HATTIESBURG, Miss.–Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina changed Mississippi forever. One way the state changed was with its education system, and the University of Southern Mississippi has been a large part of that. The school is telling the story of its Gulf Coast campus.
The story from USM’s perspective:
Ten years ago, Patricia “Pat” Joachim had just accepted the job of interim Associate Provost for The University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast operations in August of 2005, as the start of the fall semester was fast approaching. In her first week on the job, she began getting to know students, faculty and staff, examining budgets, class schedules and tackling a variety of other tasks.
Already familiar with USM as an alumna and former coordinator of its Educational Leadership and Research program at Southern Miss Gulf Coast, Joachim came out of retirement from public school teaching and administration to take the post. Beloved for her engaging personality and easy smile, she hit it off immediately with her new colleagues and students.
But at the end of her first week on the job, a new and greater challenge awaited Joachim requiring not only her experience, knowledge and winning personality, but her faith and fortitude.
Hurricane Katrina, the historic Category 5 storm that brought catastrophic devastation and death to the Gulf Coast when it roared ashore on the morning of Monday, Aug. 29, did not spare the University its fury. When it was over, Southern Miss had suffered approximately $200 million in losses that included structural and intellectual (research) property. Winds of more than 100 miles an hour and storm surges as high as 30 feet also killed more than 230 people and displaced thousands more along the Mississippi coast, while also destroying homes, businesses, churches and schools, changing the coast landscape forever. More than 1,000 died in the nearby New Orleans area.
Many USM Gulf Coast employees lost their homes, automobiles, food, clothing and other possessions in the storm and faced an uncertain future. But a few days after the disaster, faculty, staff and students listened as Southern Miss President Shelby Thames and Joachim stood on the back of a pickup truck in a parking lot at Long Beach High School’s football stadium and assured them that, despite all of the other challenges in front of them, they would still have a job.
To do that, Thames and the rest of the University’s administration were determined that somehow, some way, the fall semester would re-start at both locations. “I knew if we could get back up and running, we could give hope to the rest of the Gulf Coast community,” he said. “We could have just folded up down there, but we refused. We were not going to let that storm wash us away.”
Joachim and Thames knew what was at stake – employees’ incomes, health benefits, their retirement and keeping students on track to complete their degree programs. “I believed we could reopen in about six weeks, and hold classes wherever we could find space,” Joachim said. “But we had to do it as soon as possible, and we had to work together to do it.”
One of those employees whose own home suffered major damage was retired USM Gulf Coast University Communications Director Shelia White, who described the effort to re-start the school year as a “monumental” task. With power, water and gas service out in most areas along the coast for approximately a month, living conditions were challenging at best as some lived in outdoor tents and, for the lucky ones, in FEMA trailers which arrived much later.
Like Joachim, White knew that reopening USM on the coast for the fall semester meant maintaining the livelihood of the school’s employees, as well as bringing back a sense of normalcy to them and students. She marveled at the effort to make it happen.
“We had about 120 faculty and staff who had lost their homes,” White said. “But we were in a crisis, and we knew we had to do it (restart the semester). “In the middle of personal tragedy, it was incredible how our faculty and staff pulled together to start back.”
Reflecting on what she and others went through in Hurricane Katrina, White defers to a higher power when she can’t find the words to describe it. “I know God has a plan, and we don’t always understand it,” she said. “I wish it had never happened, but we became stronger for it.”
Southern Miss re-started the fall semester six weeks after the storm at USM Gulf Coast in a condensed, 10-week format of classes and a facility to accommodate it. Two-thirds of the students enrolled prior to the hurricane returned for the fall semester and by the spring, three-fourths of the students had returned to classrooms set up in a building in north Gulfport that previously was a hospital facility and then newly-owned by the University’s research foundation. This would come to be known as the Southern Miss Gulf Coast Student Service Center.
The Student Service Center environment was unconventional – bottled water was set out on tables for students, faculty and staff; portable toilets were brought in until water services could be restored; and battery-operated wall clocks helped professors and students monitor when classes started and ended as power slowly returned to the area, among many other ways the University adapted to the situation.
“I remember IHL Commissioner Tom Meredith said what we did to come back was unbelievable,” Joachim said. “But we just did what we had to do.
”The Hattiesburg campus, with less severe damage, re-started in mid-September, foregoing the fall break and adding three more days at the end of the semester to make up for time lost in the closure following Katrina.
Damage to USM facilities in Hattiesburg, which included repairs to the iconic Aubrey K. Lucas Administration Building, were completed in 2010 while the Gulf Park campus in Long Beach embodies the university system’s biggest success story. A decade later USM’s Gulf Park campus, which was decimated by the storm, has repaired 270,000 square feet of classroom and office space lost during the storm. On Wednesday, Aug. 26, a groundbreaking was held for the new, $16 million Marine Education Center.
“The Gulf Park campus was forever transformed by Hurricane Katrina, and the campus has been rebuilt not only with bricks and mortar but with a commitment to restoring and expanding quality educational opportunities at the undergraduate and graduate level on the Gulf Coast,” said Dr. Steve Miller, vice president for the Gulf Park Campus.
“More than a dozen buildings have been built or reconstructed during the past decade on the Gulf Park campus. Upcoming projects include a new College of Business and College of Health two-story state-of-the-art facility, as well as a new beachfront entrance to the campus.”
Lauren White was a Southern Miss nursing student from Long Beach attending the University’s Hattiesburg campus when Katrina hit. She began as a freshman in Hattiesburg in 2003, and was just starting her junior year when she decided to transfer to the Coast. She earned her bachelor of nursing degree in 2007 is now educator/coordinator of NICU and Pediatrics at Memorial Hospital in Gulfport.
“I tried to continue my fall semester in Hattiesburg where I had been a student for the previous two years,” White said. “It was hard to go back to class in Hattiesburg and pretend that my hometown had not been destroyed. Back home my family and friends had all been affected in some way, and everyone had lost so much.”
White said that initially, taking classes at the Student Service Center was challenging.
“The classrooms were still being modified and the entire facility was under construction to turn it into a university facility,” she said. “Our classroom was the old hospital’s intensive care unit (ICU) and it still looked like an ICU. A semester of nursing is tough in 16 weeks and we did the fall semester in 10 weeks.
“Everyone was trying to make it work but it was crazy. People were on autopilot. Everyone was doing what they had to do, but every now and then they would break down. USM Gulf Coast students, faculty and employees had lost so much, plus we had lost our campus.”
Associate Vice President for Facilities Planning and Management Dr. Chris Crenshaw was in his second week as director of residence life at USM when Hurricane Katrina hit. With the fall semester having already started, many students were already settled into their residence hall rooms when the storm made landfall, and were without power and running water for days following the storm.
“I just recall how our students, despite all the challenges they faced, including those who for days didn’t know the fate of their family and friends who lived in the path of the storm, wanted to know how they could help after the storm, including removing debris from campus,” Crenshaw said. “It was amazing watch everyone pitch in to help.”
Crenshaw also praised Dr. Thames’ leadership during the crisis. “We had members of our maintenance crew, who were dealing with damage to their own homes but still came back, working into the early hours of the morning for several days trying to get our residence halls in good shape,” Crenshaw said. “I remember Dr. Thames calling them at 2 or 3 in the morning on our portable radios to thank them for the great job they were doing.
“I’m certain without his leadership during that time, USM would not have recovered as well as it did.”
Jonathan Krebs, a Southern Miss alumnus who was Student Government Association president when Katrina struck, also recalls students coming together to help each other, as well as perfect strangers affected by the storm.
“Our students stood up for each other, helped each other out by raising money or sharing resources to help each other through the disaster, even welcoming displaced families into their homes or apartments when there were no more hotel rooms available in the area,” said Krebs, a Hattiesburg native who is now a national disaster recovery consultant for Horne CPA, LLP. “They also participated in many volunteer projects after the storm. Seeing that kind of generosity can inspire you for a lifetime.”
Former Vice President for Student Affairs Dr. Joe Paul, a Southern Miss alumnus and Bay St. Louis native, said his lasting memories of Katrina are ones of resilience in the University community. He gave kudos to the work and resourcefulness of the staff of Student Affairs, the Physical Plant, University Police, Residence Life and Aramark food services in getting the Hattiesburg campus back up and running quickly.
“It’s truly amazing and even miraculous that we were able to reopen in Hattiesburg in two weeks, and in six-eight weeks at USM Gulf Coast,” Paul said. “We showed that Southern Miss grit, determination, persistence, creative problem solving and compassion for one another that makes the University a very special place.”
Joachim echoed Paul’s sentiments. “I think about the word “us” in USM,” she said. “That was how we accomplished what we did, all of us coming together. We just would not give up.”
A website for the Katrina Anniversary featuring event information, Katrina 10-year report, research, photo galleries, faculty publications and more are available at http://www.usm.edu/katrina-anniversary.
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