Despite faculty concerns, Fitts emphasizes successful efforts during Ida

Rohan Goswami, News Editor

As students returned to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida, Tulane University President Mike Fitts reflected on the preparations around the hurricane, the evacuation to Houston, the return to campus and the lessons learned in the aftermath of New Orleans’ catastrophic grid failure

Hurricane Ida rapidly intensified on Aug. 28 and 29, triggering a voluntary evacuation order for Orleans Parish and a great deal of confusion for Tulane parents and students. 

Tulane students who stayed in New Orleans for the duration of the storm evacuated to Houston as the city was left without power. Speaking on the evacuation, Fitts said that “this was, in some sense, triggering our preexisting plans.”

Newcomb Hall remains covered in scaffolding after Hurricane Ida.
Newcomb Hall remains covered in scaffolding after Hurricane Ida. (Gabe Darley)

More than 2,500 students evacuated to six hotels in the Houston area. Of that number, about 1,000 students were unable to secure transportation out of Houston and remained in place. 

A “perception of danger” — Fitts said — led to the evacuation of dorms surrounding the crane located on McAlister Place for the duration of the hurricane. “It’s actually built to withstand 140 miles per hour, but in any event, we moved [the students] out [of the surrounding dorms.]” 

Criticism arose during the storm from members of the student body as windows blew out in Monroe Hall, prompting resident advisors to move students from their rooms into the hallways. Nonetheless, Fitts said most damage was “middling,” with contractors working to recertify dorm rooms rapidly. 

“What we didn’t get was any catastrophic damage,” Fitts said. “Campus Services was working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, inspecting all 4,200 undergraduate rooms to see if there was any damage.” 

Alongside Campus Services, contractors assessed damages to residence halls. “Several national disaster assessment, recovery, and remediation companies were contracted with by Tulane,” Mike Strecker, assistant vice president for communications, said.

Upon returning to campus, several students discovered valuables and personal property missing, presumed stolen, from their rooms.

“We were very concerned about this,” Fitts said. “There clearly were a number of cases where material was taken from their rooms. The sort of speculation is we had outside contractors who came in, and worked on redoing all the rooms, and we suspect that … may have been the entry point for theft in these rooms.”

Fitts urged any impacted students to file a police report for compensation.

Fitts was also keen to highlight the work done by Tulane donors, who assembled two separate emergency support funds — one for the student body and another for faculty and staff. “We understood that there were a lot of unforeseen costs and expenses … and we were able to fairly quickly assemble these funds and integrated support.”

Undergraduate and graduate students had access to an emergency fund by donors, which gave out “well over a million dollars” and which covered financial expenses incurred as a result of evacuation or storm damage.

“For the most part, it’s the support of our alumni which drives the university forward in so many different ways,” Fitts said.

Full-time university staff were able to access another fund which was also supported by university donors. Faculty were entitled to a $500 outright grant and a further $1,000 in the form of an interest-free loan.

Contract workers and part-time employees were not eligible for financial support from the university.

Nonetheless, communication to staff and faculty was a point of contention in the immediate aftermath of the storm. A senior faculty member in the School of Liberal Arts expressed concern over the lack of communication in the days after the storm. 

Each school at Tulane was responsible for confirming the safety of faculty within their school. The Tulane Hullabaloo was unable to confirm whether university-wide safety check protocol was in place.

That same faculty member expressed dissatisfaction with the perceived lack of input on the return to campus planning.

“There was no survey of all faculty at any point,” the faculty member said. The School of Liberal Arts sent a survey about planning around a return to campus on Sept. 3 but limited input to department chairs.

Strecker disagreed, stating that the university did send a survey to faculty and staff after the Hurricane, “seeking information on the condition of their residences and the feasibility of their return.” 

That survey, for the entirety of the faculty and staff, was sent out on Sept. 7, more than a week after Ida made landfall.

“All of the deans got feedback from their schools in their own way and passed it along,” Strecker said. “We did not do a survey of all of our faculty seeking their input on our plans to return to teaching, but we built in flexibility for faculty for whom the new schedule did not work well.”

In the aftermath of the storm, students and faculty returned to classrooms virtually. With the Tulane community spread out across the nation, Fitts felt a keen sense of pride in the transition from evacuation to online learning. 

“We had gone through something similar a year and a half ago. We went from on ground to online, and this was sort of from on ground to about a week and a half online and then back. It worked out well, I think. I think the faculty have understood remote learning and how to continue their classes in that way,” Fitts said, before adding that faculty were required to include an online learning process in their course planning.

According to the same senior faculty member, this requirement is a point of concern, as it can create issues for faculty members with young children or home damage.

With students and faculty both back on the ground, and power restored to the New Orleans metropolitan area, widespread online learning has, for the time being, ceased.

The question of what happens after Ida goes beyond just the immediate storm damage. New Orleans faces an increased risk of extreme weather events due to anthropogenic climate change.

Fitts sees Tulane as uniquely placed to help answer questions around storm resiliency, not just in New Orleans, but across the country. 

“How can we make sure in the future we can handle and confront storms in a better way?” Fitts said. “One of my takeaways from this experience is a whole lot of the planning in New Orleans for storms turned out to be very successful.”