The Chronicle of Higher Education
Today's News
Thursday, September 22, 2005

Texas Colleges Ready for Rita, as Some of Katrina's Academic Evacuees Are Uprooted Again

By KATHERINE S. MANGAN

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With Hurricane Rita churning through the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday as a whopping Category 5 storm on a path that was expected to take it to the Texas coast by Saturday, colleges and universities in the area began evacuating students, shutting down research projects, and securing buildings. Meanwhile, a Galveston teaching hospital that lies on a coastal island flew patients to safety and evacuated all but essential personnel and a few patients who were too sick to move.

Among the Texas evacuees were thousands of students and faculty members from flooded New Orleans universities who had just settled into classes at Houston-area universities. Tulane University officials, who moved their base of operations to Houston after Hurricane Katrina, packed up late Wednesday and moved to Dallas, some 240 miles farther inland.

The University of Houston's flagship campus has taken in 1,600 students displaced by Katrina, and many of them had just started classes on Tuesday. "We just got them to a place where they felt they could finally breathe again, and off we go," said Wendy Adair, associate vice chancellor for public affairs for the University of Houston System. "And it's not even the end of the hurricane season."

Many of the evacuees were also worried about homes and colleges back in New Orleans, since a heavy rainfall or a glancing blow from Rita could put dangerous stress on damaged levees and set back repair efforts there.

Rita was expected to make landfall late Friday or early Saturday morning, with winds near 165 miles per hour and storm surges as high as 20 feet. Nearly one million people along the Gulf Coast and in low-lying parts of Houston have been told to evacuate.

Officials at the University of Houston urged employees on Wednesday to secure their computer data and back up their servers and hard drives. The institution had also arranged for Texas Tech University to offer a backup Web site for emergency communications. Researchers were told to finish up or close down sensitive research projects they wouldn't be able to check on for at least several days.

The University of Houston System, which has four campuses and more than 50,000 students, has upgraded its emergency plans considerably in the four years since Tropical Storm Allison flooded or otherwise damaged 90 of its 110 buildings, causing $100-million in damage (The Chronicle, June 13, 2001). Buildings with sensitive research experiments that need to be kept cool are equipped with backup generators, and laboratory animals are located high above potential floodwaters, as is key electrical equipment.

About 600 University of Houston students were being taken by bus, beginning Wednesday afternoon, to a basketball arena at Texas A&M University at College Station, about 100 miles northwest. Students from Texas Southern University were also being housed there.

Preparing for Evacuees in College Station

Texas A&M medical and nursing students and faculty members were preparing to help staff a half-dozen emergency shelters being set up in College Station, which is expected to receive large numbers of evacuees.

The university had already been sheltering a number of victims of Hurricane Katrina, but officials said they could take in hundreds more. In the meantime, however, the university has been sending buses to help evacuate people from institutions throughout Texas, and the university's College of Veterinary Medicine is preparing its facilities to care for some 300 burn victims from the Galveston Shriners Hospital, along with its staff of up to 200 people.

Class attendance was sparse on Wednesday at Texas A&M University at Corpus Christi, on the coast 200 miles southwest of Houston, where students were packing their belongings and heading inland. Classes were canceled until at least Monday, and everyone had been told to be off the campus by 10 a.m. today.

At Texas A&M University at Galveston, classes were canceled at noon on Tuesday, and the university's 1,620 students were ordered to evacuate the campus by 5 p.m. Only one bridge connects the campus to the mainland, "which is why we don't wait too long," said Teri Fowle, the university's director of advancement.

On the campus of Galveston College, 2,225 students also began evacuating on Tuesday, with as many as 300 students receiving $150 assistance checks from the college.

At Rice University, a Houston institution with an enrollment of 4,800, students who were unable to leave were notified on an emergency Web page that they would be sheltered in secure campus buildings equipped with enough food and water for at least three days, a well to provide potable water, and emergency generators.

Taking No Chances in Galveston

One of the first colleges to evacuate was the University of Texas Medical Branch, a Galveston institution that is particularly vulnerable because of its location on a two-mile-wide barrier island, right in the center of Rita's projected path, as of Wednesday. In 1900 a Category 4 hurricane nearly wiped Galveston off the map and killed at least 6,000 people.

On Wednesday, Galveston's mayor, Lyda Ann Thomas, ordered a mandatory evacuation of the city. By then, college evacuations had already begun.

The Medical Branch's complex is likely to hold up much better in a hurricane than the older New Orleans teaching hospitals that were nearly destroyed by Katrina. The Medical Center of Louisiana at New Orleans, which includes the Charity and University Hospitals, is closed and will probably have to be completely rebuilt (The Chronicle, September 21).

At Galveston, most of the mechanical equipment, including backup generators, is on the third floor, presumably out of reach of even the highest floodwaters. The generators are tested monthly, and windows are equipped with safety glass.

"When they design buildings here, they do it with hurricanes in mind," said John Koloen, a spokesman for the medical school.

By contrast, Charity and University Hospitals lost power when windows blew out and generators were flooded. Hundreds of patients, doctors, nurses, and staff members were stranded for days without electrical power, fresh water, or adequate food.

With those images fresh in their minds, medical officials in Galveston were not taking any chances this week. They began evacuating some 400 patients by bus, ambulance, and helicopter on Tuesday night. Adult patients were taken to the University of Texas at Tyler's Health Center, and children were flown to hospitals in Austin, Tex. An unspecified number of patients who were too ill to travel stayed behind with a core group of doctors and nurses.

Living Out of a Backpack

Among the evacuees were about 100 medical students from Tulane who had temporarily relocated to the Galveston medical school. A newly formed coalition of four medical schools in South Texas had taken in around 1,000 medical students and residents from Tulane so they could continue their training (The Chronicle, September 13).

Rita is expected to make landfall right around the time the Tulane medical students were scheduled to be in orientation sessions, which have now been postponed until at least Monday.

Justin Lafrenier, a third-year medical student at Tulane, had just moved into a rented house in Houston with seven classmates and was helping Tulane administrators get their medical school back in operation out of an office at Baylor College of Medicine. Now he is heading to Dallas, and advising Tulane students who were en route to Houston to hold off.

"You get good at realizing that nothing is permanent, and you have to just roll with the punches," Mr. Lafrenier said on Wednesday, adding that there are some advantages to living out of a backpack. "Luckily, we're all very mobile at this point."

Working the telephones alongside him was Marc J. Kahn, the Tulane medical school's associate dean for student affairs and admissions. His two children are worried about being uprooted twice, Dr. Kahn said, while he and his wife "are reasonably numb at this point." As he prepared to pack up and leave Houston, he said, "The whole thing is surreal. You couldn't have written this story."

Jason M. Breslow contributed to this article.