No Place Like A Home
CSTV.com's Jessica Garrison writes that Louisiana Tech has pulled together in the face of Katrina
Tulane's campus remains flooded
Sept. 12, 2005
Big Game For The Big Easy: Special Coverage|
By Jessica Garrison
(Ruston, La.) -- Drive across I-20 from Shreveport, La., into Ruston and it's easy to forget Hurricane Katrina. This Northwest part of the state is virtually untouched by the storm, save a few makeshift signs offering shelter for hurricane victims at local churches. But on the Louisiana Tech campus, there are visible reminders that hundreds of thousands of people have lost everything - the 600-some evacuees who, by some connection with the school, ended up housed in salvaged Caruthers Hall on the Tech campus.
At first glance Sunday night it is hard to tell that these are evacuees, people classified as "homeless" for the time being. Then you look more closely at the people sitting outside the cafeteria space on folding chairs, using their cell phones with varying degrees of success. Most of them wear borrowed clothes with Louisiana Tech logos, and all of them wear a key card badge around their necks with their photo and the simple but serious statement: "RELIEF."
This dorm will become the new home of the Tulane football and women's track teams this week, with the top two floors of the nine-story building reserved for the players and staff. Those student-athletes will join the families for whom this has become a makeshift home.
Two weeks ago, the 40-year-old Caruthers stood empty and was slated for demolition in a matter of months. The quick footwork of the Louisiana Tech administration made it possible for Tulane athletics - and these Louisianans' lives - to carry on.
A morning meeting of Tech officials on Aug. 30 brought together school president Dan Reneau with other Tech administrators, including vice president and dean of student affairs Jim King. They quickly determined that Caruthers, stripped of door locks, internet and phone service and all of its furniture, could be back in operating order in time to house evacuees. Less than 24 hours after university administrators met, evacuees began moving in to their new home.
Reneau called the reopening of Caruthers a "moral obligation" to help in the face of disaster. This, in spite of utility costs alone that will run the university between $400-500,000 for the year.
"The word condemned has been used in reference to the building,'' King said. "It's important that it was never condemned. When we completed new apartments these were decommissioned. There was nothing physically wrong,'' with the building.
King's first call was to his facilities and physical plant managers. The job ahead of them was largely cleaning and maintenance although major mechanical pieces had to be "massaged back to life,'' according to King.
Next was technology, including keyless entries on the 300-some doors in the building. Fortunately, the university was changing out its mattress inventory and redirected those beds to the reopened dorms. The Louisiana Tech football team and women's soccer team along with other student organizations helped to carry mattresses and set up beds over the past 10 days.
With thousands displaced, how do you choose just 600 to fill the space you have?
Tech officials focused on the evacuees they felt best prepared to help - students from other universities who could enroll at Tech and families of Tech students who had already fled to the area. King and his staff sought out evacuees around the area - in hotels, in student houses, in local shelters who were connected to Tech or had a desperate housing need.
Some of the evacuees' connections to the school were obvious - senior Bulldog linebacker Byron Santiago was a rallying point for almost 30 family members and friends, who have moved to Caruthers.
One of his relatives, Jackie Britton, has become one of the many unofficial security guards and counselors for the building as other residents look to her for guidance and help. Sophomore running back Freddie Franklin's mother, Joanette, is among the many other members of the football family who have moved to campus.
Caruthers' new residents were given badges that allowed access to the reactivated card locks in the building, and moved into their new homes: rooms about 12 feet square, two community bathrooms and a kitchen on each floor. Aramark has extended its food service to the school to include meals brought over to Caruthers, while simple necessities like towels are provided to those that need them. Residents do not have telephones, although high-speed internet was connected Monday. Visitors, alcohol, drugs and weapons are strictly forbidden in the building for the safety of the residents.
The Louisiana Tech police department has five members of its 20-person force on duty in the building, guarding doors and roaming halls to make sure residents were only those in need and kept safe. With the strain on the small force, six temporary officers have been hired. In addition, students who are employed by the police department to write tickets and help with campus safety in normal circumstances are helping to keep an eye on the Caruthers community.
"You'd like to have more officers," Officer Rob Sasser said. "But we get pretty good coverage."
Sasser, on an overnight shift at the building, checked relief badges as he chatted with residents, where a little community seemed to have sprung up, like a front porch for a massive neighborhood. A few Tech football players hung out in front of the building, as young children ran around the lawn in front of the building. Ten days after moving in, evacuees are adapting as best they can, making friends and finding old ones as they settle in.
Still, the scars from the storm will no doubt take a long time to heal. A satellite station of the university infirmary is now located at Caruthers, while the university's 11 licensed counselors may be called into duty to help survivors deal with the emotional injury that Katrina has inflicted.
"It has been consistent, the help across the board around this community,'' King said. "It's a small community but they've really done a phenomenal job.''
For now, there is no place like home - a new home, albeit, but one that will be the first step in rebuilding the families, teams and lives interrupted by the storm.
Jessica Garrison is an Assistant Editor for CSTV.com and will be on assignment in Louisiana this week. She can be reached here with comments or questions.