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Riders on the Storm

December 11, 2006

Suzanne Johnson
Photography by Tulanian

Under the best of circumstances, orientation on Tulane University's uptown campus is frenetic. First-year students and their parents arrive in the city laden with the stuff of college life: electronics and linens, books and photos, icons of independence and lifelines to home.

tulwin06_riders On the Saturday of orientation, new students and their parents are officially welcomed to campus by administrators and faculty members decked out in formal robes and academic regalia. Then there are the lengthy speeches and greetings that serve as an important introduction to the academic life.

The fact that President Scott Cowen's 2005 orientation address was delivered in a yellow polo shirt and khaki shorts -- and that it lasted about 10 minutes -- was a clue that this was no ordinary year, and no ordinary orientation.

"I pretty much told them hello, and told them goodbye," Cowen recalls.

By that time, 1 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 27, Tulane was in full hurricane mode, something that 12 hours earlier had seemed inconceivable as Hurricane Katrina, then bound for the Florida Panhandle, was no apparent threat.

But by Saturday morning, the storm that kept shifting westward had settled on a new target: the Greater New Orleans area, where it was expected to make landfall as a major hurricane.

"The staff gathered at 8 a.m. on Saturday to talk about what we should do with the 1,700 students and their families who were coming to campus that day," Cowen says. "We allowed them to check into the residence halls and move their stuff in before meeting in McAlister at 1 p.m. Then we sent them all home."

Not all could return home on short notice, so buses -- contracted in advance as part of the university's hurricane plan -- headed out late Saturday carrying 600 students and several of Tulane's senior administrators to a gymnasium at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss.


Being in New Orleans, of course, Tulane has a hurricane plan for just such a visitor as Katrina. For a Category 4 or 5 storm, everyone evacuates except about 30 people on the uptown campus and about 100 downtown at the health sciences center. Among those required to stay are the president, key administrators and essential buildings and grounds personnel.

Bob Voltz, electrical superintendent for Tulane facilities services, has been riding out hurricanes on the uptown campus for more than 20 years, so he and electrician Brian Oubre were to hunker down in the campus power plant while Tracy Boudreaux, a carpenter, and Juan Perez, a vehicle mechanic, waited in Lafayette, La. Once the storm passed, Boudreaux and Perez would return to campus with food and supplies.

Farther north on campus, at the Reily Student Recreation Center, Cowen and four senior administrators gathered on Sunday with air mattresses and radios, laptops and cell phones. "We were ready," Cowen said. "We had power, we had water, we had sewer, we had enough food to last a couple of days, and we had communications."

tulwin06_heroes2About 5 a.m. on Monday, Aug. 29, Katrina blew ashore. Although a last-minute jog caused the brunt of the powerful storm to hit the Louisiana/Missisippi border about 30 miles east of the city, wind gusts downtown were clocked at more than 140 miles per hour.

On campus, windows broke, trees toppled, limbs cracked. In the power plant, Voltz and Oubre took turns dashing 50 yards through hard-blowing rain to check the Willow Street electrical substation. At the Reily Center, the administrative team kept the building secure as doors blew open and windows shook.

Twelve hours later, it appeared to be over. Thanks to the pre-storm decision to switch to the on-campus electrical generator, essential campus buildings still had electricity, even though the city did not.

"About 5 p.m on Monday we ventured out of the Reily Center to see what was going on," Cowen says. "There was debris all over the place -- more debris than you can imagine -- but there was no water except a little standing water from the rain. We walked around campus -- there were some windows broken, some roof tiles blown off. I remember thinking that it wasn't so bad. It was just a matter of cleaning up and patching."


As Cowen and his team returned to the Reily Center they heard that several levees had broken, and decided to spend another night on campus to see if Tulane would experience any effect. They awoke on Tuesday to a surreal scene: water -- lots of it -- making their second-floor space at the Reily Center a virtual island.

"And then all hell broke loose," Cowen says. "We lost power, we lost water pressure, sewer and all communications. Satellite phones didn't work, cell phones didn't work -- nothing. We didn't know what was going on with the other 25 people on the uptown campus, or the 100 people downtown, not to mention the hospital with patients." (See related story)

Cowen was about to learn a valuable lesson in wireless technology. His cell phone, rendered useless after the flooding began, started to ping. "It said I had a text message. I had never used text messaging in my entire life -- I had no idea what it was, who it came from, or how to respond to it." It was his daughter in New York, and he quickly learned the ins and outs of text messaging, the only form of communication still working.

tulwin06_boatThe next task was to gather the people on the uptown campus to the second floor of Reily. "The night before the storm, Tony Lorino [Tulane chief financial officer] told me he had found some boats under the Reily Center," Cowen says. "We had two kayaks and a 16-foot motorboat that I thought was useless -- the motor was disassembled, there was a big hole in the side of the boat, there was no gas in the tank and no steering wheel. But we got it out anyway."

Later that morning, flat boats carrying the other uptown employees arrived, raising the Reily population to 30. Food was running short, so Cowen, accompanied by Brian Oubre, went foraging.

"I have a public confession," Cowen laughs. "I broke into every building on campus where there was food." The biggest haul came from Bruff Commons.

The additional boats from the facilities crew had created an armada whose unlikely centerpiece was the forlorn motorboat.

"Those guys are the unsung heroes of this story," Cowen says of the facilities crew. "They saw the broken-down motorboat and said, 'Don't worry -- we'll fix it.' Four hours later, the boat is fully functional -- they put the engine back together, they plugged the hole, they siphoned gas out of the cars parked in the Diboll garage -- we all siphoned gas throughout the week. I asked them where they got the steering wheel, but they said I didn't want to know."

The next two days passed in a blur of water and eerie silence. They slept on the Reily Center roof, where it was a little cooler and the air fresher, and watched fires burn untended in the distance. "We lost track of time," Oubre says.

tulwin06_heroesBy Thursday, the students in Jackson had been dispersed to their homes, and the rest of the Tulane administration was beginning to coalesce in Houston, which would become "Tulane Central" for the coming months. "When I left on Thursday, those guys would not leave," Cowen says of the facilities services staff. "They never left."

They did, however, manage through sheer ingenuity to get Cowen and the other administrators to the river, where a helicopter would pick them up. First, a boat took them away from Reily, then they hopped a hot-wired golf cart to the St. Charles Avenue side of campus. From there, a dump truck took them to the river and a waiting helicopter. Between food-thievery, vehicle hot-wiring and gas-siphoning, Cowen jokes that he has learned a new set of skills.

As the president and his administrative team left the city, Voltz, Oubre, Boudreaux, Perez and other facilities workers remained on campus, ready to begin the cleanup as soon as the water receded. They checked buildings -- once observing a bass swim through the door of the sheet-metal shop. They slept on the roof of the Reily Center and watched the helicopters pass overhead, dropping Meals Ready to Eat. During the days, they'd take the boats out into the surrounding neighborhoods, looking for those who needed help.

They began clearing the dry parts of campus. "We would go out in canoes to clear trees and then go back to the island [Reily Center]," Boudreaux says. They stayed on the island for eight days.

It is eight days they will never forget. "I've got stories to tell my kids," Perez says.

Winter 2006

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000