves.

“And to think the wife and I were going to pay the [New Orleans] house off this month,” he added. “We also had new furniture, a couple of new appliances, and a freezer full of prime steaks for the upcoming football season.”

“Like all scientists, we know that the final state of any system is maximum disorder, absent tremendous outside energy and organization. No one realizes that an orderly and reasonable approach would have been much like a day without a car wreck in Dallas.”

“This has been very hard on us. My son had a dream that I was grilling steak, my wife and daughter were watching football, and our dog and pet rabbit were running around playing. He told my wife, ‘Then I woke up and it wasn’t true.’ It breaks my heart to just retell the story. But I will come out of this a winner. I am committed to making a better life for my family and me. Us Cajuns are that way, you know.”

As for SUNO, “I fear for its survival,” said APS Fellow Gary Dohanich of Tulane, Hebert’s former professor at Tulane. The lake-front campus was directly in the path of the flooding, and Hebert’s office was on the first floor.

“We heard the water got to the second floor [of the campus building],” Janine said. Her husband expects to be teaching all year at the Baton Rouge campus, but he has already done a floor plan for the new, two-story house he wants to build in New Orleans: living quarters upstairs, emergency generator in the attic.

In addition to SUNO, the litany of campuses Katrina wreaked havoc on in New Orleans includes Tulane, Loyola, Xavier, and the University of New Orleans, scattering their students and faculty in a diaspora to universities across the nation for at least a semester. According to Sen. Mary L. Landreiu (D-LA), nearly 73,000 college students were displaced.

Dohanich evacuated before Katrina with his partner, Stacy Overstreet, who directs Tulane’s psychology doctoral program, and their two cats. They moved in with her family in Coweta County, Georgia, and did not return until the end of September, when they found their house “in perfect condition,” he said, “but the appearance of the city is sad. There is a lot of work ahead.”

Of Katrina’s impact on his research, he lost “a small colony of rats,” he said, but “other researchers also lost animals, and many probably lost tissue samples and chemicals in their storage freezers.”

It’s “short-sighted” to worry about individual research programs, Dohanich said, because there are “much more important issues. My greatest concern is for the future of Tulane and the city of New Orleans. There is much anxiety. How do we recover a semester? Will students withdraw? Will future classes be recruited successfully? Will donors and governments assist us in our financial recovery?”

APS Fellow Janet Ruscher, chair of Tulane’s psychology department, agreed that without electricity for a prolonged period, “I suspect there have been serious losses to the neuroscience group in terms of specimens and stress on the animals, if the animals indeed survived.”

Yet another group whose work will be seriously affected, Ruscher said, are those who do research in New Orleans schools, most of which are expected to remain closed until next fall. Overstreet is one of those researchers. She studies stress and trauma among New Orleans public school students. “It looks like she has some work ahead of her,” Dohanich said.

The campuses worst hit by Katrina were spared by Rita, and all campuses in Rita’s path appeared to have escaped significant damage, even in western Louisiana where rural towns were demolished.

Houston had been of special concern. The nation’s fourth largest city had opened its arms to some 100,000 evacuees from Katrina. “We at Rice University had been contacted by Tulane graduate students in psychology who were interested in continuing their education here,” said APS Fellow and Charter Member James Pomerantz, “and we are doing our best to accommodate those who call Houston home.”

But then Rita forced Houston itself to evacuate – a largely successful effort despite gasoline shortages, snail’s pace traffic jams and short-staffed airports. “Many of those who planned to evacuate by car gave up on that idea after seeing the mess on the freeways,” said Daniel Beal, who did manage to get out of town. Rice, he said, missed only a few days of classes.

Houston is also home to the University of Houston, Baylor College of Medicine, the University of St. Thomas, Houston Community College, the University of Texas Health Science Center, the National Space Biomedical Research Institute, Texas Children’s Hospital, and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. All escaped major damage.

Even in Galveston, the scene of wind-whipped fires watched by millions on TV, the University of Texas Medical School and hospital managed to avoid serious damage. Patients and staff were safely evacuated, blood samples were packed in dry ice, and the freezers were hooked to emergency generators.

In Lafayette, more than 130 miles west of New Orleans, the University of Louisiana campus also suffered only “minimal damage,” according to Claude Cech, a psychology professor at LU, who did not evacuate, “in part because the forecast was for tropical-force sustained winds here, and we know we can withstand that.” At the University’s New Iberia Research Center, he said, “Ironically, the primates housed outdoors probably did better than those indoors, as NIRC did lose electricity and air conditioning for a while.”

The bigger worry, Cech said, was for “the many students and others who had evacuated here from New Orleans after Katrina. Being chased a second time has got to be nerve-wracking, to say the least.”

In Baton Rouge, where about 200,000 Katrina evacuees had relocated, Louisiana State University and other campuses also escaped major disruption. According to John Pickering, the Eastern Louisiana Mental Health System “did not suffer significant damage” even though the 160-year-old center’s roof was undergoing renovation at the time.

Not even the patients at ELMHS were evacuated. Instead, staff from the New Orleans Adolescent Hospital and Southeast Louisiana State Hospital in Mandeville stayed on through the storm to help their patients who had been taken there before Katrina struck.

The outpouring of help from universities coast to coast, and even from beyond the United States – a university in Halifax, Nova Scotia; a coalition of five universities in Israel – was inspiring. As of mid-October, 65 open-door invitations for evacuated students and faculty were posted in the APS Katrina Relocation Directory on the APS Web site (, stretching from UCLA in the West to Brown and Andover in the East.

The chaos has subsided, but the storms’ effects will be long-lasting, predicted industrial/organizational psychologist Robert Rose, of the Rose Consulting Group in Dallas. “The effects of Katrina have only begun. As both counselors and behavioral scientists, psychologists are going to have major potential input – if we can overcome our habitual shyness.

“Like all scientists, we know that the final state of any system is maximum disorder, absent tremendous outside energy and organization. But most people imagine that we are immune to such random fluctuations. Look at the amazement of people at the looting, irrational failure to respond, and confusion in communication. No one realizes that an orderly and reasonable approach would have been much like a day without a car wreck in Dallas. We also know that the aftershock is often greater than at the moment.”

Mississippi State University has already started studying those aftershocks. Elisabeth Wells-Parker, associate director of the Social Science Research Center, and clinical psychologist Virginia Fee are mounting a Web-based survey of students from the impacted campuses, asking about perceptions, expectations, and initial reactions.

“We’re thinking now of extending it to faculty and staff, to get their responses to the disaster,” said Wells-Parker, “and then extend it longitudinally to determine the long-term effects. We want to understand not just the academic impact, but the broader impacts of their ability to cope and adjust, and how they understand and perceive the event.”

Their interdisciplinary research team includes five visiting scholars who evacuated three different New Orleans campuses — an anthropologist, sociologist and economist from the University of New Orleans, a counseling psychologist from Xavier and a sociologist from Loyola, all expected to stay on at least through this semester.

In mid-October, Ruscher returned to a temporary apartment in New Orleans.

“One of my colleagues, whose house was entirely flooded, has maintained an amazing optimistic outlook, and shared an analogy made by own of our associate deans,” Ruscher said. “The current situation, they note, is like climbing a tall ladder — if you look up, you are daunted by how much more you need to climb, and if you look down you are dizzy … and disheartened by how little you’ve climbed. You just have to focus on the current rung … and take it one rung at a time. That is what we are doing, as we rebuild our university, city, and lives.”

In the end, those scattered by the hurricanes were left with a simple wish, voiced by Cech at the University of Louisiana: “We’re all hoping this is the last major storm of the season.”

*No relation to the writer.

‘We have a unique opportunity’

Janet B. Ruscher, chair of the psychology department at Tulane University, left New Orleans “with my two howling cats” before the storm. She has since been “buried in personal issues involved with loss of property and relocation, settling my students, and developing a contact tree.” Just as Hurricane Rita closed in on the Gulf Coast, she accepted invitations to temporarily relocate to the University of Rochester and Nazareth College of Rochester, her alma mater. The Observer interviewed her via e-mail in September.

When did you first realize the seriousness of what was happening to New Orleans?

The national news mentioned the levee breach almost casually Monday afternoon, while continuing to portray New Orleans as a lucky town that continued to party on its dry streets. At that point, we comprehended the gravity of what was about to happen even if the media did not, and we sat in horror, waiting. Early the next morning I made plans to relocate to my hometown of Rochester, New York, knowing it would be months before I could return to New Orleans. As the day passed, it became clear that our worst fears were being realized.

I infer from satellite images and other mapping technology that my block took five to seven feet of water, so there would have been three to five feet of water in my house. Presumably, I would have been flooded by the 17th Street Canal, not the Industrial Canal, so I “only” would have been flooded by Katrina, not Rita.

How badly affected was the Tulane community?

The flood knocked out the university’s computer servers, and the storm knocked out most of our area codes, including cellular service. Those of us with intermittent Internet scrambled to contact as many of our people with alternate e-mail and phone addresses as possible.

Tulane’s emergency Web site allowed our university president to provide updates. Since then, a satellite center of operations was set up in Houston, then moved to Dallas just before Rita struck. We’ve continued to receive updates on how students could be enrolled for the fall at other universities, information about our health insurance, and the state of the campus.

As I understand it, the uptown campus and the primate center on the north shore weathered Katrina relatively well, in one of the few areas of the city not flooded. Our downtown campus, which houses the medical school, hospital, and school of public health, has not been so fortunate. I understand that transgenic mice in the vivarium were evacuated, but we lost most of the other rodent species, which is a huge loss for our neuroscience faculty. As for our other losses, we’ll just have to wait to see.

We’re hopeful that the spring semester will begin in mid-January as usual. Whether we can return to campus earlier than that depends upon when the city is habitable again. It’s not just a matter of power at the university and local clean-up, but the infrastructure and resources of the city and southeastern portion of the state.

What about the psychology department?

The faculty are all fine. We’ve heard from most of the graduate students. Our current understanding is that the main psychology building is fine, but without power.

My own research team is safe. Some will be unable to work on current main projects, because archival data or data sets are in our building or because of other specifics unique to their data collection. But they are all focusing on other projects that can be executed at their local sites. The resilience of these young people is remarkable to me.

How are the displaced faculty and students faring?

The academic community has been truly amazing in its mobilization to help displaced scholars. Many of us received almost immediate offers of access to research infrastructure, offices, and computers from colleagues, some of whom know us only by reputation.

At the moment, our department is a “virtual” community. The first order of business after finding a safe haven has been supporting the situations of our doctoral students. Our school of psychology doctorate program director, Stacy Overstreet, has been working with students to find appropriate courses, internship and supervision arrangements, and research settings.

Our industrial/organizational program director, Ron Landis, has been making similar arrangements for the I/O doctoral students. Advisors of students in the non-applied programs have been supporting similar arrangements. Graduate students have been inordinately self-sufficient and self-reliant in identifying support for their efforts, but they still need to be sure that their work will transfer back to Tulane.

Some of our students working on their dissertations need to have proposal meetings, defense meetings, and data collection sites, so the overwhelmingly helpful response of our sister universities has been especially critical for them. We cannot thank them enough.

What will the next few months be like?

As communications with our deans develop, I expect a great deal of “virtual” activity, but I am simply speculating. Presumably, we will need to process transfer courses for thousands of undergraduates, and meet as advisors with students who are in the same city. We now are finalizing plans for our spring 2006 offerings and beginning to plan for an additional compressed semester that will allow returning students to “catch up.”

Faculty are deeply committed to the university, and have canceled sabbaticals and adopted overloads to address the needs of our graduate and undergraduate students. Rebuilding will be a lot of work, but as part of the New Orleans community, we have a unique opportunity to participate in the rebuilding of the university and the city, to render services to our neighbors, and to preserve a culture that we love. Our students will join us in this endeavor.

Tulane has stopped the tenure clock for the entire year. Although most of my junior colleagues have found temporary homes at other universities, this disruption certainly is hardest on their academic careers in terms of data collection, establishing a lab, grant-writing and the like. But they are a stellar group, so I am confident that they will weather this storm well.

When do you expect to return?

Hopefully, we’ll be back in January, if not by December. But many of us suffered personal losses that will take time to recover from, time that we otherwise might have spent writing. None of our faculty has been able to assess the damage to their homes uptown near Tulane, although satellite and mapping technology have provided a pretty good idea of which of our houses flooded. Even so, other damage is likely. I know one person in another field whose house burned down.

Flooded houses will be uninhabitable for a long time. The university is exploring various options to house faculty who find themselves homeless. The losses suffered by our beloved city are immeasurable. The stress of recovery will continue to take its toll for a long time.

How big a setback is this for your own research?

I wish that I believed that my own research program was sufficiently earth-shattering that the world could not wait for it, but my work is a piece in a very large puzzle that thankfully is still being built by colleagues all over the world. I confess that I have some new insights into prejudiced communication – my particular research interest – having heard during this disastrous string of events offensive rhetoric beyond what I ever imagined was possible.

In the meantime, I was lucky enough to bring along the papers on which I was working, so when my mind can return to work, I’ll get back to them.

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