Displaced Physicists Anticipate Return to Research and Teaching in New Orleans
By Ernie Tretkoff
An outpouring of aid offers from the physics community helped ensure that physics researchers and students from the areas affected by hurricane Katrina had places to go to continue with their studies and research.
Tulane University, like other universities in and around New Orleans, evacuated and closed for the fall semester when hurricane Katrina hit in late August. The evacuation order came just after students had begun arriving on campus, but before classes had started.
For several days after the storm hit, people were out of touch and disorganized, as evacuees scattered across the country and Tulane phone and email were unavailable, said Fred Wietfeldt, a Tulane physics professor.
But within days email lists, online message boards, and emergency websites had been set up. The physics department members made contact and verified that everyone was okay.
Tulane administrators began working from offices in Houston. People from other universities quickly began sending offers of aid through online message boards and personal contacts.
Jim McGuire, chair of the Tulane physics department, said he received many generous offers of aid. “I had at least seven people call me with offers of places to go.”
The rest of the department has also found places to go. “Over half of our department has taken their groups and relocated. Most research groups simply collected themselves, and found the best place they could,” said McGuire. Tulane research groups have resumed their work for the fall semester at institutions including Harvard University, the University of Illinois, Rutgers University, and Rice University.
Some faculty members are simply waiting for Tulane to reopen to resume their research. Most graduate students chose to follow their research advisors.
Many universities offered lab and office space to displaced researchers, and many offered displaced students spaces in classes and help finding housing. Within days of the hurricane, George Gollin of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, offered to take the entire group of Tulane undergraduate physics majors–about 35 students–at UIUC. McGuire said that when Gollin was asked how he could manage to take such a large number of students on such short notice, he replied, “I’m in high energy physics, we’re used to organizing these things on a moment’s notice.”
Some students took Gollin’s offer, while other undergrads chose to attend universities near their home towns. “All of the institutions have offered to let them take courses and transfer the credit to Tulane. That helps us,” said McGuire.
Tulane plans to reopen in January. Wietfeldt, who had already planned to spend the year at NIST in Maryland, pointed out that a large portion of New Orleans, including Tulane’s campus, wasn’t badly damaged. “This was a very bad situation,” he said, but not as bad as one might think from watching TV news reports. “You’d think the entire city was demolished,” he said. But in fact, “many neighborhoods are physically in good shape. The human disaster was far worse than the physical disaster.” He is confident that the city will rebuild, he says, “I love Tulane. It’s a great place to work, and it’s a great university.”
As of late September, it appears there is only minor damage to the Tulane campus, and the university plans to reopen for the spring semester. In order for the university to reopen, said McGuire, the city of New Orleans needs to be functioning, with utilities such as water, sewer, and electricity all rebuilt. Some members of the university community may have extensive damage to their houses, and alternate housing will have to be found for those people. Meanwhile, McGuire and administrators are working on other plans, such as class schedules, for the university’s reopening.