Helping hand. Doctors attend to hurricane victims in LSU's Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

Universities Merge in Wake of Hurricane

John is a Science contributing correspondent.

Like most of storm-ravaged New Orleans, three centrally located universities--Tulane, the University of New Orleans (UNO), and Xavier--have shut down indefinitely due to damage. In the wake of those closures, Louisiana State University (LSU), which lies 100 kilometers to the northwest of New Orleans, has become an academic refugee center, accepting students and staff left in the lurch by Hurricane Katrina.

So far, says Chuck Wilson, LSU's Vice Provost, 1800 undergraduate students and 150 graduate students have arrived, mostly from UNO, "and we'll continue to accept students until Friday." Along with that influx of students will come a large portion of the UNO faculty who have been promised pay by their home university. Wilson says the de facto merger of the universities will certainly last the rest of the year but is "unlikely" to be permanent.

Meanwhile, LSU has been "transformed overnight into a medevac hospital and triage center for evacuees," says Wilson, with a sports facility now converted into a field hospital. A regular stream of helicopters is landing on the fields to drop off mostly elderly New Orleans residents. "All this, and classes just started today," adds Wilson.

"We're all trying to get back to work as soon as we can," says LSU hydrologist John Day, who is putting up eight refugees in his home. Day wants to get out soon to check the status of a 6-year experiment in the wetlands surrounding New Orleans that has been monitoring environmental change, including sedimentation rates, water levels, and nutrient loads. One of his collaborators on that project, Denise Reed, a coastal geomorphologist at UNO, was lucky to live far enough away from the city to still have a home. She and Day, along with several other LSU scientists, hope the monitoring equipment is still in place.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is wading in to help research teams like Day's get back on their feet. The NSF Division of Civil and Mechanical Systems announced this week that grants of between $10,000 and $30,000 will be immediately available "to support reconnaissance teams to enter the Gulf Coast disaster area to capture data from Hurricane Katrina." One thing that needs to be assessed, says Day, is a possible "ecological disaster in the making" as flood water contaminated with "heavy metals, petroleum products, and who knows what else" is pumped into the wetland.

Related sites
Other universities reaching out to Katrina refugee students
The NSF Division of Civil and Mechanical Systems

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