Amid Katrina's Ruins, Black Colleges Survive

Delta Sigma Theta members pray in front of the Hilton Riverside hotel, maintaining a ritual usually performed on Dillard's campus.
Delta Sigma Theta members pray in front of the Hilton Riverside hotel, maintaining a ritual usually performed on Dillard's campus. (By Wendy Waren -- Dillard University Via Associated Press)
By Julia Cass
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, January 29, 2006

NEW ORLEANS -- Dillard University is just a quarter of a mile from one of the canal breaches that flooded this city. With the exception of the chapel, every building on the campus of the historically black college was inundated by two to five feet of water that poured in and stood for three weeks. Then, as if wind, rain and flooding weren't enough, a fire burned down three dormitories. Today, nearly five months after Katrina struck, Dillard's gutted buildings sit silent and empty.

Still, Dillard has reopened for the spring semester, although not on its 55-acre campus with white Georgian revival buildings and spectacular glade of ancient live oaks. Its students are living in the Hilton Riverside hotel downtown, attending classes in makeshift rooms in the hotel's trade show area and eating in a cafe off the atrium renamed the Blue Devil in honor of the school's mascot. Marvalene Hughes, the university's president, expected only about a quarter of the pre-Katrina student body of 2,155 this semester and had to quickly book more rooms when half said they would come back.

"We were surprised. You might say shocked," said Hughes, who became Dillard's ninth president in July, a month before the storm.

Other university officials here report the same pleasant surprise. Xavier University, the nation's only historically black Catholic university, expected half its 4,100 students would return this semester; instead 3,110 are back on its restored campus, surrounded by uninhabitable houses and boarded-up shopping centers. Tulane University expected three-quarters of its 12,500 students and got 88 percent. Loyola University's current enrollment of 4,436 amounts to 81 percent of its pre-Katrina total.

By comparison, officials estimate that less than a third of New Orleans's former residents are living in the city. "Students may be the optimistic people in New Orleans, given how many have chosen to return," said Norman C. Francis, Xavier's president for 38 years who now also heads the Louisiana Recovery Authority.

Indeed, while administrators struggle with logistics, budgets, staff cuts and fundraising, students seem to be adapting to life in a very different city from the one they evacuated. The comeback this month seems especially remarkable at Xavier and Dillard, which suffered comparatively worse damage than their counterparts on higher ground, and have limited resources and many students dependent on financial aid.

"It's great!" Dillard freshman Ryan Belcher said of hotel living as he stood by a bank of plants in the Hilton's atrium. Belcher, 18, from Indianapolis, lives with another freshman in a sixth-floor room with a river view. It takes minutes to ride the elevator down to class, he said, and he sees more of his fellow students and professors, many of whom are also living in the hotel, than he would if he were on campus.

Belcher attended a university in his home town last fall and wasn't sure he wanted to return to New Orleans. His uncle urged him to, though, saying it would show character. Belcher had chosen Dillard for its small size and said that by coming back, "I felt I could make more of a mark because there would be fewer students."

The hotel is located beside the Riverwalk mall, a shopping arcade along the Mississippi. Many of its stores remain closed, as does Harrah's casino across the street, but the mostly open and vibrant French Quarter is just a few blocks away.

At Xavier about five miles away, students returned to mostly restored, freshly painted buildings but cannot help but notice the devastation around them. The university's six-story buildings are separated by several residential blocks where empty homes show black, five-foot-high water lines. A parking lot now is a trailer park housing some faculty members and other staff.

"There's not much around," said sophomore Kimberly Onyirioha, a pre-med student from Houston, as she walked from an organic chemistry class to her dormitory.

Warren A. Bell Jr., associate vice president for university and media relations, said he believes that a large number of students returned to Xavier because of the university's special niche in pharmacy and pre-med. Although it was founded in 1915 by Mother Katharine Drexel to train teachers for the segregated Catholic schools in this Catholic city, Xavier has provided nearly a quarter of the nation's black pharmacists and produces more black medical students than any other undergraduate institution, according to various professional groups.

Most, though not all, of the university's buildings were flooded or otherwise damaged, Bell said. Xavier fared better than Dillard in part because its campus consists primarily of high-rise buildings. Bell said that Xavier's "fiercely determined" administrators, using a line of credit, quickly arranged for contractors to gut and restore the damaged buildings at a cost of $35 million to $40 million. After receiving expected money from its insurers and the federal government, Xavier -- where 30 percent of its faculty and staff remain laid off -- likely will still owe $20 million, Bell said. "We don't know how we'll get it, but we have faith."

Dillard faces the greatest challenge. When the extent of the devastation became known, and an estimate for restoration was set at $400 million, Hughes realized that the school could not reopen on its campus this school year.

She did not consider keeping the university closed until September. "If you are nonexistent for a year, it is almost reasonable for people to consider you extinct," she said. She felt beholden to the university's history as one of the nation's oldest African American liberal arts colleges, created in 1930 by combining two institutions founded shortly after the Civil War.

For a while, university officials thought about relocating elsewhere for the spring semester but rejected that idea because "we wanted to share in the recovery of the city," Hughes said. She negotiated with the Hilton after it and other hotels came looking for the university's business.

"It was great timing for us," said Mark Volterre, the hotel's assistant manager, explaining that the Hilton is the largest convention hotel in the city with 1,600 rooms it could not fill with no conventions in town. By the time the first large convention returns in June, the students will be gone.

Dillard has laid off nearly two-thirds of its staff and is close to completing a master plan for rebuilding by September, Hughes said. Soon, it will put bids out for a contractor. She has been giving tours to members of Congress and encouraging alumni to contribute and to write to their representatives for more federal money. Hughes said that Dillard will get a share of the $95 million appropriated for institutions of higher education forced by Katrina to close for more than 30 days, but that money and the university's insurance will not be nearly enough.

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