By Richard Harth
Physicists who descended from far and wide on New Orleans for the March Meeting caught a glimpse of the city in the process of tentative renewal. It was also an opportunity to meet with colleagues in the New Orleans physics community and see how they were faring since the August 2005 hurricane.
Three years ago, Katrina made landfall as a strong category 3 hurricane, sufficient to breach the levee system and inundate 80% of the city. Physicists in New Orleans faced unusual challenges both in the immediate aftermath and following their eventual return.
All universities were shut down for many months, lost email capacity, and saw faculty and students scattered to parts unknown. Since the calamity, a combination of luck, geography and the particular nature of each institution have played a role in the degree of recovery.
Without question, the biggest success story has been Tulane University. All physics faculty have now returned, and the department today is undergoing something of a renaissance. While the university was closed, many physicists, (along with their families and research groups), were graciously welcomed at institutions across the US. The ensuing collaborations proved a silver lining for both physicists and their students.
Ulrike Diebold, a physicist in surface science, was invited with her group to New Jersey and participated in stimulating collaborations at Rutgers University. John Perdew, a theorist, evacuated to Houston, where he immediately contacted former collaborator Gustavo Scuseria, a theoretical chemist at Rice University, who offered office space and computers.
Fleeing Katrina, Wayne Reed, a polymer physicist, landed for a time in the Ozark wilderness. But like fellow Tulane faculty, he caught a lucky break. A colleague at University of Massachusetts at Amherst invited Reed and his sizeable research group to UMass, which boasts one of the finest polymer science departments in the world.
As Lev Kaplan, a Tulane quantum chaos theorist said, “I think I speak for all of us when I say we are very grateful to departments all over the country who invited us and our students.”
Tulane physics chair Jim McGuire also praised the initiative shown by his university, which continued to pay salaries to faculty and teaching assistants during their absence.
Physicists at other institutions in New Orleans were often less fortunate than their Tulane colleagues. Many faculty at the University of New Orleans, including Greg Seab, departmental chair, had their homes destroyed.
Ashok Puri, also at UNO, lost his house and was then defrauded of $30,000 dollars by crooked contractors who vanished into thin air. Puri was most concerned, however, for his son, who was preparing for university entrance exams when the hurricane struck. (Fortunately, despite the disruption, the student was admitted to Cornell.)
The management response at UNO has come in for criticism by a number of physics faculty. In the opinion of some, the administration took advantage of the catastrophe to engage in restructuring efforts, which included furloughing a number of physics professors, some of whom were tenured. The impact on departmental morale has been palpable, according to some.
Xavier University, which took on six to seven feet of water in virtually every building on campus, has also had a difficult time getting back on its feet, as Physics chair Murty Akundi made clear in a special APS session, Learning From Katrina. A number of senior physics faculty have left Xavier in Katrina’s aftermath, forcing Akurti to rebuild the department—a significant challenge. Funding shortfalls continue to undermine physics efforts at both Xavier and UNO.
As with other New Orleanians, physicists struggling after Katrina proved that necessity is the mother of invention. Although many were highly critical of administrative and state bureaucracy, all gave the nationwide academic community high marks for ingenuity and exceptional generosity. Many professional relationships forged as a result of the storm continue to prosper.
The city’s physics community seemed invigorated by the lively March Meeting. While many visitors to the city stayed close to the Convention Center, some ventured into the city’s vibrant French Quarter, a short walk from the meeting site. This tended to give a skewed impression of recovery in the city, which remains in a sorry state in areas like Lakeview and the Lower Ninth Ward. Nevertheless, even physicists most severely affected by the storm and its aftermath expressed hope that their departments are finally getting back on their feet and will begin again to flourish.