It’s been nine months since Hurricane Katrina’s flood waters receded to leave an estimated $400 million in damages to Dillard University’s home campus on Gentilly Boulevard.
Every building sustained significant damage by water, wind and mold except for the Lawless Memorial Chapel, forcing all operations to temporarily move downtown to the Hilton New Orleans Riverside Hotel for the spring 2006 academic session. Reconstruction to the 55-arce campus has been ongoing since the hurricane, and Phase I of the reconstruction to the campus is slated to be complete by Aug. 11.
“When we finished, we truly will have a refreshed and new Dillard,” said President Marvalene Hughes in a recent phone interview. Hughes said the total cost of damage still depends on FEMA and the University’s insurance assessments.
Student and Faculty Reconstruction
When making the decision to reopen for spring 2006, Dillard was faced with many challenges. For one, Dillard was the only college in New Orleans whose campus was inhabitable. Then, the administration was not sure of how many students and faculty would come back because of fear and uncertainty in New Orleans after the national coverage in the media about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Dillard set up temporary administrative offices at 1555 Poydras St. located in downtown New Orleans. Classes began Jan.9 and were held at the Hilton and well as the neighboring World Trade Center. About 500 double-occupancy rooms at the Hilton were reserved for students.
Forty-three tenured faculty members as well as 132 full-time faculty members were brought back for the spring session. Surprisingly, about 50% of the student body returned the University, which was a little over than 1,500 students.
“The happiest day of my entire tenure at Dillard University was on that day in January when we had more students than we could accommodate,” Hughes said. “Trying to make a reality for our students that was doable and workable, paid off,” she said.
Hughes said she and her administration reacted swiftly to the surplus of students who returned. Some faculty remained on-call because of the volume of students who returned and therefore were offered their positions back. Faculty also volunteered to relocate to the nearby Marriott Hotel so that more rooms would be available for students.
“I want to really publicly commend our staff and faculty for their commitment,” Hughes said.
Hughes said the Dillard family suffered no casualties due to the hurricane. “We have been so fortunate,” Hughes said. “That was my biggest fear, (but) all of our people have been located.”
However, Dillard did lose a student and faculty member this year. Tyree Sowells, 21, a senior from Dallas, Texas was killed in a car accident in Atlanta, Ga. Dr. Lucius Weathersby, former associate professor of music also died suddenly after suffering a heart attack.
All buildings in the front of the campus and a few in the back are part of the Phase 1 construction. Samuel DuBois Cook Center, Rosenwald Hall, Stern Hall, Gentilly Gardens will be operational. DUCIEF and Kearney Hall’s dining area on the second level will also be operational when students return for the 2006-2007 academic year to begin Sept. 25.
“The challenges can turn into new opportunities,” Hughes said. The University is not just focusing on restoring the buildings to their pre-Katrina conditions, but is also working on enhancing what was already there. “This gives us an opportunity to step back and take perspective about what we can do,” she said.
Hughes said there will be 800 beds for students. The buildings that are targeted to be used for housing are Gentilly Gardens, DUAL Apartments, Williams Hall and the Elysian Fields Apartments.
One focus is on Stern Hall, the building which houses natural science, public health and nursing. “Our science labs will not be the 1950 venue that students in the past were tolerating,” Hughes said. The reconstruction of Stern Hall will cost about $9 million. Hughes said the new building will give students the ample resources needed for research projects and everyday learning.
There are also plans for the Cook Center. Architects assessed the building and found that it was built to a scaled down sized pre-Katrina. Hughes said her plans are to have the Cook center “built out” to its original layout which included a larger second floor.
Generosity and Gifts
President Hughes has been on a constant mission to keep Dillard in the national spotlight so that the school would get the help it deserved. The University has received donations from the private sectors, alumni like famed attorney Mike Jones and other distinguished people like Sidney Frank, who provided $750,000 for scholarships for students. Each student who returned to Dillard received $1,200 as a result of funds provided and allotted to help out the students. The Tom Joyner Foundation provided each student at Historically Black Colleges in New Orleans $1,000.
Oscar award winning actor Denzel Washington dropped by to speak with the students in late April to give words of encouragement and also gave an undisclosed monetary gift to the University for its recovery efforts. Rev. Jesse Jackson, Mayor Ray Nagin, film producer Spike Lee and others have also visited the Dillard family at its temporary campus at the Hilton.
The Outlook on the Future
July 1 marks the first anniversary of President Hughes’ tenure at Dillard University; a tenure that has been some what of a roller coaster ride due to Hurricane Katrina since she arrived last year. July 1 will also be the 2006 Commencement on the Rosa Keller Freeman Avenue of the Oaks, and will be the first time students, faculty and staff will be back to the campus since classes began and were cut short early August 2005. Renowned actor, comedian and philanthropist Bill Cosby will be this year’s commencement speaker. Singer Nancy Wilson will also put on a benefit concert after baccalaureate.
The University plans to take about 15 minutes from the commencement ceremonies for President Hughes’ inauguration, which has not been previously done. Hughes said these events are usually expensive and elaborate, but this time she is more concerned with raising more money for the University. “It will be very simple, but meaningful,” Hughes said.
Hughes said she is looking forward to the future and is very proud of the tenacity demonstrated by the faculty, students and staff to continue to perpetuate and continue the 136 years of excellence and heritage of Dillard University.
“If there is a story to be told, we were a determined people who have demonstrated that we can survive a major trauma and certainly that is not new for us as a black people,” Hughes said. “Our resilience was demonstrated very forcefully.”